Friday, April 26, 2019

Schoolgirls and Nazis (but not quite what you might think): JOSEPHINE KAMM, Nettles to My Head (1939)

Publicity photo printed with review of
Kamm's previous novel, Disorderly Caravan

"One must have a few compensations," said Enid, "for being beyond the pale.''

"I don't see why," said Molly amiably. "After all, you did kill Christ."

"Molly, how can you say things like that! And anyhow it's not strictly true." Phyllis was flushed with embarrassment. "What must Enid think of you?"

"Enid doesn't mind." Molly handed her a biscuit. "You don't mind, do you, Enid?"

"Not a bit," said Enid, who knew that Molly's comments were never animated by malice. "It was rather a good remark when you come to think of it."

Nettles to My Head is a part school, part widening world story, but with a difference made fairly obvious from this quote early on. Enid Abel, who is sixteen when the novel opens, is the only Jewish student in her school, and is never allowed to forget the fact for long. Her classmates are mostly indifferent, even if constantly aware, as seen above. She has to sit out prayers, and can't even attend occasional talks about missionary opportunities (in which sense she is surely rather luckier than the other girls, really):

"I have to stay away from missionary talks, but I'm not exactly out of them because some of the girls are always praying for me. Phyllis Johnson has a prayer list at the end of her Bible which starts off with cannibals and ends up with me. I don't mind, you know; but I believe I'd be a tougher customer than a savage when it came to converting."

And the rather pathetic headmistress of the school never hesitates to remind Enid that she doesn't quite fit in:

"Poor Miss Farrow, she just can't help being anti-Semitic. We hardly ever have any Jews here, but in the scholarship exam last year Enid's papers were so undeniably better than anyone else's that she had to accept her. She takes it out of her in small ways, though."

Ultimately, this is a surprisingly enjoyable tale, even if it's a bit uneven here and there. Its themes of the anti-Semitism encountered by a young girl at boarding-school and then, in the second half of the novel, in the "widening world" could have become preachy or obvious, but in Kamm's hands it's explored with humor and some striking depth. Enid is spunky and more or less unbothered by the obvious biases she encounters, and she also encounters good people and those who are simply oblivious. One of the latter being Mary Cross, the school's new matron, who takes Enid under her wing as best she can against Miss Farrow's resistance.

The first half of the novel is really quite as entertaining as any school story, but with an added depth and intelligence not always present. The girls are often funny, and much is made of the foibles of some of the mistresses—particularly Miss Roberts, the history mistress, who fawns over Miss Farrow and dreams of retiring to a shared home with her, but is repeatedly shot down, and Miss Wheeler, the earnest French and music mistress, who lives in a romantic dream world of unrealistic fantasies about her quite run-of-the-mill fiancé, whom she rarely sees in the flesh. The latter is often the butt of the girls' jokes, especially the following passage which for some reason made me giggle more than anything else in the book. The school is on a field trip to Silbury Hill, mostly chattering away and ignoring the illustrious professor discussing its historical significance as they make their way to the top:

"Whew!" breathed Molly. "There ought to be an ice-cream man up here. I could just do with a tub."

"Sssh!" said Enid. "Let's watch Miss Wheeler seeing things."

Helen had taken off her hat and was fidgeting with one of her plaited coils of hair. Her eyes were half-closed and her lips moved silently.

"What do you think she's saying?"

"Something about a centuries-old habitation of a savage people, or earth piled upon earth as a monument to mankind. You know the sort of muck, Molly."

"You'll write a really juicy essay if you put things like that in it."

"I shan't. They make me squirm."

"Miss Wheeler's going to make an intelligent comment to the professor," said Molly. They sidled up behind her to listen.

Oh, that last comment keeps getting me every time I read it.

The second half of the novel, when Enid leaves school, becomes more serious and a bit more uneven, but Enid is always a delightful character to spend time with. She is pressured by her grandfather to only consider dating Jewish men, and is repeatedly thrown together with David, a friend of the family, who is obviously her grandfather's ideal grandson-in-law. But she makes her own way, dating Stephen, a glib young man who, it gradually dawns on Enid, loves her in spite of her Jewishness.

I love old library cards, and both of these were in the copy of Nettles
that I read, but...what's wrong with this picture that tells us that
the card on the right had been mistakenly placed in the wrong book?

There are occasional passages that might jar some readers today. For example, I simply can't hear the word "Jewess"—even spoken by a Jewish character in a novel by a Jewish author and intended, as here, to benignly refer to a Jewish woman without any suggestion of anti-Semitism—without cringing, but it does makes me wonder if other uses of the term in other books of the time might have been more benign than I have assumed?

And I'm not sure that many readers looking back with the benefit of hindsight instead of merely anxious about the Nazi threat would laugh very much at Enid's mother's joking to Mary about her terrible brothers-in-law:

"They were quite odious; as different from my husband as they possibly could be. Enid and I call them Crime and Punishment, and we've decided that if ever we had to choose between a concentration-camp and marriage with one of them—which luckily isn't at all likely—we should choose the concentration-camp."

In part, she's obviously using humor to dispel some of the anxiety of an increasingly disturbing situation, but it's probably safe to say that any joke involving concentration camps hasn't been funny since, well, not long after this novel was published!

The overall effect of Kamm's story, though, is to highlight some of the conflicts and pressures faced by Jewish characters that others might find hard to imagine, however unbiased they might be, and to do it in an entertaining and amusing way. Enid can be blasé about most of the casual racism she encounters, but there's also a sort of darkness in her personality, a tendency to dwell on troubles, especially that rising horror of Nazism unfolding in the novel's background. And those fears can't be reassured away, even by well-meaning Mary blandly assuring Enid that such things could never happen in England. (Undoubtedly they're exacerbated, too, by the dawning realization that Stephen is a jerk.)

This is the third of Josephine Kamm's five novels for adults. I wrote about the fourth, Peace, Perfect Peace (1947), back in 2016 (see here), and I just announced last week that Dean Street Press and I will be reprinting it as a Furrowed Middlebrow book in July! 

Some time after that I read the last, Come, Draw This Curtain, but never got round to reviewing it. After the many high points of Peace, I was a bit disappointed by Curtain, which is probably why I never managed to post about it. But Kamm always seems to be an earnest, socially-involved author, not unlike Ruth Adam, and is therefore always interesting and thoughtful even if the overall results aren't great literature. Based on the blurbs for them in the front of my library copy of Nettles, I may very well have to add Kamm's first two novels, All Quiet at Home (1936) and Disorderly Caravan (1938), to my new Hopeless Wish List. They sound lighter and funnier, perhaps, and would undoubtedly be great reads, but seem to be nonexistent in the U.S. [Cue sad violins.]

Clearly, too, Nettles to My Head belongs on both my Grownup School Story List (half the book qualifies, at least) and in the "approach and early days" section of my World War II Book List. It's a two-for-one deal!


  1. Wonderful line: "'Miss Wheeler's going to make an intelligent comment to the professor,' said Molly. They sidled up behind her to listen."

    The Library Card: my gosh, those dates! I have a purloined library copy of The Man in the Brown Suit (no, I didn't do it) with a card in the back dated May 1 -65.

    I especially like the misplaced library card, dating back to years before the book was published. It smacks of a Christie-esque clue, doesn't it? (I might borrow that, if I may.)

    Finally: Jewess. Oh lord. Possibly not anti-Semitic (though I wouldn't count on it), but definitely misogynistic. The age-old assumption that the male is The Norm and the female must be somehow qualified as The Other. It's everywhere, still.

    Oh dear. Did I just rant on FM? Yeah, well....

    This books sounds enticing.

  2. "I simply can't hear the word "Jewess" ... without cringing, but it does makes me wonder if other uses of the term in other books of the time might have been more benign than I have assumed?"

    Another century and another language, but I still feel the shock when I came across Sarah Bernhardt's remark about the actress Rachel (who was also Jewish): "Je suis une Juive, mais elle est un juif."


NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!