"You must remember that in this war it is not only those who are doing the spectacular and dangerous work, those in uniforms of one sort or another who are alone in helping the war effort, but also what I like to call the great forgotten army of women in exile, women like yourself, my dear, who for one reason or another are banished from their homes, their husbands, the work and the friends they love, sometimes their children, and who find themselves in a strange place among strangers. Theirs is the hardest lot of any to bear, for they have not even the reward of feeling that they are contributing to their country's effort, they are idle and lonely and desperately unhappy, quite a number of them, in all circumstances of life."
It's the Reverend Mother at the hospital where Kathy Murdoch is learning nursing who thus passionately sums up the theme of this wartime novel by Jean Ross, an author I'd not read before who published just under two dozen novels from the 1930s to 1960s.
Women in Exile is certainly an odd novel, and to some extent it's a frustrating one. Ross excels at women’s voices, and loves providing her women characters with entirely believable, entertaining monologues, something she does with an array of varied women. There's Kathy and her mother, the widowed Mair, who with the rest of their family are bombed out of their home and seek shelter in a rather humdrum English village. They stay at a house belonging to Jack and Nell Heron, with the Herons' housekeeper Mrs Liddard, who resents the interlopers. Then Mrs Firth arrives from heavily-bombed West Ham with her two children. And what would an English village novel be without a vicar's wife, and the gossipy but kind-hearted Mrs Marchant fulfills her role admirably.
|Lovely that Graham|
Greene provided his
praise, but too bad
his name. Oops!
Most of these women are given effective speeches at one time or another, and these are usually compelling to read. Mrs Firth's aggressively demanding attitude toward Mrs Liddard when she first arrives at the house, for example, is prickly enough, but also rather poignant when one realizes what she must have gone through to reach this point:
"I am sure that there should be no difficulty in our working well together," [Mrs Liddard] said finally in the tone of one who reproves the upper housemaid for having ideas above her station." As for a gas ring and a cupboard, I don't know I'm sure, I shall have to ask Mrs. Murdoch.''
"Well, if you're nervous of speaking to 'er, I will. You see, I've been through all this before. They all say the sime at first: oh, it'll be all right, you kin 'ave the stove w'en I ain't using it, we'll find a time. But it ain't all right. Nor ain't it if they does yer cooking for yer. Always complaining the kiddies et too much, and that they stole!"
"I'm sure that—"
"Believe me, you don't know. You've never 'ad evacuees before. You'd be the same as the rest of them in a week. It ain't much to ask, but I got to 'ave it, and otherwise I take 'em back to be bombed and you 'ave it on your conscience. Believe me. You're safe 'ere. You donnow wot a blitz is. I do. But I'd rather 'ave a blitz, I'd rather live dahn the shelter than go through wot I 'ave in the country. It's only for me 'ubby's sake I come 'ere nah, and cos ahr 'ome's gone. Nothing but a bleeding shell."
Unfortunately, though, these powerful moments with their insights into women's wartime lives are strung together with a melodramatic and sometimes downright silly plot, which includes ghosts and second sight in a way presumably meant to comfort those of Ross’s readers who had lost loved ones in the war. Mair, it emerges, is a "medium" who occasionally sees apparitions or visions of the future. She's determined to prevent Kathy from disgracing herself with the married Jack, with whom she has had an immediate (and implausible) "love at first sight" scenario. There's also plenty of the expected melodrama between Kathy, Jack, and Jack's wife Nell, and late in the novel one of Mair's apparitions will play an important role in the illicit romance.
Such a lot of bright moments, but rather like a string of lovely pearls threaded onto a string too weak for their weight. It's a shame, but I can still share a couple of other rather wonderful high points.
Right at the beginning of the novel, Mair vividly recalls the bombs that have landed them in the countryside:
She remembered suddenly how at the first bang the curtains flared out into the room at right angles, and stayed there for an aeon of time while she watched them paralysed. The siren not gone nor anything, then up and trying to find one of her bedroom slippers in the dark.
All this must have passed in a flash when the second explosion was upon them and the world came to an end. If only things would stop falling and she could come to her senses; she was deafened and blinded, she was on her hands and knees, the house, that solid Victorian Kensington piece, had taken a sickening lurch forwards and then backwards as though about to perform a pas de seul, parting with all glass, plaster and movables in the process, and yet, miraculously, standing at the end of it. Two more explosions, more distant. A stick of bombs. That was it, then.
And I do love, in a rather sad way, descriptions of wartime London that allow one to situate them more or less precisely on a map. Here's a great example, describing what Kathy has seen during her visit to the beaten and bruised city:
She had spent the day in London, walking about the streets. During the previous week there had been a further bad raid, the pavements were still thick with debris, more houses were gutless and forlorn, the back streets of Mayfair and the rectangle made by Edgware Road, Marylebone Road, Oxford and Orchard Streets enclosed areas of houses shuttered and deserted. Some had notices "this desirable residence to be let at moderate rental." Nearly all windows were covered with black felting, the terraces were gap-jawed where a bomb had knocked out two or three houses and destroyed the symmetry. Down in white tiled basements open to the air, men burnt small fires of rubbish where white-capped chefs had once prepared seven-course dinners. People were still living in the smaller and meaner streets behind boarded windows. Sometimes amongst the wreckage an armchair perched on a ledge or a wardrobe hung at a dizzy angle, door aswing. London was shabby; whole districts were dead, they had shrunk as a corpse does when the life goes out of it. The main swing of the life of London went on, the people were as cheerful, but the place was emptier. The life was not the same, its quality had altered. There was no time for the non-essentials. She was glad to be out of it and away.
There's also a rather gut-wrenching description of air raid casualties, which, though it's a valuable slice of the realities of war, might be best left to your imagination—it still makes me shiver a bit.
Jean Ross followed Women in Exile with a novel called Strangers Under Our Roof, which sounds as though it could also deal with evacuees. If it is, it could also contain some fascinating insights into home front life. Even allowing for my disappointment in this book, it might be worth checking out…