I’ve continued with The Classics Club’s World War I theme for the month of June by reading Not So Quiet… by Helen Zenna Smith, a first-person account of life as an ambulance driver during World War I.
Initially commissioned as a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front, Australian journalist Evadne Price—writing under the pen name Helen Zenna Smith—decided to instead take the war diaries of Winnifred Young, a British ambulance driver, and write a serious book.
As a companion read to All Quiet, this book worked well, although I have to admit that the obvious parallel structure sometimes irritated me a little bit. But that is simply because I read the two books simultaneously and doesn’t take away from the book itself.
In All Quiet, the protagonist Paul Boehmer feels betrayed by the people who were supposed to be role models because they advocated for the war and convinced Paul and his friends to sign up as soldiers. This sentiment is taken a huge step further in Not So Quiet…; the narrator, Smithy, one of “England’s Splendid Daughters,” is constantly contrasting the glorification of the war at home with the actual conditions in France. As the blurb on the back cover says, “Tell them that all the ideals and beliefs you ever had have crashed about your gun-deafened ears… and they will reply on pale mauve deckle-edge paper calling you a silly hysterical girl.” The discrepancy is described in an often shockingly blunt voice.
Ambulance drivers, as Voluntary Aid Detachment workers, came mostly from the upper class and often paid for the privilege of driving the wounded. Not one of these young women knew what to expect and, needless to say, none of them was equipped to deal with what awaited them: freezing temperatures, little sleep, terrible food, air raids, and, above all, wounded and shell-shocked soldiers. While working in these terrible conditions, the women dreamed of their home, yet when they went back to England, they no longer fit in. Instead of asking for the truth, parents wanted to hear stories of patriotism and bravery that they could proudly recount at country clubs and recruitment meetings. While I didn’t always find the actions of Smithy’s family entirely convincing, I thought they fit well into the overall message of the book.
The book is described as being a feminist look at World War I, but I would argue that it is rather a look at the female experience of World War I. The suffering experienced by the women in this book is just as terrible as the men’s suffering. True, women certainly had to face additional pressures in that they were expected to remain feminine, modest, and clean, while battling death, dirt, and hunger. Should they keep their long hair in order to be “presentable” upon their return to England, or cut it to make it easier to battle fleas? Swearing and smoking, two common relief mechanisms, had to take place in secret, because “women don’t swear or smoke.” The aspects are unique to the experience of women, but first and foremost, the suffering described in this book is human and harrowing.
I plan to pick up my reading about World War I in the fall again, with Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Remarque’s The Road Back. I might be a little late, but I am foreseeing a string of World War I books in my future.