The women that the war left as spinsters

Charles Ellingworth
Opinion - Books Thursday, 16 May 2019

Charles Ellingworth introduces the first in a series of novels following women whose male contemporaries were killed in large numbers in the First World War

I was bought up in the 1960s in a small village in Leicestershire with no pub or shop. I can remember at least five spinsters who lived alone - but being a child I never considered why they had never married and had children. They were, of course, that poignant generation born between 1890 and 1900 whose future husbands had died in France during WW1. In the next door village were the three Voss sisters (to whose memory I have dedicated A Bitter Harvest) and "Auntie", who lived in an Edwardian period piece with an outside privy and zinc hip bath. Edna, the eldest, cleaned for us, and was a dear family friend. She had had "a young man", but he had died in Flanders.

It was a narrow demographic cohort. Anyone born before 1890 may have lost a husband, but would probably have had children. Those born after 1900 would have been too young to have taken part in the carnage, and both sexes would have grown into adulthood with an even balance of the sexes. The cursed generation in between had to adjust to a life of emotional and sexual starvation at a time when women rarely had careers and where their social worth was defined by marriage and motherhood. They had no children or grandchildren to see them through old age. I was at all the Voss sisters' funerals.

"I believe that historical fiction is as valuable as academic history in helping us to understand the past"

This had always seemed to me a wonderful subject for fiction; and particularly that moment, in 1919, when this reality became apparent as "normal" life reasserted itself after the war. I saw, too, that the experience of any man who had not been wounded or traumatised would also be interesting. It would seem, superficially, to be an attractive prospect - plenty of eligible women to chose from, and not much competition. But would it have been like that? I don't think so. The stakes would have been high, and an aura of desperation palpable.

It is also, for a year when much was going on, lightly ploughed by fiction: there is endless war literature of the trenches and their horrors, and plenty about the Roaring Twenties with its flappers and jazz - but a curious shortage of writing about the year when so much was in the balance. This was a year when the world government was in Paris for the Peace Conference, which took place mainly between January and June. With the possible exceptions of Yalta and Potsdam 25 years later and of Vienna a century before, never was so much decided by so few affecting so many. It was a time with Victorians still alive from another age, like Thomas Hardy, and with events such as the Russian Revolution threatening everything that was familiar. It was also a moment when the Irish crisis that had been boiling up immediately before the war, and that had been transformed by the 1916 Easter Rising, was again moving to centre stage in British politics. This seemed to me to be wonderful background material for fiction.

The more I read and thought about it, this was not depressing material. Youth is youth - and despite a scorched landscape, green shoots were pushing their way through. There were opportunities for the adventurous of both sexes; and, while the postwar world was not exactly the Swinging Sixties, the war and its consequences made for a different moral climate and opened up careers and opportunities that had not existed in the anti-bellum world.

I find it interesting that my previous novel, Silent Night, dealt also with the consequences of war on the lives of ordinary people - particularly women - in Germany and occupied France. The dislocation and changes triggered experiences and love affairs that simply could never have happened in a more settled world. When normal social constraints are loosened and people have been dealing with matters of life and death rather than the prosaic stuff of peacetime, you get a chance to see human nature as it actually is.

I'm looking forward to following this cohort of women as their fictional lives unfold in future novels. The interwar period has plenty of drama. The danger to be avoided is to be influenced by what we know came next. They weren't - and would all have had very different expectations of what the future would hold. If you can get this right and examine history as they experienced it, I believe that historical fiction is as valuable as academic history in helping us to understand the past.

A Bitter Harvest by Charles Ellingworth is published by Quartet.

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