Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

Not So QuietNot So Quiet purports to be the diary of Helen Zenna Smith, a young woman who becomes one of “England’s Splendid Daughters”, an volunteer ambulance driver at the French front during the First World War. In fact, the book was written by Evadne Price, who was a children’s writer amongst other things. She based Not So Quiet on the diaries of a young woman who really was one of those ambulance drivers, and published it in 1930. It went on to win the Prix Severigne in France as the “novel most calculated to promote international peace”.

At the heart of the novel is the juxtaposition between the families of the young women back in England, who are puffed up with pride for what their girls are doing and the visions of glory that come with it, and the realities of the women’s lives on the front. Details are not skimped here (nor should they be) and we are plunged with Helen into the filth, the squalor, and of course the unrelenting gore of transporting the critically injured soldiers from the battlegrounds to the war hospitals. Quickly Helen becomes bitter about her mother’s constant boasting about what she is doing and, when Helen is sent home ill for a time, is faced with repeated encouragement to get better quickly and get back out there, if not to do her duty then to make her mother proud.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is seeing Helen gradually stop caring what her family think. In particular, there is the matter of hair. One of Helen’s new friends, Tosh, has chopped her long hair short, to the horror of some of the other volunteers. How ghastly and unfeminine! But in the filth of the situation, dealing with long hair is nothing more than another inconvenience in a life filled to the brim with them. The difference with hair is that you can do something about it. Snip! Yet, Helen is reluctant to do the same, and that reluctance comes from one place: her mother. The moment, about halfway through the novel, when she does chop her hair off, is an important symbol of her increasingly fractured relationship with her family, and more importantly, her family’s expectations.

When Helen is at home, ill, she becomes determined that she will not go back to France. She will not even get a “cushy” job in England. She is done with war, absolutely.

“I think it’s the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever heard,” says Mother. “You, a young strong woman, determined to slack at home instead of doing your bit, shaming your mother before everybody, your own mother, who is working night and day until she is nearly dropping. Just think of how Mrs. Evans-Mawnington will crow over me now, and Roy with a wound-stripe… We were so proud, Daddy and I, of our two war girls. Every night we used to put your photographs on the dining-tables and tears would come to our eyes…”
“I am a coward, mother.” I lean forward and catcher her hand to try and make her understand. “Mother, you don’t know what it’s like out there driving those ambulances full of torn men–torn to bits with shrapnel–sometimes they die on the way…”
She pulls herself away. “At least they have died doing their duty,” she says.
She goes out weeping.

Helen’s sister, Trix, is also a “war girl”, and is clearly feeling the same way about it all as Helen. When she comes back to England, pregnant and in need of an abortion, the first thing she does is beg Helen not to tell her parents that she is in the country. Helen is against the abortion – not for moral reasons, but because it is dangerous, and girls die having them all the time – and asks whether the man might marry her. Trix declares it could be any one of three men, and so Helen agrees to raise the money needed. There is only one thing to do. Go back to the front.

It is important that this is the reason that she goes back. She does not do it for glory, nor duty, nor to make her family proud. She does it because her beloved little sister needs her help, and because Trix also understands the horror of war. They were close anyway, but they are bound even tighter by the shared understanding that their experiences separate them from their family back at home. They have seen things that their parents and aunts will never see, and could not begin to comprehend.

As we head into the first centenary year of the Great War, it is important to remember not just those men who lost their lives in battle, but also those who were there, in the background, working to support them. The ambulance drivers are just such a group. They were in danger too – as we see in one cataclysmic event in the book – and they too were mentally scarred by what they encountered out there in the dark and the filth and the gore.

Helen Zenna Smith: Not So Quiet. London: Virago Modern Classics, 1988. Originally published 1930. ISBN 086068850X. Available secondhand.

14 comments on “Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    November 14, 2013

    Lovely review. This is one of the books chosen by the LibraryThing Virago Group as part of their planned Great War Themed Read next year, and it certainly sounds like a worthy choice.

  2. theotherkirsty
    November 14, 2013

    Thank you! I think it’s an excellent choice for your group. I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Erica
    November 14, 2013

    This novel sounds fascinating. Thank you for the review.

  4. Hilary
    November 14, 2013

    I love this review, and to my shame I’ve never heard of this book. Must remedy that. I’ve always been much moved by the idea that men fighting in the Great War could not properly convey to the people they loved just what they’d seen and experienced, even if they tried, which they often didn’t, and it is very good to be reminded that this went for women too. It sounds like a wonderful and powerful read.

  5. theotherkirsty
    November 14, 2013

    Hilary, it is exactly that. I was left in tears at times. I really strongly recommend it.

  6. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    November 14, 2013

    I *think* I have this somewhere. I was waiting to read it until I’d read All Quiet on the Western Front (presumably the title is a riposte?) and now I have, so I can! Nice review 🙂

  7. theotherkirsty
    November 14, 2013

    Yes, Simon, Price was asked to write a “spoof” of All Quiet on the Western Front, but instead wrote something rather more serious.

  8. whatmeread
    November 14, 2013

    This sounds a lot like Enid Bagnold’s The Happy Foreigner.

  9. Kate
    November 15, 2013

    I knew I’d read it, aeons ago, because I remembered all the bits you quoted. We That Were Young by Irene Rathbone is the other great ‘women in war’ novel from this period. Both are gruelling to read.

  10. Alison Priest
    November 15, 2013

    Another view of WWI by a woman author, which I found compelling reading, can be found in The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield (Fisher). The novel is partly based on her own experiences in France from 1916 where her husband drove ambulances as part of the American Volunteer Ambulance corps and she lived with her two young children quite close to the Western Front.

  11. theotherkirsty
    November 15, 2013

    Good to hear so many other recommendations for ‘women in war’ reading – thanks all.

  12. CFisher
    November 16, 2013

    I do hope the 100th anniversary of WW1 focuses also on the enormous social changes that affected British society from 1914-18. Women, particularly young women, achieved a new found independence. But, as the review makes clear, for many women, it came with a price. I must look out the book too.

  13. Heather Cyr
    November 8, 2014

    Actually Evadne Price is the woman whose pseudonym is Helen Zena Smith. The book is based on the diary of Winifred Young. That aside, it is an excellent book.

  14. Jean Alison Nutley
    January 11, 2020

    Profoundly moving, and an honest account of WWI. The diarist simply states her opinions on the politicians of the day, social behaviour, the ever present gulf between the perception of war and the brutal reality.

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