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 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.