Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

Not So Quiet cover

Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith was first published in 1930 but my copy is a Virago from 1988. I can hardly believe it but this book has been sitting unread on my Virago shelves for getting on for 30 years. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get around to it. When I picked it up last week and read the blurb I knew it was right up my street.

Helen Zenna Smith is a pseudonym . She was really Evadne Price, an Australian. She had a varied career, moving to England and becoming an actress, but she became a journalist and writer of children’s stories.

She was asked to write a parody of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front which had just been published the year before. The parody was to be called All’s Quaint on the Western Front by Erica Remarks. She thought that was an awful idea – and I agree. But she agreed to write a woman’s war story and when she met Winifred Constance Young who had been an ambulance driver at the front she was able to read her wartime diaries and use them to help her to write this book which tells of the horrors of war. Something that the people back home didn’t want to know about.

This is a great book which is I think very truthful about the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches and the V.A.D.’s who had to pick up their broken bodies. Helen Smith is an ambulance driver and of course the war is nothing like the folks back home think it is. Her parents are proud of their splendid daughter who’s doing her bit for King and Country. Her mother is not at all interested in the realities of war, but she spends her time on committees and vying with another woman to be the most important person in the neighbourhood. The war has just brought excitement into her life and a chance to boast about her daughter.

The reality is that the women volunteers are treated far worse than the troops are. The ambulance station commandant is a monster of a woman who is constantly on the lookout for reasons to punish the volunteers she’s in charge of. This means that the women get hardly any sleep. After doing their long shifts they have to scrub out the ambulances which are full of blood, vomit, body parts and everything that should be inside a human being – but isn’t. The food is uneatable and even the smell of it cooking makes them feel sick. Soldiers feel sorry for them.

There are quite a lot of detailed descriptions of mangled bodies and horrible injuries, but don’t let that put you off reading this book.

This book won the Prix Severigne in France as the “novel most calculated to promote international peace”.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

 The Summer Before the War cover

I really enjoyed Helen Simonson’s book Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand recently so I decided to read her new one The Summer Before the War. It’s quite a chunkster at 580 pages and when I got it from the library I was a bit daunted because I have so many books to read, but the print is quite big so it didn’t take me as long as I thought it would to read it. I can’t say that I enjoyed this one as much as Major Pettigrew though, and I was slightly disappointed that it was so radically different from her first book, but it did grow on me.

The setting is Rye, East Sussex, 1914. That summer was of course a famously beautiful one. Hugh and Daniel are cousins who have a close relationship with their Aunt Agatha and Uncle John, a childless couple who are well-heeled, John is something big in the Foreign Office and so is party to all of the political goings on between Britain and Germany.

Agatha has persuaded the local school board to employ a young woman to teach Latin, but this has made Agatha some enemies. It’s a godsend though for the teacher Beatrice Nash who has been left with virtually nothing to live on after the death of her father as he had not trusted her with the control of her inheritance from him, and has tied it all up under the control of unsympathetic relatives.

As war becomes a reality the town becomes a safe harbour for Belgian refugees, but not everyone is welcoming and it transpires that one young woman has suffered more than others from the attentions of German soldiers.

The subject matter is of course a lot heavier than the first Simonson book and I felt that this book dragged slightly towards the middle, but that may just have been because I didn’t have so much time for reading for a while and didn’t get through it as quickly as I would have liked. In fact the themes of the book are very similar to those of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, they’re just taking place 100 years earlier. There are some really good characters though.

Snobbery, racism, prejudice, bitchiness, family strife – all the usual nastiness that goes to make up almost any society of human beings in fact – appear in each of Helen Simonson’s books. I enjoyed it, just not as much as her first book.