Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
I’ve found it fascinating watching ‘The Crimson Field’, having researched the same period for ‘We That are Left’. I’ve liked the way the characters personal lives are woven in as an integral part of the story, both bringing them to life, and bringing alive a society that was so different from our own, and yet isstill (just about) within living memory. My dad was born during WW1, and his memories and attitudes were shaped by the experience of a society that had gone through that trauma. They were the attitudes I rebelled against (as you do) as a teenager, but are still there somewhere deep inside as a part of me.
War isn’t just about blood and guts and physical suffering, however terrible they are. The real tragedy, both then and now, is the lives on both sides torn apart, never to be the same again. And then there are the huge changes brought about in a society itself as a consequence of the wider tragedy. Edwardian Britain was changing rapidly before the war. Servants were already preferring to leave service for work in factories where they at least had some kind of life of their own, and women were battling for independence and the right to education and the vote, but it was the war that crystallised these changes, so that the world of 1918 could never go back to that last Edwardian summer of 1913.
I think my favourite character in ‘The Crimson Field’ has been Kitty, and I’m intrigued to know where they will take her next. It’s hard to remember sometimes that – even until comparatively recently – divorce was almost unthinkable. In Edwardian times it was almost impossible, especially if you were a woman.
This was a world of almost no contraception, and where women’s earning power was almost nothing, and respectability was everything. Add to that the fact that respectable young men and women were not permitted to alone if unmarried, and (especially if you were middle or upper class) very chaperoned. So there you were, around eighteen or so, expected to make the biggest decision of your life. One from which, for all intents and purposes, there was no way out. When I look back at myself at 18, the thought scares the living daylights out of me. For my working class grandmother, it would probably have been a question of making sure the young man she loved was responsible and wasn’t the sort to drink his wages away and make free with his fists. Hard to consider amongst all those raging hormones. And besides, people change. My grandfather didn’t drink, or use his fists, but he still left my grandmother in the most appalling position, one that led to her being determined her daughters (born in the 1920s) could earn a living, and has had ramifications down the family. But that’s another story…
For Kitty’s class, it was much the same. However brutal, abusive or manipulative your husband turned out to be, it was your duty to put up with it. Make it better. Keep the illusion that marriage was the happy bedrock of society, with the wise and protective man at its head, the supportive, meek little wife ready be there at the end of his day. One of the few ways of getting a divorce was proof of adultery (although women had to wait until 1923 before they could divorce an adulterous husband).
After the war, with wives and husbands changed beyond recognition by their experiences, many couples found they simply had nothing in common any more. And human beings being ingenious and generally cooperative, many couples all simply beat the system. The form was for the man to do the decent thing. Which meant being the cad and being seen in a hotel with a woman, along with a maid or porter who would testify that they had been in the same room together. Apparently it became such a farce there were even agencies who provided the room and the lady. Then all you had to do was sit there. Or, like Cousin Iris in ‘We That are Left’, while away the hours playing chess.
I’m sure there were many such genuine and rather sad cases as this one from the Liverpool Echo of a woman who had a baby while her husband was away in the war. Echoes of both the first and the second world wars, when the world was turned upside down and no one knew if the next moment might be their last.
(click on the images and they’ll take you to the original newspaper on the British Library Website)
But this one I love. She’s a barmaid who didn’t take to married life in 1904. In 1911, with no children and ‘not taking very kindly to household duties’ (clearly my kind of girl) she simply took matters into her own hands and did a moonlit flit while her husband was away on business, writing to him in 1911: ‘Don’t be foolish over this, because if I returned I would only have to tell you what I am telling you here. I am not returning. Please keep cool about it and say to yourself “she is not worth a thought”.’
And guess what? She sailed off to New York to become a nurse, last heard of in 1914. Divorced on the grounds of desertion from her marriage in 1915.
Now that’s a story for ‘The Crimson Field’!
All Images reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)