Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War
|Author||Helen Zenna Smith (Evadne Price)|
|Genre||War-fiction, feminist fiction|
Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War was published in 1930 by Evadne Price, using the pseudonym Helen Zenna Smith. The semi-biographical account of an ambulance driver provides female insight to the horrors of World War I. Not So Quiet criticises nationalism, masculinity in women, and the social, physical, and psychological effects of the war upon England's youth.
Price was originally asked by her publisher to compose a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Instead, she wrote a serious work, based on the (now lost) diaries of Winifred Young, who served in France during the war as an ambulance driver
The memoir begins by focusing on an array of women, who have abided by their nationalistic duties and have joined the war effort. Throughout the story, the protagonist, Nellie Smith, contemplates and criticises the nationalism of the elder generation in England, which sends the younger generation to the war front in France. A constant rivalry is present between Helen's mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawington at Wimbledon Common over which of their kin has volunteered themselves the most for the war. Tosh, a boisterous fellow volunteer, teases Helen on the principal, “’No, Smithy, you’re one of England's Splendid Daughters, of England's Splendid Daughters you’ll stay until you crock up or find some other decent excuse to go home covered in glory. It takes nerve to carry on here, but it takes twice as much to go home to flag-crazy mothers and fathers….’”(13). Tosh's repetition of their title criticises the very foundations of Nationalism and realistically exposes the violence that English youth must endure for the sake of their country. Smith is able to step into the narrative through Tosh's voice often as she is described as the frank joker of the crew; therefore, by using satire, Smith is able to handle criticism more delicately.
English nationalism reappears again in the story when Nellie struggles with her purpose at the base. She thinks how everyone supporting the war from England would say, “’Stick it darling; go on doing your bit, because England is proud of her brave daughters, so very proud….’” (31). Nellie lingers on the phrase and reveals her resentment towards her mother who uses her volunteer service to brag to others at Wimbledon Common of the daughter she has so humbly given to serve England.
The loss of femininity
Immediately after Tosh mocks English nationalism, she liberates herself by cutting her hair short. The B.F., another comrade, describes Tosh as "awfully unsexed" (17), yet Nellie understands Tosh's decision to remove her last physical hassle, the upkeep of her hair. Nellie recognises how the vermin, lice, and filth that surround the women each day make normal grooming patterns a hassle and secretly desires the freedom to cut off her own hair, but is reluctant in the face of the standards of her mother. It is not until the middle of the novel that Nellie finally decides to cut her hair, regardless of the thoughts of her mother. After burning her hair, she observes herself in a mirror and thinks how Tosh welcomes the style as a new fashion, but she disagrees and says, “Women will never adopt a mode that isn’t essentially feminine” (148). Once again, Nellie references the English conventions of society, such as fashion, and by juxtaposing the two hair styles the reader can see how war has changed these women to become less frivolous and materialistic. After all, Nellie says they are the, “sheltered young women who smilingly stumbled from the chintz-covered drawing-rooms of the suburbs straight into hell” (165).
Another figure that is often ostracised from the ladies’ favour is the Commandant, alternatively known as “Mrs. Bitch”. The Commandant's cruelly strict order is known beyond her base, but as far as Nellie's sister, Trix. Archetypal, she is the woman who must overexert her masculinity to maintain control and rank of the volunteers. She does not relent towards any ailments, regardless of how serious the sickness, unless the doctor prescribes bed rest. At one point of the novel, Nellie describes how a fellow driver has been prescribed bed rest for the day. The Commandant interprets the doctor's orders literally and gives the woman night duties, besides her continual sickness. Nellie, once again the satirist, remarks, “Why is it that women in authority almost invariably fall victims to megalomania?” (61). Thoughts such as the previous question allow Helen Zenna Smith to assimilate her opinions into the narrative.
“But what I do not see is pity or understanding for the war-shocked woman,” thinks Nellie while suffering the loss of her friend, Tosh. Even when Nellie returns home on sick leave, she is rushed by her family to health in hopes she will return to the service with immediacy. Mrs. Smith is described as "restive" regarding the "idleness" of her daughter, but hypocritically does not join the war efforts in France herself (176, 177). Nellie desires to confront her mother and in her thoughts says, “’Yes, while Trix and I were doing the dirty work you wept comfortably over your comfortable dinner-table’” (184). Yet, Nellie, dependent upon the financial support of her parents, bites her tongue.
Nellie is also hardened sensually by the war. “Oh the beauty of men who are whole and sane. Shall I ever know a lover who is young and strong and untouched by war, who has not gazed on what I have gazed upon?” she laments (164). Nellie is haunted for several nights after her release by dead men walking in a row, preventing her from sleep. She is shell-shocked upon her trip home and does not care for anything. Nellie describes her emotions as, “The war has drained me dry of feeling. Something has gone from me that will never return” (169). As the story progresses, Nellie becomes more hardened and distant from any emotions.
Pacifism directly appears when Nellie contemplates the perpetuation of war: “I become savage at the futility. A war to end war, my mother writes. Never. In twenty years it will repeat itself. And twenty years after that. Again and again, as long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawington. And we are breeding them. Etta Potato and The B.F.—two out of a roomful of six. Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawington all over again” (90). Nellie does not go along with the popular war slogan “a war to end all wars,” on the contrary, she argues against the process of war and the women who support it. Helena Zenna Smith has the courage not only to blame men, but also women, such as Nellie’s relations, for allowing the terrors of war to repeat over time. Smith recognises the long-term issues with war and the never-ending cycle each of these women abide by because of their nationalism.
Smith also attacks nationalism by personalising her accusations with the young men she meets, such as Roy Evans-Mawington. Nellie describes the grotesque effects of mustard gas upon a fallen soldier and then immediately relates the dying man to Roy. She addresses the nationalistic women at home, “’ [Look at] the son you have so generously given to the War. The son you are so eager to send out to the trenches…in case Mrs. Evans-Mawington scores over you at the next recruiting meeting’” (93). By shifting the scene of the cruel death of a soldier to any son proudly given to win favour in society, Smith presents the deceptive irony of nationalism.
After experiencing the most horrific details of the victims Nellie must transport to the hospitals, the reader understands why after Tosh's death Nellie must remove herself completely from the war. Nellie withdraws to Wimbledon Common on leave, but does not reveal immediately to her mother and Aunt Helen that she has left the service. She notes, "The human sacrifice has gone on strike" (186). Helena Zenna Smith's pacifism is fully present in this section of the text, as Nellie is opposed to all duties associated with the war. Even when Nellie must return to the war to pay for Trix's abortion, she determines she will not enroll herself in a position only that her mother can take pride in.
Helen Zenna Smith's Message
Ultimately, Helen Zenna Smith exposes the loss of "lasting happiness for this stricken generation" through the eyes of Nellie Smith, an ambulance driver who witnesses the full effects of war. Smith alienates nationalism so that the reader can understand its dangerous influence upon the masses. She also explains the loss of femininity for women volunteers, along with the psychological effects upon Nellie. Even Nellie's attempts at pacifism as short-lived as she must abide by the desires of her aunt and return to aide the war to care for Trix. Helen Zenna Smith's female account of World War I exposes the brutal sufferings of all genders on the war front.
In October 1930, a play based on the book opened at the Empire Theatre on Broadway. It was directed by Chester Erskine with Katharine Alexander playing a calloused and disillusioned ambulance driver, and Warren William physiologically damaged officer. The two fall in love, in an ultimately doomed relationship. The production was only modestly successful as the start of the Great Depression made audiences prefer lighter, more diverting entertainment.
- Kingsbury, Celia (2004). Deats, Sara; Lenker, Lagrett; Perry, Merry, eds. War And Words: Horror And Heroism In The Literature Of Warfare. Lexington Books. p. 236. ISBN 0739105795.
- Stangeland, John (2010). Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. McFarland. p. 82. ISBN 0786448784.