I began reading this book with some trepidation owing to both its title and its cover – see the picture. However, after scolding myself for judging a book by its cover I set about reading it and was pleasantly surprised. It has an unashamed and never in doubt British patriotic focus on the war and the duty everyone in Britain has to do whatever they can to aid the war effort, and yet alongside this it depicts an area of war culture I had not previously read or considered – the impact of the war on life at an all girl’s boarding school.
In regards to the book firstly as a novel, it is a very easy and flowing read which leisurely brings the reader into the goings on of the two sisters at the school. Speaking personally, I did find myself as an early twenties guy not overly invested in these goings on and yet I still enjoyed the experience of reading the text in spite of this as the book takes you pleasantly through the school year with enough different events and war intrigues to keep the story progressing and the pages turning.
At the heart of the war culture depicted in the story is the patriotism of the protagonist and elder sister, Marjorie. This sees her throughout the story examine how she can aid in the war effort, and as a result there are a number of different ways that the noncombatants of Britain worked to aid the war effort described to the reader – many of which I have not read depicted elsewhere owing to their lack of drama. Amongst these include:
- Knitting Socks and Blankets for soldiers at the front
- Writing letters to soldiers who otherwise don’t receive any
- Having a blackout overnight
- Fund raising events for war charities and societies, for example the YMCA
- Self enforced rationing
- Creating and maintaining new allotments and Vegetable Patches
Points three, five and six allude to the war genuinely impacting upon the lives of those in Britain, even in an exclusive girl’s boarding school of high society and wealth in the picturesque countryside. These impacts related to the enemy naval and air-force troops working to sink cargo bound for Britain and also of bombing raids looking to destroy important positions along Britain’s southern coastline. To have these included in an easy to read, popular novel about a girl at a boarding school shows the war’s impact upon society and also society’s proactive and engaged response to it – an issue often underplayed and indeed regularly stated nonexistent in soldier perspective narratives which talk of civilian apathy and disregard for the war (see any writing on the Two Nations).
Furthermore, the novels main, but not only, twist shows a further and arguably more dangerous aspect of proactive war culture amongst domestic society – the issue of spies. Whilst Marjorie suspects a teacher of hers of being a German spy, it ultimately turns out to be her roommate and best friend who is the spy instead who gathers information where she can and recourses from the school stores to help free her German brother who is in a prison camp and for them to then escape together back into occupied Europe. This moment, and others in the book, throw into consideration the fact that whilst the protagonist has loved ones at the front and she worries after them, it is the same for the Germans and that German noncombatant society must also be patriotic and do what they can for their war effort and to aid fighting loved ones. This throws the title of the book into new light with the patriotic school girl it describes maybe not in fact being the protagonist, but her friend instead who risks her life to free her brother and return them home to Germany.
Whilst I am not for a moment suggesting this book to be one of the First World War’s deeper and more thought provoking works of literature, it is one that deserves reading as it depicts an area of war society I had personally overlooked and it also has a greater depth to its ideas surrounding patriotism than I first feared from its cover of a schoolgirl caressing the Union Jack. In addition to the ideas mentioned briefly here, the work also has a number of descriptions of domestic medical facilities as the sister’s cousin works as a VAD in one nearby and they have relatives and friends wounded in the war who were sent there. Its also an easy and quick read to boot and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the war’s writings and who perhaps wants a lighter rest-bite from the heavy going depictions present elsewhere.