Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Not So Quiet … Stepdaughters of War

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Not So Quiet … Stepdaughters of War (NSQ) turns All Quiet on the Western Front (AQWF) around and looks at WW1 through women’s eyes from the Allied side of the Front. As AQWF tells of a young German soldier on the front lines, NSQ tells of British ambulance driver Helen Z Smith.

Author Evadne Price was commissioned to write a parody of AQWF from a woman’s point of view, All Quaint on the Western Front. Instead, she adapted the war diaries of Winnifred Young to craft NSQ as a fictional memoir under the pseudonym Helen Zenna Smith. Published in 1930, it won the French Prix Severigne as “the novel most calculated to promote world peace”.

“Smithy” and the other ambulance drivers are young upper and upper-middle class gentlewomen: “refined women of decent education”. (ch 2, p. 50) It isn’t clear why this status is seen as a qualification for the job. From their sheltered lives, they come to France to transport wounded soldiers to hospitals and dead ones to the graveyard. They work long hours under grueling conditions, maintaining and cleaning their vehicles and doing countless other jobs in addition to ambulance duties. They paid for the privilege, serve without pay, and (because Army rations are reserved for the Army) rely on provisions from home for sustenance. The professional nurses looked down on them as amateur dilatants.

Why would they put up with these conditions? Many didn’t. Turnover was high. Yet these women had been taught not to question, were doing their bit, and wanted to please their patriotic parents as England’s Splendid Daughters. The young women’s sheltered and materialistic world is changed completely. They discard their femininity. They experience lice, filth, sex, unwanted pregnancies. They witness mutilation and death of soldiers and friends.

NSQ shows the divide between those who buy into the honour and patriotism, and those like Smithy, who moves from fear to disgust to horror to the edge of madness. She comes to hate the consequences of war and the politicians and elders who propagate it. She is haunted by what she sees and acts out against it.

 NSQ and its companion AQWF can be compared on many complex levels – themes, style, messages and emotions, to name a few. One example is how each upholds the norm of heterosexuality. In AQWF, the soldiers make it possible for Lewandowski and his wife to enjoy long-awaited conjugal relations in the hospital ward, and then share a familial meal. In NSQ, Tosh schemes to rout Skinny and Frost out of the unit with veiled assertions that they are lesbians.

Perhaps the most compelling comparison is the final paragraph, where the first-person account switches to an anonymous third-person narrator.

He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.

He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come. (AQWF)

Her soul died under a radiant silver moon in the spring of 1918 on the side of a blood-spattered trench. Around her law the mangled dead and the dying. Her body was untouched, her heart beat calmly, the blood coursed as ever through her veins. But looking deep into those emotionless eyes one wondered if they had suffered much before the soul had left them. Her face held an expression of resignation, as though she had ceased to hope that the end might come. (NSQ)

I find NSQ even more compelling than AQWF. Each stands alone, but they should be read together. 

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

7 thoughts on “Not So Quiet … Stepdaughters of War

  1. I, too, was greatly moved by Not So Quiet … The first half was especially compelling. When the protagonist returns home in the second half, I found it less so.

    • I agree … the parts set in France are more immediate and raw. Why the change back in England? Did the episodic style not lend itself as well to the England plot developments? Was the author closing in on a page limit and had to deal with several issues summarily? Is it simply indicative of a protagonist whose soul is dying?

  2. Really enjoyed this review, having heard so much about aqwf. It is good to know there is a woman’s version of this story. The ambulance drivers mentioned were usually middle and upper class women as they had experience with automobiles which were still an expensive luxury at this time. Best, Debbie Marshall

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