TO THE YOUNG WOMEN OF LONDON
Is your “Best Boy” wearing Khaki? If not don’t YOU THINK he should be?
If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for – do you think he is WORTHY of you?
Don’t pity the girl who is alone – her young man is probably a soldier – fighting for her and her country – and for YOU.
If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will NEGLECT YOU.
Think it over – then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO-DAY
British recruiting/propaganda poster, cited in White Feathers, p 175
1913. Eva Downey accepts a scholarship to a finishing school to escape an untenable family life and an unwanted marriage. At school, Eva and teacher Christopher Shandlin discover their mutual intelligence and fall in love. But Eva must cut her education short to care for her tubercular older sister.
Cue the war. Christopher has his reasons for not enlisting. Eva’s stepmother and stepsister force her to give him a white feather (for cowardice) or her sister will not get money for expensive medical treatment.
This will not end well.
Susan Lanigan packs a lot of elements into her novel:
- Evil stepmother and stepsister
- Consumptive sister
- Feckless father
- Suffragettes behaving admirably
- Suffragettes behaving badly
- Anti-suffragists behaving badly
- Rich, upper class friend who is always there for you
- Poor, smart friend who is always there for you
- Coward shot at dawn
- Manifestations of shell shock
- Cruel, incompetent military leadership
- Poet/soldier with a bad attitude
- Lesbian awakening
- Unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion
- Nod to racial discrimination (passing mention of Chinese Labour Corps and British West Indies Regiment)
- Irish parochialism
- Irish nationalism
- etc etc etc
Mention of several historical figures who influence the characters is more evidence of the depth of Lanigan’s research:
- Dorothie Feilding (and her fictional cousin Roma)
- R.W. Nevinson (and other unnamed war artists)
- Emily Hobhouse
- Lord Kitchener
- Rupert Brooke (in adoration and in derision)
- Emmeline Pankhurst
- Mrs Humphry Ward (and the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League)
- etc etc etc
Lanigan’s novel explores a thought-provoking premise: what is the fallout of a moral predicament that inevitably leads to betrayal. It is well researched and well written. And sometimes infuriating.
Eva and Christopher make one bad decision after another. (Without which, in fairness, the story would not be as interesting.) It often seems that only those behaving badly have the courage of their convictions. (Eva’s friends, Sybil and Lucia, are the exception to this generalization.)
Which leads to the other big question in the novel: who is responsible for the results of those bad decisions? Do individuals take responsibility for their actions, or denounce the system that lead to them. Good arguments on both sides of that issue, in my view.
Whether you agree with the conclusions, White Feathers is a provocative read.
“I would have thought you’d be rebelling against the war, not joining in.”
Eva smiled bitterly. “I think … that for a man, if you renounce war you’re a rebel, but for a woman it’s the opposite. To rebel is to fight. We’re supposed to marry well, be nice girls and stay out of public affairs. … Anyway, they’ve pulled the rug out from under us. How can we marry when they’ve taken our men? We might as well be the rebels.” (p 244)
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