Lily Tobias’ 1933 novel, Eunice Fleet, is a radical study of pacifism and conscientious objection. She shows the range of intolerance to resisting war – and how brave one must be to stand up for one’s convictions, no matter how unpopular.
Rather than putting the conchies front and centre, the story is told through the eyes of a spoiled, self-centred daughter from a middle-class Welsh family. When Eunice Granger’s mother dies and her father remarries – one of Eunice’s contemporaries – Eunice escapes by marrying Vincent Fleet. He loves Eunice. He has also shown his bravery, jumping from a ferry to save a young girl.
(Eunice) accepted Vincent’s mental superiority like his athletic dominance, as an adornment of herself; and she accepted his devotion, the sacrifices he made to lavish gifts on her, his way of placing her pleasure foremost, as her natural right, the simplest matter-of-course. She saw in him neither an extreme unselfishness nor an unusual purity of love. (p 71)
WW1 soon intrudes on their marriage, and Vincent acts on his anti-war convictions. He refuses to enlist and is refused an absolute exemption by the military service tribunal. He refuses to serve as a non-combatant or to consider alternative civilian service. Eunice abandons him, refusing to visit or write to him in prison.
The strength of the novel is Tobias’ descriptions … how the dominant society reacted to the anti-war movement … how the tribunals dealt with the varied reasoning of the conscientious objectors who come before them … how politics and cronyism fuelled exemptions rather than honest conviction or freedom of thought … how those refused exemptions were treated. This was no easy way out of the war. Tobias is an authentic chronicler: she was a pacifist active in the anti-war movement and two of her brothers were conscientious objectors.
Let’s face it – Eunice is a selfish brat. Her treatment of Vincent is unconscionable. But she is a complex character who continues to live with the consequences of her actions in the parts of the book set in the 1930s. Her later troubles engender some sorrow for her situation. Ultimately, she must move beyond regret to atonement.
“What’s your recipe? You mix something with love – but what is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know! Well – perhaps it’s belief in something – something big – not just in a man.” (p 208)
Eunice Fleet is an enlightening contrast to the raft of contemporaries that document the horrors and sacrifices of war. It shines a light on the politics of the resistance movement during the war and the peace movement afterwards, through the actions of interesting and flawed characters.
This book introduced me to Honno, a Welsh feminist press committed to publishing books long out of print that should be classics (as well as new works). An important mandate … otherwise, these voices would be lost. I plan to explore their catalogue at greater length.
You can read my interview with Lily Tobias’s biographer, Jasmine Donahaye, here. You can read Donahaye’s introduction to the 2004 reprint of Eunice Fleet here.
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