Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


1 Comment

An Interview with Jasmine Donahaye, Biographer of Lily Tobias

A downside of my recent focus on books by WW1 eyewitnesses is that the authors aren’t available for interviews. An upside is that their lives and works often now have the benefit of reflection and scholarship. In that light, I am pleased to welcome Jasmine Donahaye to Great War 100 Reads. Dr. Donahaye, an Associate Professor at Swansea University, is the author of The Greatest Need: The creative life and troubled times of Lily Tobias, a Welsh Jew in Palestine, and editor of new editions of Tobias’s novels Eunice Fleet and My Mother’s House. All are published by Honno Press.

What first interested you in Lily Tobias?

Jasmine Donahaye: Some sixteen years ago I had just begun my PhD research on Welsh attitudes to Jews, and I came across a reference to Lily Tobias as an author of novels that intertwined Welsh and Jewish questions – it was a reference by Leo Abse, the Welsh Labour MP. I didn’t realise at the time that Lily Tobias was his aunt. I ordered her 1921 book, The Nationalists and Other Goluth Studies, during my first visit to the National Library, and was intrigued and excited by the intertwined Welsh and Jewish symbol on the cover: a red dragon and a Star of David. Her work and its themes became a central part of my doctoral research. But there was so much more to her fiction and non-fiction than the national and ethnic identity questions I was exploring there.

After publishing my first article about Tobias, a relative of hers got in touch. I began to learn a lot more about her personal history and background – and about her experiences and the experiences of her brothers which informed the pacifist novel, Eunice Fleet. I found Tobias as complex and fascinating as her work: like her novels, she didn’t lend herself to any simple or tidy interpretations. Continue reading

Advertisements


2 Comments

We Will Not Cease

War is a bad thing and will destroy the human race. I believe that if enough people in each country stood straight out against war, the Governments would pause and be compelled to settle their disputes by other means. I also believe that the peoples of all nations are naturally peaceful until they are stirred up by the war propaganda of the governing classes. When the workers of all countries win their economic freedom, Governments won’t be able to set them on to murdering their fellows. (p 108)

In 1915, New Zealand registered men of or near military age – about 196,000 in all – and asked if they were willing to serve in the NZEF. 33,700 said they were not willing to serve either at home or abroad. In 1916, conscription was introduced. Exemptions were narrowly defined, available only against combat and only for members of a religion “the tenets and doctrines of which declare the bearing of arms and the performance of any combatant service to be contrary to divine revelation.” About 286 conscientious objectors were imprisoned during war. Fourteen of these were forcibly sent overseas, some of them to the front lines. Continue reading


1 Comment

Eunice Fleet

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. Continue reading


3 Comments

An Interview with “White Feathers” Author, Susan Lanigan

Susan Lanigan’s debut novel, White Feathers, tackles tough issues through the lens of the early 20th century that we still struggle with today … issues like bullying, mental illness, the fallout of war and the impact of stigma. I am pleased to welcome Susan to Great War 100 Reads today to share some reflections about her work.

Why did you write this book?

Susan Lanigan: At first it was simply because I was interested in World War One. Recently I unearthed the essay I’d written for my final history exam in secondary school. It was about the Battle of Verdun and “bleeding the French white”. I’d read about it in a book called Our Own Worst Enemy by Norman Dixon written back in the Eighties and it had fascinated me. Continue reading


3 Comments

White Feathers

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
  • VADs
  • 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)


Read my interview with author Susan Lanigan.