Manda Scott's Reviews > Daughters of War

Daughters of War by Hilary Green
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Apr 15, 12

Read in April, 2012

One test of a good historical novel is that it leaves the reader with a sense of time and place - and of actual events - that spur further research or further reading in the era. This is one of the reasons why it's never a bad idea when two authors pick the same time period. As long as at least one of them is a worthwhile writer, the readership will transfer, wanting to gain more insight, more depth, a different view on the same world events.

By this standard, 'Daughters of War' succeeds admirably as a historical novel. Set in 1912 (and not a mention of the Titanic; thank you) it creates a fictional version of the lives of Mabel St Clair Stobart and Flora Sands. The former founded the Women's Sick and Wounded Convoy and, in 1912, led a group of nurses to care for Bulgarian soldiers in the chaotic mess of wars that scarred the continent and led, through the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, to the First World War. The second, Flora Sands, was a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (yes, they really did choose to call themselves FANY, which is either stunningly naive or outstandingly ironic) who went as a volunteer to Serbia to join Stobart, was separated from her group and joined a company of Serbian soldiers.

So much for the - fascinating - fact. The fiction of this novel is based on two women: Victoria (Vita) and Leonora (Leo). The former is a racing driver, go-getter and apparently active political feminist, such as these things existed and her chance meeting with Leo, the core of the story, leads them both to join the FANY and then to run away to help the WSWC. The bulk of the narrative charts their journey there and their experiences of the genuine horrors or war, made all the more piquant because the reader knows that, horrendous as this is, it's nothing to what will have happened by 1918. Leo is caught away from her group and ends up, largely by default, cross-dressing, so that everyone around her, including the man with whom she is falling in love, thinks she's a boy and she dare not enlighten them. The denoument is both funny and moving and horribly plausible given the innate sexism of the time (one forgets how far we have come in 100 years. We owe so much to these women and now we watch the right wing barking-mad nutters of the Republican party trying to undo it all again: it's terrifying, truly).

The romantic narrative concerns Leo's unrequited and unrequitable (so far) love for a Serbian officer, her martinet brother, the British army officer who is her legal guardian and (of course) is more concerned by the family honour than her abilities, her fiancee, who is gay and loves her brother and Vita who doesn't seem to know what she wants, but it isn't the dashing New Zealander who loves her. This last was my one disappointment (leaving aside that we have a character named Vita and another that dresses as a boy: this book is firmly set in women's romance land and the only hint of gayness allowed is in the men, and even then, it has to be hidden) - that aside - I am used to meeting characters whom I may originally despise and learning to admire them. Very rarely do I meet a character whom I originally admire - Vita - and then come to despise. I suspect this is a feature where the exigences of plot over-rode the strength of the characters and it's sad, but overall, it doesn't detract from what is a moving, fascinating and immensely well-researched book.

What impressed me most was that the horrors of war are truly horrible here; none of the boy's own triple-f (fighting, fucking and farting) where men are courageous and die bravely, living by the sword and dying by it. The sensitive and artistic Tom may be frustratingly camp at times, but the moment when he has to shoot a critically wounded child is tender and grim at once, and very well handled.

Coming to the end, I ask my usual three questions:

- would I want to read more by this author? Definitely - and this is the start of a trilogy, so I can read more now, which is always good.

- would I want to read more of this period? Definitely

- would I want to write in this time period? Possibly. I doubt if I'll ever get a chance to do so, but there's such a wealth of memory there, still accessible to us, and it would be both a pleasure and a challenge to write of a time that was - just - in living memory.
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