I’m pleased to be able to share a guest post from Charles Ellingworth today. His latest novel was published a few weeks ago by Quartet Books and is the first in a series which will look at the lives of women between the First and Second World Wars. His guest post looks at the women he had in mind when he wrote the book and why he was inspired by them.
I was bought up in a small village in Leicestershire. All three roads into the village were gated and there was no pub or shop. And yet, in the early sixties when I was a child there were at least half a dozen elderly women – though they were the age I am now – who were spinsters. Why had they never married? Because their husbands, or rather potential husbands had been killed in the First World War.
One of this poignant cohort was very close to my family. Vossy, Miss Edna Voss and her two sisters (and ‘Aunty’) lived in the next door village in a house that was an Edwardian period piece. There was electricity but no electrical appliances other than heaters. A television appeared in the 1970s. They had an outside privy and wash day was once a week using a hand worked mangle. Their bath was a zinc hip bath and was, again, used once a week. Vossy worked for us as a cleaner and nanny and arrived on a bicycle, Freda, the youngest had a car and worked in Leicester and Mary, who was ‘simple’, was locked in the house while they were away. She was much loved by her two sisters.
When I was young I saw their situation as ‘normal.’ For them, of course, it was a personal catastrophe as they, like all pre-war young women, saw the meaning of their Edwardian lives – marriage and children – disappear with the terrible news from France. The Pals battalions, raised locally, meant that the men of a village and indeed a whole area were often killed together. Vossy had a ‘young man’ who she sometimes spoke of – but only in the most general terms.
This generation was like a rabbit going through the snake. Those born from about 1900 onwards avoided the slaughter and those born earlier – say 1890 may have lost a husband but they would probably have had children. It was those born between 1894 and 1900 who bore the brunt of a lifetime of sexual and emotional starvation with unfulfilled maternal instincts with none of the comforts of old age provided by grandchildren. It was a poignant cohort.
As I tried to imagine this for A Bitter Harvest it was easy to become depressed about the sad future lives of these women who were coming to terms with such a bleak outlook. But youth is youth and like green shoots coming out after a fire, many turned their lives towards other opportunities and relationships with their own sex. The war emancipated women in more than just their ability to vote. Though the background was melancholy, life went on – and their courage and stoicism was something to admire.
I hope this admiration comes across in A Bitter Harvest.
A Bitter Harvest is published by Quartet Books and is available now in paperback. You should be able to buy or order a copy from your usual book retailer or you can order a copy from the publisher’s website here: A Bitter Harvest
From the back of the book
1919. The Great War is over and an armistice agreed but peace is not a given. England, riven by grief and loss, attacked by the Spanish Flu, with its younger generation of men killed, traumatised or wounded, is adjusting to a changed world. The slaughter of the Great War is over, but the Roaring Twenties are still far away.
A Bitter Harvest explores the experience of the two Richmond sisters and their cousin Ariadne, confronted with the reality that only a fraction of their generation will ever marry and have children. Set predominately in the English countryside, the narrative shifts between Dorset, the Peace Conference in Paris and the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow, with a cast of characters that includes an aged Thomas Hardy and Lloyd George at the height of his powers. But when Julian Belmore, an Irishman who has come through the war unscathed but conflicted, meets the sisters, bringing emotional turmoil in his wake, events begin their descent towards tragedy.
A Bitter Harvest is the first volume in a sequence of novels that will follow the events of the inter-war years and the lives of a unique generation of women.
About the author
Charles Ellingworth is the author of Silent Night, a compelling historical novel published to acclaim by Quartet Books in 2010. He studied history at Oxford and has written for the Financial Times and other magazines. He lives in Somerset, UK.