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Author Pamela Hart on Women in WWI and the books that influenced her work

April 20, 2016

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Women are often invisible in accounts of World War I. And if people do talk about them, they concentrate on the nurses who went to the front, as in the book, ANZAC Girls  by Peter Rees – which, by the way, is a great read.

There were lots of other women involved in the war effort, of course. Stay-at-home nurses, especially the VAD girls – the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Red Cross organisers, who arranged for socks, scarves, underwear and food parcels to go to the ‘boys’ on the front line. The Australian Red Cross was a woman’s organisation from its inception; it was started by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, wife of the then Governor-General, as a branch of the British Red Cross only nine days after the beginning of World War I.

When I began writing about women and World War I in The Soldier’s Wife, and then about the post-war years in The War Bride, I needed to get a sense of what it was really like to be one of the women left behind.

Obviously, things written at the time would be the best resource. And written in Australia, for preference, since that’s where my books were set. There were two types of writing I went to: newspapers and books.

I started with the books, and began with books I already knew and loved: the Billabong books, by Mary Grant Bruce. Although these are supposedly children’s captain jim-minbooks (they’d be published as YA today), some of this series (From Billabong to London, Jim and Wally, and Captain Jim) were published during the war. The characters in these volumes were grown up – Jim and Wally enlist in England because they can’t wait for enlistment to begin in Australia – and from them, I admit, I took a lot of the idiom and speech patterns of my characters.

For example, the word ‘kiddies’. It’s quite clear from the Billabong books that ‘nice’ people used ‘kiddies’ when referring to children, if they didn’t use ‘children’ itself. On the other hand, ‘kids’ appeared to be a slightly vulgar word, a bit lower-class. My editors and I had a lot of discussion about this in The War Bride, but I was pretty sure of my ground thanks to Grant Bruce!

And the Billabong books gave me the sense of what it was like for those left behind – both women and men, parents in particular. I have no doubt that Mr Linton’s worry about Jim influenced my depiction of Mr Curry in The Soldier’s Wife, although they are very different kinds of men.

The other book which had a great influence on me was LM Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, although it was written and set in Canada. But, as with the Billabong books, the idea of the British Empire is behind many of the decisions taken, as it was in Australia. Montgomery’s depiction of the fear, work and grief of those left behind on the home front made a deep impression on me as a young reader. When I returned to it as an adult, I found it even more moving, perhaps because I could identify more strongly with Anne as the mother who sends her sons to the trenches.

rilla-minRilla and the Billabong books also pointed me to the importance of the Red Cross in the daily lives of people at home, and the amount of fund-raising and letter-writing and knitting which went on.

I read lots of other books – notably A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, by Louise Mack, an Australian war correspondent who reported on the German invasion of Belgium and later wrote this book about it. It’s a vivid, beautifully written book, and if it holds the faint stench of propaganda, remember it was written during the first stages of the war. (That book, by the way, is the inspiration for my next book, A Letter from Italy!)

There are many other fine novels written about World War I. But most of them concern themselves with the soldiers, or were written long after the war was over. So if you want to get a real sense of what it was like at home, for the women left behind, even if they are, admittedly, quite privileged women, then Rilla of Ingleside and the Billabong books are great places to start – and have the advantages of being wonderful stories, with a bit of romance thrown in!

 

Pamela Hart is an award-winning author for both adults and children. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney, where she has also lectured in creative writing. Writing under the name Pamela Freeman, she wrote the historical novel The Black Dress, which won the NSW Premier’s History Prize for 2006 and is now in its third edition. Pamela is also well known for her fantasy novels for adults, published by Orbit worldwide, the Castings Trilogy and her Aurealis Award winning novel Ember And Ash. Pamela lives in Sydney with her husband and their son, and teaches at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

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