GUEST POST: Rowena House on the unheard voices of World War One

Hello again folks, and happy spring! It’s been snowing here, and I’m feeling a little like winter is overstaying its welcome. However, those seeds of intentions are starting to wiggle about in the earth (what can I say, I know my botanical terminology) and yesterday I was brainstorming the latest incarnation of this blog. WATCH THIS SPACE, but like, not too closely, as you might be watching for a while.

Goose road jacket

In any case, I am super excited to have a guest post for your reading pleasure from the author of upcoming The Goose Road, Rowena House. Like Rowena, I’ve had an interest in this period of history since reading the war poets at school (and then reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration) and I still feel some connection with Wilfred Owen, living in Edinburgh and being somewhat familiar with Craiglockhart, where he was treated for shellshock in 1917. I’m really looking forward to diving into The Goose Road and reporting back to you all about it. Until then, the guest post!

Why are the unheard voices of World War One still overwhelmingly female?

Take a look at these two photographs. They’re the shelves of First World War books written for children on display at the Imperial War Museum’s basement gift shop, right outside their amazing Word War One galleries.

The top one I took last year, the lower one last month. Spot the difference – apart from the book about the bear.

pic1pic2

Last summer in Britain’s premier military museum – a world-class exhibition space attracting visitors from around the globe – I couldn’t find a single children’s WW1 fiction or non-fiction title written solely by a female writer, nor one book for young people dedicated to girls and women in the Great War.

By March 2018, there was one war novel by a woman author with a girl on the cover: Jacqueline Wilson’s Wave Me Goodbye.

Which begins in September, 1939.

That is, in the Second World War.

It strikes me as a total failure of imagination by the Imperial War Museum’s book buying department that one hundred years after the 1914-18 war, and in the final year of the centenary commemorations of a conflict that began the modern era, girls still cannot find in their gift shop a book that explores their gender’s role in the war.

But it’s not just the IWM. I came across gender bias time and again when researching The Goose Road, my own WW1 novel, set in France in 1916, the story of a peasant girl and her battle to save the family farm.

In the classic bestseller, Forgotten Voices of the Great War by Max Arthur, I counted just twelve women contributors out of the total of one hundred and forty seven. That’s well below one tenth. The pattern was similar in Jean-Pierre Gueno’s collection of letters about the war in France, Les Poilus.

Guys, females make up half the population. A bit over half, actually. But hey, who’s quibbling?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that people shouldn’t read Arthur’s or Gueno’s excellent collections. Please do. They’re fascinating. It would also be patently absurd to say people should ignore Wilfred Owen’s heart-rending Anthem for Doomed Youth, or Sebastian Faulks’ poignant Birdsong, or All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. These are remarkable works of literature.

But why wasn’t Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance on those IWM bookshelves when the museum itself is involved with re-publishing a centenary edition this September? Why couldn’t they have stocked Kate Saunders’ Costa-award winning Five Children on the Western Front, or Andersen Press’s War Girls anthology or, for a topical suffragette story, Sally Nichols’ Things a Bright Girl Can Do?

These books exist. Women’s memoirs of WW1 war exist. Girls existed. Why, then, are their voices still so hard to hear?

I believe that as a society we need to make a conscience effort at a semblance of balance: that alongside the suffering of soldiers we give proportionate space to the sacrifices of female ammunition workers, engineers, nurses, ambulance drivers, food producers etc. etc. etc.

By all means re-print Biggles’ WW1 adventures if you must, but let’s also show young people that the pro-war jingoism among sections of Britain’s female elite incensed soldier-poets like Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Let’s compare women’s roles in WW1 propaganda as soldiers’ sweethearts and brave mothers bidding patriotic farewells to their sons to the sexism that real women experienced at work, and the redundancy notices they received as soon as the men returned from war.

Let’s remember that women’s war work didn’t win working class women the vote. They had to wait until 1928. The famous 1918 Representation of the People Act was specifically designed to make sure men remained in the majority.

A century on, for goodness sake let us be honest at last.

Remembrance is good. I firmly believe that. And with it the utmost respect for the dead

and injured. But please, book buyers and book sellers, allow girls and young women to see themselves in the WW1 stories you put in front of them.

 

Rowena House headshot (Walker)

Rowena House

Website: rowenahouse.com

 


The Goose Road is published by Walker Books on 5th April 2018
£7.99 PBK 978-1-406371-67-3

Thanks so much to Walker and Jo for arranging this stop on the blog tour, and thanks to Rowena for sharing her thoughts on how the stories we tell about this hugely important moment in history are skewed towards a certain type of narrative.

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