Aug. 18th, 2012

ursula: (sheep)
Helen is a novel written in the late 1920s; the eponymous character is a girl who is in her late teens when the First World War starts. I found this novel in the library, and wondered why I'd never heard of it. The reason, I think, is that it's casually anti-feminist in a way that has fallen out of fashion. It's cheerfully classist, too, but here it's so dated that to my feckless American eye the assumptions are merely quaint. Helen's clinching argument on gender roles, for instance, is "Can you imagine a man ordering dinner from Cook?" One of her artist friends has a servant to hang drapery for him; other friends, a starving-artist couple, are too poor to reliably buy jam for afternoon toast, but still pay someone to clean their flat twice a week.

Helen's friends are rather fast, but Helen herself is heroically virginal. I forgot to read this with my historical-prudery goggles on, and therefore found the sexual liaison that makes an important plot point rather underwhelming. On the other hand, some of the descriptions of parent/child affection would forebode dire things in a more recent novel, where here they're meant to be sweet: every culture has its own prurient obsessions.

Historically interesting features include young women's war jobs as drivers and nurses (for some reason one only ever hears of the WWII equivalents), the influenza epidemic of 1918 as a plot point, and the way young people are described as "the Moderns". The most satisfying part (to me at least) was the many discussions of how obnoxious it is when people expect public displays of emotion; some of Noel Streatfeild's novels have a similar theme. As early twentieth-century romances involving heroic naïveté and Bohemian artists go, though, I personally prefer E. Nesbit's Incomplete Amorist. For one thing, intensely sentimentalized though they are, it's a little bit easier to believe that Nesbit's starving artists might be starving.

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