ursula: (sheep)
[personal profile] ursula
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.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-18 07:00 pm (UTC)
taelle: (Default)
From: [personal profile] taelle
I think it's one of her earliest novels which she herself sort of suppressed when she became popular...

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-22 01:05 am (UTC)
taelle: (Default)
From: [personal profile] taelle
I am not entirely sure how it was supposed to work, but I got the impression from her bio that she was strongly in favor of these not being reprinted. She died in 1974 - maybe after her death _everything_ was reprinted?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-18 08:29 pm (UTC)
oursin: Photograph of James Miranda Barry, c. 1850 (James Miranda Barry)
From: [personal profile] oursin
There's a fairly strong UK literary theme of women being nurses and ambulance drivers and so on in WWI - both autobiographically (May Sinclair's journal about being with an ambulance corps in Belgium, Enid Bagnold's Diary without Dates, and probably the most famous, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth) and fictionally (touched on in several of Sinclair's novels; Stephen Gordon meets Mary when they're both in an ambulance corps in No Man's Land in The Well of Loneliness; Helen Zenna Smith's Not So Quiet).

I can however think of fairly little about women as doctors in the War, even though they were, except autobiogs like With the Flaming Sword in Serbia, or in the women's auxiliary services (Winifred Holtby was in the WRAACs but I don't think ever wrote about it).

Women being MARVELLOUS during the War is alleged to have tipped the balance on giving them the vote in 1918; one might also make the case that the War put the whole thing on hold for several years.

I've certainly come across indications that Heyer at least tried to suppress her early novels, or at least would not let them be reprinted once she became famous for writing in a rather different mode.
Edited (Transposed paragraphs) Date: 2012-08-18 08:31 pm (UTC)

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