‘A tactful woman is essentially a woman who knows how to adapt herself to varying circumstances, who has that keen perception which enables her to see and do what is best…’
These words of wisdom come from a battered and well-used copy of The Woman’s Book, an Edwardian manual for aspiring housewives which, over 100 years later, provided the inspiration for an intriguing and original First World War novel.
But it wasn’t just the 1911 publication’s fascinating household management advice that caught the attention of author Jacqueline Winspear… it was the fading inscription to a bride due to marry in July 1914, just days before the outbreak of war.
What were the fates of the young woman and her husband? This is the starting point for a gently powerful and compelling story which charts the trials and tribulations faced by a pair of fictional newlyweds whose dilemmas reflect real experiences on both the domestic and military fronts of the war.
Winspear, author of the popular 1920s-based Maisie Dobbs mystery series, has found a comfortable home in this era and here she works her magic on a beautifully crafted tale about the conflict between honesty and ‘kind’ deception. Can it ever be wise to tell well-intentioned lies?
By the summer of 1914, the close bonds between Kezia Marchant and her childhood friend Thea Brissenden, both aged 27, are starting to loosen. Teacher Thea, passionate and fiercely independent, has immersed herself in the fight for women’s suffrage and is being sucked into a potentially dangerous world.
Vicar’s daughter Kezia has given up her own teaching job and is eagerly looking forward to marrying Thea’s solid, dependable brother Tom who runs the family farm in Kent. As a caustic reminder to Kezia that she now faces a life of domestic drudgery, Thea presents her with a copy of The Woman’s Book which proudly declares that it contains ‘Everything a Woman Ought to Know.’
When war breaks out and Tom heads off to France, Kezia becomes ‘the stoker of the farm’s engine,’ feeding the workers, keeping the homes fires burning and taking sole responsibility for the land.
Meanwhile, Thea becomes involved with the pacifist movement but her radical beliefs threaten her freedom so, reluctantly and with secrets she is keeping from her family, she heads off to the battlefields as an ambulance driver.
Struggling to turn out any kind of decent meal with limited resources, Kezia cooks up the idea of boosting Tom’s morale by writing letters detailing her imaginary mouth-watering menus. In turn, Tom keeps from her the appalling truths of trench warfare.
Each finds their own way to endure the cataclysm and turmoil but will the self-deception become self-destructive?
Using an epigram from the book at the start of each chapter, Winspear creates a moving story which talks to us of endurance, compassion, bravery and loyalty, of how individuals cope with absence, uncertainty and conflict in very different ways.
Tom’s harrowing ordeals in the trenches and the different experiences of housewife Kezia and suffragette and pacifist Thea open up a window onto all aspects of the war… the dreadful conditions at the front and the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ in the workplace and at home.
Hiding the harsh realities of a relentlessly grim war behind half-truths and entertaining flights of fancy, the central characters rely on optimism to pull themselves and their loved ones through the death and despair.
A dark story with a ray of hope burning at its heart…
(Allison & Busby, hardback, £16.99)