“Not So Quiet” as representative of gender in WWII Essay
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Evadne Price wrote the book “Not So Quiet” in 1930 under the pseudonym Helen Zenna Smith. Price was an established author and playwright by the time she wrote “Not So Quiet,” best known for her serialized romance novels. She also wrote children’s books and articles for women’s magazine. But “Not So Quiet” was a very different kind of piece, partly because of its far more serious nature, partly because it was somewhat autobiographical. She was initially approached by a British publisher to write a satire on “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, but Price argued that she would rather write an account of a woman’s experience with war instead.
Price then contacted a British ambulance driver who had kept war diaries as a basis for her story, then elaborating the story to revolve around a fictional version of herself named Smithie.
Taking this very personal, intimate story of a woman, as well as her already inherent skill of writing for women, Price created a novel whose voice is distinctly female. The reader feels Smithie’s confusion, anger and isolation in her struggle to build a new identity in the wake of a total loss of innocence. In this, more then anything, Price has created a war story that is not only about women, but one that speaks to women and resonates with them, a true rarity. It is through Price’s novel that a distinct view of the war through the eyes of a very female, upper-class experience help give the reader a very clear idea of many of the issues faced by women of the war years as they try to maintain what society has always told them is feminine behavior in an increasingly bloody reality.
The nature of the book “Not So Quiet” is reflective of “All Quiet on the Western Front” in that both are pacifist responses to war, but in the case of “Not So Quiet,” the pacifist voice is female. The ideas about war expressed by Smithie are often reminiscent of other pacifist women’s responses to war and draw attention to the women’s peace movement that started during the First World War. Many of Smithie’s comments, such as her sarcastic annoyance with Mrs. Evans-Mawning for being proud that she could be proud her son was murdered for murdering another mother’s son, is phrased very similarly to thoughts of leading female pacifists. Clara Zetkin, a German socialist feminist, is one who comes to mind and her words “Who endangers the well-being of the fatherland? Is it the men who, clad in other uniforms, stand beyond the frontier, men who did not want this war any more than your men did and who do not know why they should have to murder their brothers?” (Zetkin, pg. 145).
Zetkin’s radical ideas, formed during the first war, are a display of the already changing disposition, pushing to action for the cause of peace. Lida Gustava Heymann, another female pacifist during World War I, reflects another aspect of Smithie’s pacifist transformation-anger. Like Smithie, who spends much of the novel searching for people to blame for her pain, Heymann puts blame directly on men, describing male nature as inherently violent and fundamentally opposed to female nature, which is pacifist. Another important pacifist during World War I who is reminiscent of Smithie is Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, organizer of radical women’s groups, and Richard Pankhurst.
Her radicalism led to a major rift with her mother after the groups they belonged to decided not to commit arson, which, to Sylvia, made them not radical enough. She also felt her mother and her sisters were to focused of fostering middle class privilege and gave to little attention to the needs of all women. During the war, when she joined the women’s peace army, she found herself at even greater rift with her mother and sister, who both supported the war. Her lifetime of feelings of anger and alienation from the older generation, despite her mother’s staunchly liberal ideas, manifest Smithie’s exact feelings that pushed her toward the distaste for the war that the novel ends on.
Smithie’s anger and large transformation are a result of her unmasked experience with war. For most women, however, the experience of war was masked and covered behind nationalism and propaganda. Although much of the book takes place on the front, hints of what is happening back home are frequently given, mostly through letters received by Smithie from her mother and through the character of B.F. Mrs. Evans-Mawning, throughout the novel, serves as a figure of the worst kind of feminine nationalism, boasting about Roy but not having the edge on Smithie’s mother because she has only her one son to sacrifice as opposed to Smithie’s larger family. Smithie also notes that she is sick of reading positive news about wonder war girls in the news, comparing her experience to having a baby because once you get started “your trapped in it.” (Smith, pg. 134).
Women on the home front were being coddled into believing everything was going well because this was still a time in which men saw women as more sensitive then they were intelligent and therefore needed to be protected (Thebaud, pg. 95). This sort of “sugar-coating” gave women false impressions about the war, which was particularly disappointing to those who enlisted. In one letter from Smithie’s younger sister, Trix, she writes “Why the dickens they dress you up in a pretty cap and make you think you’re going to smooth the patients fevered brow beats me hollow.” (Smith, pg. 84). Another letter in the book that is very reflective of home front feelings is the one Smithie receives from B.F, who described her encounter with Tosh’s uncle and comments on his lack of patriotism because of his being more upset about Tosh’s death then the war. In her own, somewhat ignorant, way B.F is describing the shifting attitudes felt by people back home whose nationalism faded with sorrow over lost loved ones.
While this war marked an incredible change in society in a variety of areas, no group was more changed by the two wars then women were. Women, even those who were educated and “gently bred” were called in to be a part of a gruesome war and through the experience of Smithie the loss of innocence is felt. Heymann, after the First World War, noted that everything in the past is in a state of man, which makes force, authority and fear its principles. Heymann felt that women had so long been slaves to men that presently their very natures were enslaved (Heymann, pg. 149). However, war forced women into very different position then they had ever been in before, the wars forced them to take a more aggressive role in public life and start to reclaim their own identities. Zetkin also notes during the war how the existence of it threw in women’s faces the view of society that men need to go die in order to protect their “weak women,” but the death of their men caused a much larger burden to fall upon their apparently small shoulders.
The change experienced by women is manifested not just in Smithie and other named characters, but also in the two most notable events that involve girls just “passing through” the ambulance-driving world. The first, in which Smithie shows two new girls to their bunk and they tell her they shall “have a tea,” represents the old woman- even faced with clearly dire circumstances, the female is to sensitive for it and buries her head in frivolous desire. However, later on, on page 132, when the ‘seeing-Francer’ stands up to explain why she is leaving, she not only well articulates her complaint, but also shows a lot of bravery in doing so.
The moment displays women’s changing levels of aggression as more and more of them took jobs they never would have before. There are also signs of the sexual emancipation experienced by many women, most clearly manifested by Smithie when she actually says aloud how not shocked she is by the general’s proposition of sex (Smith, pg. 145) and then when she sleeps with a soldier, Robin, whom she barely knows. This was directly following the interwar years, in which novelists and magazines already began to prominently feature the new woman, with her short hair and sexual liberation.
While there were many positive changes for the overall position of women as a result of the war, the novel “Not So Quiet” also notes the physical trauma it brought for them. This aspect of the book might be its finest one in that it describes difficulties faced by women, who were not regarded with the same sensitivity as returning soldiers. After Smithie returns home for a few days, clearly traumatized, she is chastised by her mother for “mooning about” for days and how strange it was that she was still not over her traumatic experience with war.
Ernst Simmel, who wrote about war as a cause of mental illness, described “war psychosis” as rarely curable, caused by all things to horrible to grasp. Simmel also described war psychosis as a damage that can be seen even when all external wounds are healed, making it therefore invisible. The feelings of this illness’ onset is manifested by Smithie in the most beautiful passage of the book when she describes her desire for “men who are whole” and her concern for what is to happen like people like her, if they survive, how they are meant to lead a normal life after experiencing such horrific things and being so internally broken.
Herminghouse, Patricia A., and Magda Meuller, eds. German Feminist Writings. Vol. 95. New York: The German Library, 2001.
Simmel, Ernst. “War Neurosis and “Psychic Trauma”” The Legacy of the War.
Smith, Helen Z. Not So Quiet… New York: The Feminist P, 1930.
Sohn, Anne-Marie. “Between the Wars in France and England.” A History of Women in the West, Volume V Toward a Cultural Identity in the Twentieth Century (History of Women in the West). By Georges Duby. Vol. 5. New York: Belknap P, 1994. 92-119.