I’ve been meaning to read Testament of Youth for a long time. With the new film getting rave reviews, and being partly filmed in the train station I commute to in the mornings (which is very very cute) I was originally going to read it over Christmas. But then for various reasons I never did, and instead I started it last week. I’m not going to lie, I’m finding it hard going. I’ve got to the end of Part 1 and yes it is all incredible sad and it is disgusting the waste of life, but, and I want to emphasise this is so far, I just find her voice quite off-putting as it is so far apart from anything and anyone of my experience. I do know people who quote poetry in their diary, who have been to Oxford, and who dislike the provincial in favour of the intelligentsia, but that isn’t what I like about them, and with Vera these things seem very much Who She Is. I found only a few passages in which she reflects on the huge difference between her life and that of most other women, although I did understand her bitterness to having to stick to the ridiculous social code that meant she could never have any real time alone with the man she loved before he went off to war.
I decided, therefore, to intersperse my reading of ToY, which is beautifully written if from a viewpoint I find difficult to empathise with, with fiction and other accounts of the First World War that explore the lives of women at the other end of the social scale.
Somewhere Behind The Morning is by local author Frances McNeil, and I’ve had it on my ‘books about the war’ display all year without realising it is set in Leeds. The story of two sisters living in the now pulled down slums that were where West Yorkshire Playhouse is now, this book covers not only the experience of the working class in wartime, but also what happened to Germans living in England at the outbreak of war: how the suffragette movement suddenly turned patriotic, completely forgoing the fight for women’s rights in favour of supporting the slaughter of millions: the untold story of the conscientious objectors and the all too human story of trying to survive in a world in chaos.
I loved this book. Told from the point of view of feisty, entrepreneurial younger sister Julia, the book opens with her fifteen years old and supplementing the families’ income selling pies door to door. As the story progresses her voice subtly matures until the end when she is a strong minded, independent young woman, ready to face anything and make her own choices about her life.
This book pleased me because for one thing it showed the complete hypocrisy of the Pankhurst school of feminism. Working class women used as poster girls for the movement but then patronised and ignored when they try to mix in equal terms. Reading it at the same time as Vera Brittain really did highlight for me what different worlds Julia and Vera would have lived in-Julia notes that upperclass women would never been allowed to walk the streets alone as she can, and does. Julia has the freedom, but not the opportunity. She is a wonderful heroine, straight talking and full of common sense and I was so pleased to hear that this book is based on the experiences of the author’s mother.
Set in a Leeds so different from my own, I loved spotting place names I recognised, and then researching afterwards to see how much it had all changed. The Leodis Project proved to be invaluable in recreating the neighborhood where Julia and her family live. This book looks like just another history-trash novel, but honestly it is much more than that, and if you do live in Leeds, or have an interest in different stories from the First World War I really would recommend it. I will be looking out for others by the same writer, as I like her style, but it is Julia who I loved, and who I would love to read more about.