Don’t Mention the War

I’ve written before about reticence in Great War writings – the urge (or even need) not to speak about certain things.

In The War Workers, E.M.Delafield is very alert to subtleties of wartime manners, and presents an interesting dinner-table conversation. Lesbia Willoughby is a florid middle-aged lady “with the voice of a pea-hen” who is thoroughly enjoying the war. It gives her an opportunity for emotional indulgence, and for doing her war work (which mostly involves entertaining young colonial officers – “I make a specialty of South Africans… They’re so delightfully rural.”) At a dinner at Sir Piers Vivian’s house, where Trevellyan, a young British officer is present, she enthuses:

“Nothing we women of England can do could ever be enough for the brave fathers, and husbands, and brothers, and sweethearts, who are risking their lives for us out there. Think of what the trenches are – just hell, as a boy said to me the other day – hell let loose!”

Delafield makes it very clear that this speech is a breach of good manners:

Sir Piers looked very much distressed, and his white head began to shake. He had only heard part of Lesbia’s discourse. Trevellyan’s boyishly fair face flushed scarlet. He had fought in Belgium, and in Flanders, until a bullet lodged in his knee, and now his next Medical Board might send him to France to rejoin his regiment. But it would have occurred to no one to suppose that the poignant description quoted by Mrs Willoughby had ever emanated from Trevelyan.

We literary types looking back on the literature of the time tend to value the texts that are not reticent – the ones that tell the horrors as they were. Delafield seems to be suggesting that people at home might avoid dwelling on the dreadfulness of what was happening not just for their own comfort, but out of consideration for the soldiers. Trevellyan’s own retcence is something that will help him to return.

Delafield is very alert to the way that some people are able to use the war for their own purposes – to boost their own power, or to bolster their own self-image.

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