“Not So Quiet… by “Helen Zenna Smith” (Evadne Price) has attained a big reputation since its reprinting twenty-odd years ago, mostly, I think, because it is the kind of book that many wish wartime women had written, with its frankness about the physical (almost as many references to lavatories as All Quiet), its explicitness about wounds (“a wagging lump of raw flesh on a neck, that was a face a short time ago.”) and its feminist-pacifist message (“Enemies? Our enemies aren’t the Germans. Our enemies are the politicians we pay to keep us out of war […] It’s time women took a hand. The men are failures […] this war shows that.”). The book describes the experiences of V.A.D. ambulance-drivers in France, and is partly based on the diary of one such driver. Angela Smith, however, has shown that its structure, style and many of its characters closely follow the pattern of Remarque’s All Quiet, to a degree where one has to wonder how much actually came from the diary, which has since disappeared.
Some critics have avoided the fact that it was written twelve years after the war by a woman too young to have been involved. A.D. Harvey, usually a very perceptive critic, describes the book as “based on her own experiences”. Allyson Booth mostly treats the book as an unmediated testimonial of experience. Even Jane Marcus, who in her illuminating Afterword to the 1989 Feminist Press edition, acknowledges the debt to All Quiet, writes of Price’s knowledge of “the real experience of […] female bodies in World War I.”
I re-read the book yesterday, and was struck not only by the volcanic self-pity that Price allows her narrator, but by how little compassion she feels for the wounded soldiers in her ambulance. They are reduced to horrors – the “wagging lump of raw flesh” – and seen as the stupid victims of stupidity: “as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader”.
The book is typical of its time (1930) in refusing to attribute noble motives to its characters. Price explicitly, and when you think about it, unconvincingly, claims that none of the volunteer ambulance drivers joined the service for idealistic reasons. The heroine/narrator tries to present herself as a conscript, forced out to France by her bullying family. Of her fellow-drivers, she writes:
There may be an odd few who enlisted in a patriotic spirit — I haven’t met any, personally. Girls who were curious, yes; girls who were bored stiff with home (like myself) and had no idea what they were coming to,yes; man-hunters like The B.F.; man-mad women, semi-nymphomaniacs like Thrumms, who was caught love-making in an ambulance and booted back p.d.q to England, yes; megalomaniacs like Commandant who love ‘bossing the show’ and have seized on this great chance like hungry vultures, yes; girls to whom danger is the breath of life, yes; but my observation leads me to the conclusion that all the flag-waggers are comfortably at home and intend to stay there.
This passage uses tropes common in thirties writing about the War: the equation of patriotism with flag-wagging, and the exclusion of kinds of idealism apart from naive jingoism. Writers at this time forgot that many enlisted not for the sake of “England”, but because of what the Germans were doing in Belgium. The attitude that wanted to see soldiers of all countries as victims of war preferred to forget that a large part of Britain’s emotional commitment to the War was because of German war crimes such as the shooting of civilian hostages. What especially strikes me about Price’s list is its resemblance to the one in Pound’s Mauberley:
These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case ..
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later …
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor” ..
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies…
Pound, of course, was also a non-combatant, but his view of soldiers’ motivations (based on what?) seems to have become orthodoxy by 1930.