“Helen Zenna Smith” and Ezra Pound

“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.

9 Comments

  1. The Shadow
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting to note that about 10 to 15 years after WWII there was a similar attempt to alter people’s view of the recent conflict. There was the rather silly THE LONG AND THE SHORT AND THE TALL, and the jaw droppingly awful Richard Lester movie HOW I WON THE WAR, plus one or two others. Thankfully it didn’t take. There does seem to be a tendency for the generation unable to take part in the war to rebel against the generation that did.

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I’ve written a little bit about Price in my book about demob after WWII. She became a foreign correspondent for the People, and wrote a series of controversial and slightly batty articles in the summer of 1945 claiming that sultry frauleins were seducing squaddies in the British Occupation Zone and converting them to Nazism.

  3. Posted April 16, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    By the sixties she had become the astrologer for “She” magazine. Quite a lady! But not always to be taken very seriously.

  4. Posted April 16, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    I actually found this novel about a thousand times more dispiriting than actual memoirs of the war, even those that described horrors.

    Something about the grinding hopelessness of the novel.

  5. Posted February 19, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I apologise if I sound ascendant, but one hardly needs Angela Smith to notice that Price is mimicking “All Quiet” in her novel. She tells us so herself through her title, her mode of exposition and the many other obvious parallels (Tosh=Katczinsky, the major characters die one after the other, etc.). I don’t think the book is meant to be taken entirely seriously: it seems to be a quite deliberate pastiche, not so far removed in spirit as one might think from A.G. Macdonnell’s “England, Their England”.

    • Posted February 19, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Angela Smith did much more than point out the obvious. The point of her analysis is to suggest that ‘Not So Quiet…’ owes much more to Remarque than to the diary (now lost) which was supposed to be her source.

      • Posted February 19, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

        Fair enough, but the first edition of “Not So Quiet . . .” says nothing about a diary and nothing to suggest that it is other than a work of fiction. Where does the information about the alleged diary come from?

  6. Posted February 20, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    For information about the diary, see Jane Marcus’s long and interesting afterword to the 1989 Feminist Press edition:
    “She herself had never been at the front, so she convinced Winifred Young, who had kept diaries of her experience as an ambulance driver to let [her] write a novel faithful to Young’s experience of the front.”
    It’s the faithfulness of this rewriting that is at issue. How far is the book a reliable account of VAD experience, and how much is imposed in post-Remarque hindsight?
    Quite apart from the question of authenticity (that slipperiest of categories, especially when dealing with war writing) I think Marcus is right to make large claims for Price/Smith’s book as dealing with aspects of female experience mostly left out of polite literature.

    • Posted February 20, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Hmmm. Very interesting. As you say, a critical and extremely slippery point arises, here: that of verisimilitude and its importance/relevance. Some – not I! – would argue that Price’s book is worthless because it is not “history” (just as, e.g., Cyril Falls suggested that Remarque’s novel displayed ignorance of actual Western Front conditions). By this reasoning we should junk most of Shakespeare’s English history and Roman plays. I cannot accept such reasoning. I don’t think it’s about whether the Nth Battalion wore a black shoulder-stripe or whether a body without a head could run around spurting blood but about the extent to which the writer convinces us that s/he has really engaged with his/her experience. Remarque does that consistently; Price, less consistently, but often enough, I think, to be worth reading.


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