The Whicharts and the War

I’ve just blogged on the Reading 1900-1950 site a review of The Whicharts (1931), Noel Streatfeild’s first novel (and a prototype, grown-up and slightly seedy version of Ballet Shoes).  here I’ll just add a couple of notes about Streatfeild’s mentions of the Great War in this book.whicharts

The book is, like Ballet Shoes, the story of a family of three girls brought together in the home of a guardian. In this version of the story, events are dated: the girls come to Rose, their guardian, some time in the Edwardian period (they are the by-blows of a very Edwardian Brigadier).

Comes the war and Rose, like Streatfeild herself, works for a while in a munitions factory:

She struggled daily with thousands of other workers through a police-guarded gate. She had a numbered disc, which checked her time-keeping. She wore a dreary khaki apron and cap. She became with the passing months almost an automaton. the ferrules of millions of fuses passed through her fingers. She gauged them all, and either rejected them or passed them on.

there were pleasant little pauses in the work. the ten minutes that was on day-shift breakfast, and on night-shift tea. The hour for dinner. The half-hour for tea on day-shift and breakfast on night.

There were curious long nights when her eyelids seemed to weigh a ton. Nothing could keep them open. When she would start back from the depths of sleep as the overseer banged a hammer on the table.

There was the roar, roar, roar, of the thousand lathes. The curious smell of hot brass. the queer hootings outside from strange little engines. A hooting which when she heard it in after days, always brought back the war.

the nights when there were air raids. the sudden bray of the warning hooter. The curious silence that followed, as the power was turned off, and the straps stood still.

Later in the novel, one of the girls (Tania, the equivalent of Petrova in Ballet Shoes) is depressed because she has the thankless job of understudying her sister in a second-rate musical comedy, until she makes friends with Miss Poll, the company’s wardrobe mistress.

Miss Poll tells the story of her brother who went to France in 1914, but after the war could not get a job. he became depressed.

Then one day ‘e comes in –  very low ‘e was. ‘e sits down and takes off ‘is boots. I give ‘im a cigarette I’d been saving for ‘im. ‘Think I’ll smoke it in the yard,’ ‘e says. ‘What!’ says mother, ‘you never goin’ out there without your boots!’ ‘Sorry, ma,’ ‘e says, and pulls ’em on again. Outside ‘e goes – an’ we ‘ears a bang – I runs out and there ‘e’s been and shot ‘isself. Mother took it bad. But she’s getting better now. But she does like to put a wreath on the Cenotaph on an Armistice Day. Of course it ain’t got no right to be there, but what I says is, the other boys won’t mind.’

This anecdote has nothing to do with the main plot or themes of the novel, but Streatfeild clearly thought it worth inserting. A true story, perhaps?


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