What Helen Zenna Smith did next

It’s good to read someone enthusiastic for Not So Quiet… by ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ (alias Evadne Price). On the Paris Review website, Lucy Scholes makes a strong case for the book (admiring it with fewer reservations than I did in my 2014 paper on Evadne Price and her rather wonderful life of untruths.)

The cover of the first edition of ‘Not So Quiet…’, presented by its publisher, Albert Marriott (alias Netley Lucas), as a factual account of the War.

Lucy Scholes is worth reading, but I’m going to register a disagreement with what she says about the later books that Price published under the Helen Zenna Smith pen-name:

By popular demand, Price—again as Helen Zenna Smith—went on to pen four consecutive sequels: Women of the Aftermath (1931); Shadow Women (1932); Luxury Ladies (1933); and They Lived with Me (1934). A victim of its own success, Not So Quiet is tarnished by its association with these unworthy, increasingly romp-like successors, none of which were able to match the powerful ingenuity of the original.

Increasingly romp-like? The books are pretty uniformly grim. In Women of the Aftermath, Helen is married to a crippled ex-soldier who psychologically torments her. In Shadow Women she is in a plane crash that leaves her facially disfigured, and is reduced to sleeping among the homeless on the Embankment. The final two lighten up slightly, in that she is saved from the Embankment and starts a hostel for homeless women, but it’s all pretty grim. What’s more, it’s all told in that imitation-Remarque style, of headlong present-tense stream of consciousness. There’s very little romping.

That stream-of-consciouness style was the trick that Price could do. After the ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ books, she wrote thrillers, and ince again used the breathless first-person style, which keeps the narrative going strong and fast.

The question is – how seriously should we take ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ in her first book? Her publisher encouraged her to write it, and he had a track record of issuing deliberate frauds. He sensed that the ‘realistic war-book style’ was an easy one to copy, and knew that Evadne Price was a clever pasticheuse, so roped her in. Did she deliberately write a fake? Or was her indignation at the war so strong that she overcame the dubious context of her commission to write something honest?

Not So Quiet... has its strong admirers, including Ms Scholes. What I feel, though, is that it’s just a little too much the book that modern readers feel women ambulance-drivers ought to have written…

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  1. […] What Helen Zenna Smith did next – “The question is”, writes George Simmers, “how seriously should we take ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ [aka Evadne Price] in her first book [Not So Quiet… (1930)]?” You may find the answer at Great War Fiction. […]

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