A paper given at the Marginalised Mainstream conference, at the Senate House, University of London, November 2014.
This paper is about a book that has been highly acclaimed for its realism in depicting women at war, but today I’m not really going to be discussing its representation of war, or of women. Instead I want to look at it in the context of its author’s life, and consider some of the issues that it raises about authenticity, about originality, and about the effects of pastiche and authorial disguise.
Not So Quiet… by Helen Zenna Smith was first published in 1930 by the new publishing firm of Albert E. Marriott. It was rediscovered by Jane Marcus and republished in by the Feminist Press in 1989, and later by Virago. It is about women doing the arduous, dangerous and sometimes demeaning work of driving ambulances on the Western Front.
Its first paragraph sets the book’s tone of physical immediacy. It plunges us straight into the women’s situation:
We have just wakened from our first decent sleep for weeks – eight glorious dreamless hours of utter exhaustion. The guns are still booming in the distance as energetically as when we fell on our camp beds without the formality of removing our uniforms, shoes, gaiters or underclothing. We have not had our garments off for nine days, but there has been an unexpected lull this afternoon; no evacuations, only one funeral, and very few punishments, though we feel the usual midnight whistle will break our run of luck any time now. That gives us ten minutes to dress and stand by ambulances ready for convoy duty.
The book describes the experiences of the women whose job it is to get wounded soldiers to hospitals. It describes the gruelling work, the appalling conditions, the dangers of night driving under heavy bombardment and the bullying of their commandant, whom they call Mrs Bitch.
The central character’s name is Helen Zenna Smith, the same as the author’s, and the back of the first edition’s jacket describes the book in these terms:
An honest, unsentimental, savage record of a girl ambulance driver in France. It is a marvellous piece of realistic writing.
Then, on the the inside front flap, there is this:
This book is not a story, for one cannot make a story of an experience that is rotten to the core with wickedness.
‘A record’. ‘Not a story’. The book’s presentation implicitly makes claims for authenticity that certainly convinced the reviewer for the Manchester Guardian:
The author was attached to a convoy under the command of a domineering and heartless commandant, where the drivers suffered every discomfort of bad food, lack of sleep, dirt and petty tyranny. (April 24th, 1930)
Even when the book was republished in 1989 with some explanation of its complex origins in the discursive afterword by Jane Marcus, the back cover describes the book as ‘a scathing firsthand account of war from the point of view of women actively engaged in it’, which may have allowed some readers to overestimate its authenticity. Later impressions also featured on the back a sentence from a New York Times review of the reprint which refers to ‘the author’s tour of duty in France.’
There was no such person as Helen Zenna Smith. The author of Not So Quiet was a woman called Evadne Price.
Who was she? Her origins are disputed. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that she was born at sea in 1896. Wikipedia says she was born in Australia in 1888; In an interview recorded towards the end of her life she says nothing about the date – she seems to have have been one of those women who prefer to keep their age flexible, and on one occasion she shifted her date of birth as far forward as 1901 – but says that she was born in Sussex (and claims that she had never been to Australia till she retired there with her husband in 1975).
Since there is no British birth certificate, and since she does not seem to appear in the British census listings for 1901 or 1911, and since there is considerable documentation of her having been born in Australia, having been educated there and having worked as an actress in that country before 1914, the inescapable conclusion must be that her own account of her origins and upbringing is fanciful. She claims, for example, that her father died when she was young, whereas evidence points to his having survived until the 1920s. One of her stories is is that after his death, her mother, an artist, made her living painting reproductions of famous artworks. An example that she says kept the family fed for quite a long while was this one, Non Angli sed Angeli, illustrating a famous anecdote about Saint Augustine and some English slave boys.
She became an actress, and in 1909 she married German-born actor Henry A. Dabelstein in Sydney. (What became of Henry Dabelstein is something of a mystery.)
Mother and daughter seem to have moved to England in about 1914, and continued her stage work, which included understudy work and small parts in pantomime.
In 1920 she married Charles Fletcher, a soldier (giving Price, not Dabelstein as her surname) and at about that time gave up the stage. the Times obituary suggets that this was for health reasons. She took up journalism, and wrote features (‘As a Woman Sees It’) for the Sunday Chronicle, and also stories for the fiction magazines that abounded at the time.
Among her magazine stories was a series in which she takes on the voice of a young flapper, a teenage girl with a taste for melodrama and indignation.
A good example is ‘The Eternall Triangel’ (in the Premier Magazine,May, 1929):
(as you can see, the story is not only presented in the heroine’s own voice; it is in her own spelling.) It begins:
Looking back as I do dreerily, my aching head still reeling with insults from those who wilfully regard me as Liar, Thief, Adulteress, and even vampire, I still cannot see how otherwise I could have acted and obeyed the clarrion call of the famous Lord Nelson: “England expects that every man shall do his Duty!” (Also meaning WOMAN, of course.)
The heroine is called Unity, and when she hears that an old friend of her mother’s is returning from abroad, she gets it into her head that this man is her real father. In other words, her imagination thrusts her right into the middle of the plot of a Victorian melodrama. She decides to act dramatically, by going to confront this man, and telling him to keep away from the woman he so nearly ruined.
She is wrong, of course, and developments become wildly farcical, but the real success of the story is Evadne Price’s ventriloquising of the teenager’s indignant voice.
Her most successful writing in the second half of the twenties was the ‘Jane’, series, which began as magazine stories, but were then collected in hard covers. Here again she was channelling another voice, but this time it belonged to an author. The Jane books are a pastiche of Richmal Crompton’s very popular ‘William’ stories, but with a girl hero.
Price denied copying Crompton, but the influence is very obvious. Like William, Jane is the truculent leader of a gang, always getting into trouble through friction with the adult world. The representation of children’s speech is very similar, and so are some of the plots. For example, ‘Jane’s Birthday’, a story in the 1928 first collection, is very similar indeed to Crompton’s 1925 story ‘William’s Truthful Christmas’.
The Jane stories are less inventive than the William ones, and the social satire in them is less pointed, but changing the gender of the protagonist has interesting effects. William was a rebel against constricting adult expectations. Jane is also a rebel against her gender. A story in the first book begins:
Little Jane Turpin, an unwilling prisoner in a blue frilly taffeta party frock trimmed with dainty pink rosebuds, sat […] in a corner, eating everything within stretching distance. Vainly she endeavoured to alleviate the boredom that enveloped her like a cloud. Dumb rebellion was registered in every frill of her blue party frock…
Her rebellion against stereotyping is not limited to passive resentment. She asserts her right to do anything that boys do, and on occasion can be pretty handy with her fists.
No wonder the Jane Turpin books became popular with girls who resented the pressure to be girly. In all there were ten ‘Jane’ collections published, the last (Jane at War) in 1947.
The caption of this 1930 newspaper
photo suggests that Evadne Price was
also engaged in writing for the theatre.
Evadne Price tells the story of how she came to write Not So Quiet… Her agent told her that a new publisher Albert E. Marriott wanted someone to write a satire on some new book or other. When she met Marriott, he showed her a book jacket he had already designed – All Quaint on the Western Front by Erica Remark. What he wanted her to write, obviously, was something about a naïve and silly girl like Unity going to war.
He asked if she had read All Quiet on the Western Front.
No, she hadn’t. She’d not heard of the book.
He told her that it was the current best-seller, and he wanted a comedy skit to be published quickly.
She read All Quiet in an evening, and decided: Anyone who wants a skit on this book wants their brains dusted.
She went back to Marriott and told him: I wouldn’t want to be funny about this; it’s a message to the world.
Then she told him: What you want is an experienced author to write the woman’s story of the trenches.
He told her that she could do it. ‘You were in the war, weren’t you?’
Evadne Price answered indignantly that she wasn’t old enough (though if you do the sums she of course was).
She said she knew nothing about the war, so he told her: Get hold of a woman who was in the war. He offered her £50 if she could bring him 20,000 words by Monday morning.
Through an acquaintance, Evadne Price met an ex-ambulance-driver called Winifred Constance Young, and was given her diary to make use of.
That was on Saturday. She wrote her 20,000 words at breathless speed, took them to Marriott on Monday morning. He was so pleased with it that he immediately immediately took the carbon copy to the News of the World, who paid him £5000. That was part of the money that Evadne Price would never see.
She wrote the rest of the book very quickly. It imitates All Quiet on the Western Front in many obvious ways. The novel starts in the thick of the war, with the back story sketchily filled in later. Like Remarque, Price uses the historic present tense throughout, which gives the book its great sense of immediacy.It is mainly written in short declarative sentences, and refuses euphemism. Remarque’s book had offended some English readers by its references to bodily functions and lavatories. Not So Quiet has almost as many. . Angela K. Smith (in The Second Battlefield)has shown how, even if some of the events and situations come from Winifred Young’s diary, the characters can mostly be mapped easily onto equivalents in All Quiet on the Western Front. Clearly, Price came to her writing task with a definite idea of the kind of war book she wanted to write, and used Young’s diary to flesh it out.
To begin with a style and then to find material to use it on is pretty well the definition of pastiche, and yet the rush and tumble of Price’s quickly improvised writing paradoxically add to the book’s feeling of authenticity.
She and Marriott had agreed that since Evadne Price was known for light comic fiction, the book would appear under a pseudonym. How aware was she that it would be published under the name of the central character, thus creating confusion about its authenticity? Late in life, in an interview, she presents herself as a complete innocent manipulated by Marriott, and maybe that is right. It’s on record though, that she very strenuously avoided journalists’ demands for interviews with Helen Zenna Smith. Since she was usually not publicity-shy, maybe she had something to cover up. The book was an immediate huge seller, and Marriott made the most of it. There were girls in ambulances driving around London publicising the book. It was translated into French, Spanish, Dutch and German. It was published in America with the title Stepdaughters of War, and in France the book was awarded the Prix Severigne, as ‘the book most calculated to promote international peace.’
Just as Helen Zenna Smith was not really Helen Zenna Smith, Albert E. Marriott was not really Albert E. Marriott. He had many names, actually, but essentially he was a confidence trickster and petty criminal called Netley Lucas, who had spent much of his life in prison.
As a new publisher he was beginning to build an impressive list, but he was not honest. Evadne Price tells how he got hold of some Buckingham Palace notepaper and forged a letter saying he had the rights to Queen Mary’s memoirs. He used this to obtain a huge advance from from the Daily Mail, and then absconded. In view of this one has to wonder whether he obtained that large cheque from the Sunday paper by offering it not as a piece of historical fiction, but as a memoir of first-hand experience. He was later on trial for swindling a literary agent.
It was actually lucky for Evadne Price that he had failed to pay her anything; legally this meant that her copyrights still belonged to her, and did not go to his creditors. Her novel was republished by Newnes, with a cover that more definitely labelled it as belonging to the genre of fiction, not memoir.
Evadne Price later described Not So Quiet… as: ‘The first thing I wrote that ever made me money.’ and the cover of the sequel declared that the previous book had sold 20,000 copies.
There were four sequels in all, taking the fictional Helen into a peacetime that was at least as melodramatic and troubled as her war years.
She begins Women of the Aftermath as the wife of a man blinded and crippled by the war, who takes out his resentment on her. When she is attracted to another man, he commits suicide in order to cause her shame and humiliation.
After his death she gets into a life of postwar decadence, but ends the novel with anew obsession, flying aeroplanes.
At the start of Shadow Women she is once again brought low. An aeroplane crash has left her horribly scarred. She sinks lower and lower, until she ends up sleeping rough on the Embankment. She is rescued from this, but in later books she takes on the running of a hostel for homeless women. The series is as melodramatic as the imagination of Unity in that early story, and all the books are written in the same breathless, driving style, but they fearlessly take on current issues. The graphic descriptions of doss houses and night shelters pre-date the similar accounts in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and since the books were serialised in the People newspaper, they probably reached more readers than Orwell’s.
These Helen Zenna Smith novels produced diminishing returns, and her later career was varied. She wrote several more hardback novels, and from the thirties to the fifties ensured her income by regularly producing what she called ‘cheapies’, paperback novelettes on sale for a shilling or less. She claims to have written over 150 of these; each one took her a fortnight to write, and earned her £200. Here are some examples:
In 1939 she married Ken Attiwill, an Australian. (According to Jane Marcus, she told him that she had been born in 1901.) When he joined the Army, she became a war correspondent for the People newspaper. She met Eisenhower, covered the Nuremberg trials, and was the first woman journalist to enter the Belsen concentration camp. Attiwill became a prisoner of war in Japan , and was presumed dead for two years.
She kept on writing romantic fiction even while working as a war correspondent, since newspaper pay was not enough. and continued through the fifties. She became vice-president of the Romantic Novelists Association. New opportunities opened. In the early days of commercial television she impressed a producer with her psychic abilities, and started presenting short astrological spots in daytime television programmes. For many years she was the regular astrologer on the lunchtime musical and chat show, Lunchbox, with Noele Gordon.
Her broadcasts were light and chatty, and she referred to: ‘My humorous style of astrology’. Her catch phrase was “Think lucky and you’ll BE lucky!” For twenty-five years, she contributed monthly astrological articles to She magazine; a spin-off from this work was the book SHE Stargazes.
In 1976 she emigrated with her husband to Australia where he was born (and maybe she was born there too, though she claimed it was her first visit). She died in 1985, shortly after recording a picturesque but unreliable long interview about her career.
The story of Evadne Price raises interesting issues about twentieth-century literature. She disrupts some standard categories. Late in life she said: ‘I’ve written all kinds of novels. I just want to see if I can do anything.’ She wrote at least one novel that attracted serious highbrow acclaim; she wrote middlebrow romances; she dabbled happily in the lowbrow world of romantic novelettes, lunchtime television and astrology.
Not So Quiet… is a remarkable work, and yet it emerged from a dishonest publisher who implicated his author in a deception. It is unlike any actual memoir of women’s work during the war; these do not have the . turbulent, frenzied, distraught tone of Not So Quiet. Generally the authors present themselves as doing a worthwhile job whose consolations outweigh the terrible costs. And generally they are more ladylike. They do not have the same insistence on bodily functions as Price’s book. No doubt some of the very positive reception of this novel when it was republished in 1989 comes from its being the sort of book that some thought women should have written about the War. It is boldly explicit about horrors (‘a wagging lump of raw flesh on a neck, that was a face a short time ago’) and projects a strong 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 British soldiers are stupid victims of stupidity, ‘as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader’ This connected with what many at the time felt to be the truth about the First World War, and there was a desire for the book to be authentic, encouraged, unfortunately, by the back-cover description of the Feminist Press edition.
When Evadne Price took over Richmal Crompton’s voice and made Jane her heroine, she showed what a difference a switch of genders can make. The generally daft adventures of Jane manage to say a lot of truths about the position of girls in the 1920s and 1930s, and putting women into a Remarque style said things that the women themselves were perhaps unwilling to say.
And what is authenticity anyway? Evadne Price copied Remarque, but how authentic is All Quiet on the Western Front|? Edmund Blunden was dubious about the book’s veracity as an account of trench experience: ‘There were no officers, no trenches with names, no times or places.’ Siegfried Sassoon agreed. The book irritated him because it gave “no place names”, left “everything vague”. In the words of Modris Eksteins : ‘Considerable mystery surrounds Remarque’s war experience.’ He was wounded, but not in action, and possibly not very near the front. During the 1920s he suffered from depression, and fixed on the War as the cause and symbol of his state of mind. Eksteins suggests that: ‘All Quiet is more a comment on the postwar mind, on the postwar view of the war, than an attempt to reconstruct the reality of the trench experience. In fact, that reality is distorted, as many critics insisted.’
In a sense authenticity is irrelevant to literature. Shakespeare’s history was woefully one-sided; his history plays are superb. Both All Quiet and Not So Quiet… are good enough to stand alone as imaginative responses to the War.
Still, Eksteins’ comment suggests the way that we should read Not So Quiet…, too. Not as a first-hand account presenting ‘the real experience of […] female bodies in World War I.’ (Jane Marcus), but as one of those texts of the thirties in which writers who did not take part in the War presented their own versions of the conflict, inspired by the war books of combatants. One thinks of Noel Coward writing Post-Mortem after acting in Journey’s End; Or Sean O’Casey writing The Silver Tassie, which W.B.Yeats rejected for the Abbey Theatre as inauthentic, telling the author: ‘you never stood on its battlefields, never walked in its hospitals, and so write out of your opinions’; or C.S. Forester writing his wickedly effective attack on the ‘donkeys’ of GHQ in The General.
Much of the available biographical information about Evadne Price comes from her own accounts, and especially from the 1977 interview with Hazel de Berg, (to whom, at the age of eighty-one, or more probably eighty-nine, she seemed ‘a strong-minded, composed, effusive and somewhat arrogant old dear.’) During the interview she presents her life as a series of lucky accidents, chance encounters that led her into a new role: public speaker, war novelist, astrologer.
There is an echo of this in the self-presentation of ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ in the series of novels that feature her as both first-person narrator and apparent author. Chance flings her into new roles at every turn of the plot: ambulance driver; war bride; widow; decadent pleasure-seeker; flyer; casualty; destitute; street entertainer; ‘luxury lady’, and so on. Her various identities are marked by various names. She is Smithy among the ambulance drivers, then Helen Evans-Mawnington; Nello Neil; ‘Child of the Air’; ‘my little wife-precious’; Nell Smith, and ‘the woman with the scar’. With one exception, she is always uncomfortable within the role, very often feeling compromised, angry and unclean; it is only during her brief time as a flyer, above the ‘filth and lust and human foulness ‘ of the earth that she becomes a self that she wants to be:
Child of the Air. On and on. The air is my father and mother. The air loves me as no one has ever loved me… [….] I am clean again, clean as a little child…
The moral complications of pretending to be someone you are not are also foregrounded in the only one of Evadne Price’s later romantic novels that I have read. In The Dishonoured Wife (1951) the actress heroine goes on stage in the place of her identical twin sister, inadvertently supplying her with an alibi for murder. The plot (absurdly melodramatic, but very readable) spins a web of variations on the theme of disguise, pretence and authenticity. This was clearly a theme that intrigued Evadne Price.
When her mother created her imitations of someone else’s picture, Non Angli sed Angeli, she used the young Evadne to model all those innocent young children. The more I consider her story, the more I wonder – just how innocent was she?