I wonder how many people have actually heard of Betty Miller, possibly not many, which is a tragedy. Of the seven novels she published during her lifetime, only one is currently in print – Farewell Leicester Square re-issued by the marvellous Persephone books. I am constantly saddened by the number of wonderful women writers of the past no longer in print. Betty Miller is an exceptionally good writer, her prose is delightful, but it is her assured portrayal of really quite complex characters – both male and female that I find particularly impressive.
During the Second World War Betty Miller’s husband was commissioned as a Major in the RAMC – a war office posting which lead Betty to write On the Side of Angels in 1944 – although due to a paper shortage it wasn’t published until 1945. The novel looks at how the lives of men were changed with the coming of war, and how the women in their lives had to change and re-assess their roles. The balance between civilian and non-civilian is a delicate one in this story of the psychological effects of war on both men and women.
“Along the main road, where a row of telegraph-poles with white china florets looked like giant hyacinths, came a group of men in khaki. They walked at a leisurely pace, talking together, the smallest on the far side leading a bicycle by the handle-bars. “There they are, now,” Claudia said. ‘ And coming from the hospital too, like good boys…’ she grinned ‘it seems we misjudged them’
‘Oh’ Honor said ‘but – look-look- look who’s –‘ Her voice seemed to retract in her throat: it was extinguished. Foolishly (for of course it was mere foolishness, Colin always said so), every sense in her body seemed to shrink. She looked about her, as if seeking a way of retreat, some cover that would mitigate the enormity of her presence on the bridge at that moment.
Claudia too had seen. The gold braid, the tabs: more unmistakeable, the characteristic stooping gait. ‘The C.O’ she said in a startled voice.”
In Betty Miller’s novel the RAMC hospital in the village of Linfield occupies a unique position, much against the village’s wishes the hospital dictates everything that goes on. The war has changed people, by the mere donning of a bit of khaki personalities are altered. Honor Carmichael and her two young sons have been uprooted to Linfield, living in rented accommodation, while Honor’s husband Colin; a former small town doctor, is stationed at the RAMC hospital.
“Don’t forget the Prisoners of Peace – the people who’ve had to live battened down, all their lives, pretending to conform, pretending to be what they aren’t. And that applies to most of us”
The hospital has become the focus of the whole village, uniformed officers to dance with and gossip over – the post office girl nicknamed Ginger Rogers (real name Ivy) a particular favourite with some. The hospital is also the scene for various power games and petty feuds, directed, in part at least by the C O Colonel Mayne – a manipulative man who barely tolerates the wives and children of his men. Colin is a little too enamoured of his C O putting his concerns above those of his family, desperate to impress. Along with many other men, Colin is able to almost live the life of a bachelor in this new uniformed society. At home Honor quietly submits to this way of life, running the house and caring for her little boys, while trying not to irritate Colin’s C O with her presence. A new favourite at the hospital is commando Captain Herriot who’s green beret turns the heads of both men and women.
Honor Carmichael’s sister, Claudia, arrives to stay, as the school where she teaches has been relocated from London. Claudia is engaged to Andrew, a solicitor recently invalided out of the army. Andrew’s discharge threatens to rock the already delicate balance of their relationship, as a man out of uniform is invisible – and Claudia has engaged herself to the uniform as Andrew cynically reminds her.
As I have already stated I think Betty Miller’s writing is superb, and although I really loved Farewell Leicester Square, I think I liked this one even more. I really need to locate more of Betty Miller’s work, although I am not supposed to be buying books at the moment. Thank you Jane for sending me this as part of my Librarything Virago group secret santa parcel.