My latest read for the Great War Theme read saw me ordering my first Honno Classic, who I had heard of but not really investigated before. Honno Classics reprint works by Welsh women writers that are no longer in print. There are several more titles on their list which I rather fancy ordering – but I have resisted so far.
The Great War theme read has brought several books my way, which acknowledge the dreadful sacrifice made by so many men and women during World War One, both on the western front and the home front, this novel though is different, this is a novel of war resistance. Eunice Fleet takes as its theme the treatment of conscientious objectors in World War One. Lily Tobias was the daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Poland and Jewish culture is featured to a small extent in this novel, but it is on the experience of her own brothers as conscientious objectors that she particularly draws in this novel.
Eunice Fleet is the rather spoiled daughter of a Cardiff industrialist. When her widowed father re-marries a much younger woman, Eunice is horrified, and sets herself against her young step-mother and the half-sister who eventually comes along. Eunice is quick to marry herself – when still very young, her young teacher husband; Vincent is a political being, who proved himself as a strong and fearless when he saved a young girl from drowning. However it isn’t long before Eunice and Vincent’s happiness is threatened by war, and Vincent is branded a coward when he refuses to fight. Eunice finds it hard to understand her husband, and struggling with the realities of being the wife of a C.O she is dragged along to pacifist meetings, where she meets other members of the Cardiff pacifist community. Vincent’s convictions mean he is unprepared to serve with any of the other non-combative services like ambulance drivers – and Vincent soon finds himself in prison. Eunice feels so disgusted by Vincent’s convictions and understands them so little, that she is led to take drastic action that will still be affecting her in the 1930’s – her eventual refusal to visit her husband having disastrous consequences. Some snippets of letters from Vincent during these awful times – when he suffered such horrible indignities and felt as if he had nothing left – are heartrendingly poignant. Eunice is not a very likeable character, her callous turning away from Vincent is just awful, her selfish disregard of what he was undergoing, and her concern for how other people might view her as the wife of a C.O. is quite sickening. Tobias’ depiction of society’s attitude to conscientious objectors in Cardiff at the time is superbly drawn.
“She walked about the streets of Taviton on the tenth, vaguely aware of commotion in the town. People were hurrying hither and thither, there was a block of vehicular traffic at an unexpected point, brazen music sounded, and something like the tail of a procession wound ahead. Troops marching through, perhaps. She did not look at passers-by or listen to their talk. She was afraid of being recognised. Her visit home was hedged with aversions, and she meant not to prolong it. “
In the 1930’s Eunice is a business woman, having part ownership in a women’s corsetiere, following her father’s death and the flight of her step-mother Eunice was unwillingly made her sister’s guardian. Living in Maida Vale, they have a housekeeper called Mrs Johns and the war and its consequences in Cardiff seem a long way away. Young Dorry a fairly selfish young girl – seeming to take after her mother – is often jealous of her beautiful elder sister. Out of the blue Eunice meets George Furnival again, a man who she once took to visit Vincent just before the time she stopped seeing him. Faced with her past in the person of George, Eunice starts to think of Vincent again in a more tender way, remembering fondly the young man she had fallen for, her guilt appearing to press down upon her. George Furnival, holds similar political views to those of Vincent allowing Eunice to face up to the truth of her actions. However Eunice isn’t the only one drawn to George.
The novel is told in three parts; the present – 1932, the past when young Eunice and Vincent come together only to be separated by his convictions, and the present again – with Eunice still living with the consequences of her actions and living in some conflict with her younger sister.
Eunice Fleet is a wonderfully moving and quietly devastating novel. I rather like reading about unlikeable complex characters – which may seem strange, but they are often more interesting shining a light on the darker side of human motivations. As a war novel, this is certainly very different – it tells an altogether different story, but one that is important and certainly needed to be told.