Stranger in the House was chosen by one of the two book groups I attend, a feminist book group, this book appealed for its focus on the stories of ordinary women living in extraordinary times. Julie Summers has written a number of non-fiction titles about aspects of the Second World War, including Jambusters which was made into a fictional Sunday evening drama serial here in the UK with the title Home Fires. This is a book which recounts the often untold stories of women’s lives during World War Two.
Julie Summers recounts these incredible stories using the words of many of the people involved. Extracts of letters and quotes from these women in old age, bring us their heart-breaking stories of loss, grief and disrupted lives.
“There it was. The woman had her work cut out. Hers was to be the responsibility to create a new homely order out of the mess left behind by six years of war. She would have to be patient, caring and loving but above all practical. She would not be able to take a well-earned rest or expect to have the burden of responsibility lifted from her shoulders. One wife, now in her nineties, commented to a neighbour: ‘When their war ended, our war began.”
The title of this book; Stranger in the House comes from the difficulty of men returning home after many years away in the war, lives were turned upside down. The men, who went out to war, were very often not the men who returned. It was largely the women who had to cope with these war-damaged men, keep the peace, soothe jealous, confused children, and feed men used to army rations on far more meagre stores.
“As Leonora Eyles and Norah C. James predicted in Woman’s Own in 1945, it was to a large extent down to the women to rekindle the home and take responsibility for ensuring that family life went back to normal after the war. As Margaret Wadsworth foresaw, the war had ‘hardened women’s hands and women’s hearts’ and it is clear from Juliet Curry, Janice Taylor and Lindsay Munro among others that their mothers, in becoming fighters and survivors, had become hardened. They found expressing affection and even approval difficult; admired and respected by their daughters, they were also feared. The word often used to describe their mothers is formidable and it masks a perceived lack of warmth. This is a legacy that is seldom mentioned and little understood.”
We hear from the wives, many of them very young, barely married long enough to call themselves married before their young husbands left to be swept up by the chaos and trauma of war. Some of these men returned intermittently – long enough to bestow children on their young wives, bringing a certain amount of disruption with them. Then they would leave again, more often than not, for very long periods of time. While their husbands faced untold horrors in Europe and the Far East, these young wives – often with small children to care for – had to live through the blitz, rationing, the interminable queues, factory work all with the constant worry of what their men might be suffering in the back of their minds. Women had learned to do many things they hadn’t had to do before, they coped, they juggled, and they learned independence and drew on enormous previously untapped reserves of strength. When the men returned, everything had to change again, and that was difficult for everyone, there appears to have been great reticence about talking as we are all encouraged to do now, silence allowed resentment and hurts to fester.
These two different sides of the wartime experience are in no way comparable, it is not as if we could ever say – the women had it worse, but they faced many hardships. We hear so much about the war-time, spirit – which always lends a certain romanticism to events which are now becoming yearly more remote from us here in the 21st century. Reading this book; it becomes clear, if there was any doubt; that there was nothing remotely romantic about this period. Lives were blighted, and the effects were still being felt, decades later. Many of the Far East prisoners of war, returned in such terrible physical condition, suffering extreme psychological damage – they quite simply never really recovered. Many wives and children spent the rest of their lives walking on egg shells. We hear the story of one woman, who married the man she had only gone out with for a short time before the war, not because she loved him, but because she told herself that she could dedicate her life to helping him, she couldn’t of course. Two lives ruined; two among so many others.
Many mothers had to raise their children alone when their husbands were killed; one woman found years later that she had been suspected by the villagers where she ended up living of having illegitimate children. Illegitimate children were born of course, many the products of affairs conducted while husbands were away fighting. Some of these marriages survived, some didn’t. Society changed at this period, sexual politics underwent a seismic shift. Young people were impatient they didn’t know what would happen, no one wanted to wait around to see if relationships would work out – they just went for it – and who could blame them.
“For over sixty years families have dealt with the fallout from the Second World War. This book has traced the stories of women who felt it was time to tell their side of the story. For some it has been a cathartic experience, for others it was an opportunity to reassess the effects that the war had, and continues to have, on their lives. It has also, necessarily, dwelt on the returning men’s story.”
In telling the stories of the women of Britain in World War Two, Julie Summers also tells the stories of their men, recounting the horrors they endured, particularly in the Far East, but behind each of these men there was someone at home waiting, a mother, a girlfriend, a wife, a child. The stories of so many strong, brilliant, sometimes damaged women are told in this book, Kitty, Alice, Lillian, Mollie and others, women who like their men, remained silent for decades about the realities of their lives. They suffered loneliness, violence, poverty and loss and in telling their stories, they remind us what a price their generation paid, so that we could live as we do.