Fiona Joseph is a local author, one of four authors I have arranged to come and speak at the bookcrossing Unconvention (that’s unofficial convention) in September. I hadn’t read either of Fiona’s books and having both of them tbr – this novel appealed to me at once.
Often the butt of jokes Birmingham is in fact a fascinating city with an enthralling history – Fiona Joseph has really tapped into that history and brought it to life. I sometimes worry that novels set in Birmingham (and other places north of Watford) are only deemed (by publishers and the like) to be of interest to people from that place. I find that absurd – the whole world read books set in London and New York, why not Birmingham? If you have ever been to Cadbury’s World you will know the history of the factory and that the Bournville village created for the factory workers was a ground-breaking, life changing project in its time. I feel sure that the walls must be permeated with the stories of the men and women who worked there. Fiona Joseph has given us some of those stories with her novel Comforts for the Troops, and with her other book; a biography Beatrice: The Cadbury Heiress Who Gave Away Her Fortune – which I’ve heard excellent things of from Liz.
Comforts for the Troops, is a novel set in Birmingham during World War 1 – among the women who worked in the Cadbury factory.
“Leonora tried to control most things in life but she had to accept the weather and all its vagaries were beyond even her command. She smoothed the front of her cream pinafore – clean on that morning – and brushed down her sleeves, sharply tugging each cuff so that it lay against her wrist bone. She removed her cap and patted her hair in front of the mirror, twisting her head to check the bun firmly in place. An image of herself dressed in a green blouse, worn only by the works’ forewomen, came into her mind; quickly she shook the thought away.”
Housewife Jessie had left the Cadbury factory on her marriage to upholsterer Bill, however when Bill is injured in a factory accident, just before the outbreak of WW1 she finds herself feeling increasingly anxious about money. Bill’s recovery progresses slowly, and their savings won’t last forever. With the outbreak of war George Cadbury decides to allow married women back to the factory in place of the men who have joined up. Jessie returns to the Cadbury factory alongside other married women and very young girls, like Helen Daw who at fourteen is now expected to earn her way. Helen is a poor, nervous scrap – who under the Cadbury’s scheme of work, exercise and fresh air begins to thrive – but she is also tragically naïve and ill-equipped to cope when life treats her cruelly.
Leonora Lime is an unmarried woman who has worked at the Cadbury factory for years. She longs to wear the green blouse of the forewomen, and is eager to grab any chance she can to show her bosses her true leadership potential. Living alone in the house she once shared with her parents, Leonora spends Thursday evenings with the Baileys; neighbours who knew her growing up, with whom she shares all the news from the factory. Keen to impress, Miss Lime rallies the women under her to pack ‘comforts’ for the soldiers at the front.
Boxes filled with knitted items, chocolates and a handwritten note – sent to soldiers to show they are not forgotten back at home. Later Miss Lime encourages her workers to volunteer outside their working hours at a local hospital where injured soldiers are being brought to recover before being shipped back to the front. Several women including Jessie and young Helen Daw begin to spend time at the hospital, it sometimes means spending even less time at home – but it’s all in a good cause.
Factory worker Mary is a vivacious, seemingly care free young woman, about whom Leonora is quick to make assumptions, there has been gossip among some of the women about her young man. Leonora is dismayed to see Mary and Jessie – of who she has high hopes – becoming friends. Mary keeps her cards close to her chest; wanting only to help her beloved Daniel – desperate to find out where he is and how he is fairing – she enlists the help of a Friends Ambulance Unit Volunteer. Will Mary be able to save one fragile young man from his past and the realities of war? Mary comes up with an apparently hair brained scheme to find Daniel, takes Jessie into her confidence before heading off to France, while Leonora’s intentions to impress lead to a spectacularly humiliating misjudgement.
“The first quarter of 1917 was one of the coldest winters that region of France had ever experienced. Mary had known icy winters in Birmingham but this coldness was something else. It was like being bitten all over or having your limbs in vice. She rued the thinness of her nurse’s uniform and thought with nostalgia about the Works’ dressing room with its steel hot pipe and the metal cages where she could warm her boots.”
With her home life becoming more difficult, Bill – being cared for by his mother and a neighbour – is resentful of his wife working, and frustrated by his injuries – Jessie finds great fulfilment at the factory and in her volunteer work. Jessie’s marriage is severely tested as her horizons are broadened and she begins to realise her own potential, meeting new and interesting people. Jessie has her head turned, is tempted, confused by her feelings and the changes in her husband since his accident, still grieving for the babies she lost – when all around her seem to have children easily.
I love books set in Birmingham and I very much enjoyed this book, believable characters and compelling stories, featuring areas of Birmingham I know well I found it pretty hard to put down. A story of work, war love and friendship Comforts for the Troops is a novel that is an excellent portrayal of the work women did during the Great War – work that as the war ended was taken from them as abruptly as it had been doled out.