On being a woman and a war historian

This one has been a long time coming. I began writing it back in March, in response to the BBC’s multi-platform debate over Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. I had been invited to take part, rather late in the day, but was unable to go as I had to prepare for my son’s fifth birthday party the following day. But, in between icing a castle cake and preparing knightly party bags, I tried to follow the Twitter discussion. I didn’t manage to engage with all, or indeed a great amount of it, but one thread of commentary did catch my attention. Someone commented on the lack of women on the television panel, starting a discussion which led eventually to the comment that, even if women had been invited to participate in the discussion, they would have been asked to speak about ‘women’s issues’.

This discussion got me thinking about the question of the place of female historians of the First World War in the public commemorations of the war. Because, despite efforts to the contrary (and yes, I have been invited to take place in broadcasts because the producers were looking for a female voice), the impression has certainly been given that female expertise is either to be ignored or to confined to seemingly appropriate ‘women’s’ topics. The most egregious example of this was the throw-away comment made by Kate Adie while publicizing her television programme on women’s roles in the war about the lack of female historians of the war other than Barbara Tuchman. But it was also reflected in the panel assembled for a debate chaired by Nicky Campbell where the only two women were Bonnie Greer (not a historian but clearly brought in to give a non-European and ethnic minority perspective) and Professor Maggie Andrews, brought in to speak about women and the home front.

Kate Adie was, of course, wrong, deeply and profoundly wrong. There are a huge number of superb female historians in Britain and across the world, within the academy and without, researching, writing and teaching about the First World War. Indeed, such is the breadth and depth of expertise that I was able to put together an entire day-and-a-half-long workshop on a relatively niche subject last year with only one male speaker. But Professor Andrews’ presence on The Big Question panel, while it helps to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Adie’s comment, is also misleasding. Yes, women work on nurses (such as Alison Fell, Christine Hallett) and the home front (Karen Hunt, Susan Grayzel). But the leading naval historian of the war of my generation is a woman (Laura Rowe) and there are women working on the memory of the war in Australia (Jenny Macleod), the international history of the war (Heather Jones, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Margaret Macmillan) and operational history (Aimee Fox-Godden), to name just a very small selection. Outside of the academy, women such as Kate Vigurs and Jo Hook are working as battlefield tour guides, introducing a new generation to the landscape and material culture of the war as effectively as any of their male counterparts.

And what of my own field? Gender history is notoriously female-dominated, unsurprisingly perhaps given its intellectual and political origins in women’s history. It might seem the archetypal ‘women’s’ subject. Yet key theorists and practitioners in the history of masculinity, particularly in relation to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have often been men. In terms of the first world war, Michael Roper’s work remains a hugely important reference point for my own. Similarly, in social history, Catriona Pennell and Adrian Gregory have both written excellent and important books on British society during the war. The gender of the scholar is beside the point and limiting our reading of a particular approach to one set of voices can only serve to diminish debate and, ultimately understanding.

So dividing facets of the history of the war into men’s and women’s history is a pointless exercise. Both men and women are writing excellent history on all aspects of the war, both those seen as traditionally male spheres and those more often associated with female scholars. Yet the tendency to thinking in this dichotomous way remains. The assumption is that gender brings a particular perspective to understandings of the history of war in particular. All historians bring their own personal history to their research and practice, reflected in the stories of why they became historians in the first place – because they were fascinated by the grandparents’ stories of the past, because they visited a castle and were fascinated by what they saw. What is interesting is the number of stories of male historians which relate to childhood practices of gender construction, more specifically playing war games, of which this blog is only the most recent example in relation to the First World War. Graham Dawson and Dan Todman, for instance, have both written about how their boyhood experiences of the pleasure culture of war shaped their interest and approach to the subject.

Interestingly, I have yet to come across a female historian who has made the same connection to their own upbringing. Certainly, growing up in the United States in the 1980s, in a culture dominated as much by GI Joe as by Barbie, I don’t recall engaging in war games and if I did it wasn’t a spur to my interest in the history of the war. At risk of buying in to gender essentialism, does this matter? Am I less able to fully engage in the history of war because I did not engage with a particular form of gendered acculturation as a child due to being of the other sex? On the surface, the answer to these questions is obviously ‘no’, but I was once told by a former soldier that I couldn’t write about the history of masculinity in war because I wasn’t male and I had never been in the military. While the first point has the merit of being accurate (I am not male), the second seems besides the point. Most male scholars of the First World War today have not been in the military, yet they may be judged as experts in their subject. On the flip side, there also seems to be a powerful cultural assumption that (some) women will have a particular relationship to the history of war through their role as mothers of sons, as illustrated in Lisa Jardine’s recent ‘A Point of View’ essay on BBC Radio 4, a position which sidelines women who aren’t either mothers or who are mothers of daughters (I can think of several examples of both who are very fine historians of the First World War.)

So what does it mean to be a woman and a war historian? The honest answer is I don’t really know. Perhaps I can bring a dispassion to the subject unavailable to scholars whose approach is shaped, however subliminally, by their memories of playing soldiers as children. Or maybe I bring the emotional heft of imagining how I would feel if it were my small son who might one day have to fight. What I do know is that these perspective complement those of colleagues who can imagine that they, or their younger selves, might have been called on to face the guns due to their sex, or who can analyse with greater dispassion the impact that large numbers of grieving mothers might have on society.

As I say, we all bring our own histories, including our subjective constructions of gender, to our historical practice. Which is why it is important not only that we note and acknowledge that women have written and are writing the history of the First World War, but also that we don’t categorise their writing simply as a category of ‘other’. How I embed this in my own practice as a woman writing the history of the First World War is something I am still working on and probably will be for the rest of my professional life. As I say, this post has been a long time in coming.

Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

Some more about footnotes

Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War finished its four-part broadcast on BBC 1 last week.  Billed as the BBC’s flagship centenary programme, and the starting point for its commemorative activities, which now appear to reaching fever pitch in advance of the launch of the regional and online World War One at Home project, despite it only being February, the programme was a bit of a curate’s egg, although one that, on the whole, I enjoyed.

Four hours to cover the entire course of the First World War, principally from the perspective of the British ‘home front’, although with bits and pieces about the Western Front tucked in as well, is not a lot, and many topics were, inevitably, simplified or simply omitted.  To some extent, this doesn’t matter.  The BBC has, as it keeps informing us, over 2,500 hours of programming devoted to the war planned for the centenary years and many of the topics, including the global reach of the war, the relationships between Britain and her allies and even straightforward military history will, doubtless, be dealt with elsewhere and in more detail.

Other aspects were more troubling.  Choosing to focus, often in some detail, on particular topics ended up giving an oddly skewed impression. Shell shock and facial disfigurement, currently vying for the status of symbolic wound of the war, were by no means the only life-altering medical conditions that men survived with, yet there was no mention of disease, amputation or the long-term affects of gas.  Fronts beyond the Western Front had little impact on this narrative of war, despite their impact on the consciousness of the British population at the time. And the limiting of the discussion of the importance of letters to a brief section on the postal system and the perspective of a single officer on the process of censoring letters was, for me as someone who has worked extensively on the letters men wrote home, extremely reductive.

Which brings me to the real problem I had with the programme, which has at its hearts a fairly fundamental contradiction.  Paxman has gained many plaudits for his authoritative and, on the whole, sensitive presentation of a range of material which was new to many viewers and which reflected many of the more cutting-edge and original arguments made in recent years by academic historians.  He also interviewed a number of people, most memorably the centenarian Violet Muers, whose eye-witness account of the German bombardment of Hartlepool made for powerful television.  But not one of these interviewees was a professional historian, a deliberate decision on the part of the producers who wanted to use the programme to emphasize familial connections between the war and their audience.

This in itself is not a problem.  As programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have shown, family connections to the past make for good television and are a powerful way of connecting contemporary audiences to history.  It is the attempt to combine cutting-edge historical arguments with the perspective of the interested descendent that creates issues.  Because the overall effect was to invest all the authority for the arguments made entirely in Paxman himself.  And while he is an authoritative figure, and I can well believe read widely around the subject and come to his own conclusions about what points to make, he is not, in fact, the historian who has undertaken the research that backs so many of the claims he made over the course of the programme.

Some of that research has been done by programme’s historical adviser, Adrian Gregory, who published The Last Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2008), an excellent piece of social history that is both scholarly and accessible and which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. Presumably the interested audience member would be able to pick Adrian’s name from the credits and track down his publications if they wanted to read more about the subject.  But Adrian’s is not the only original research to influence Paxman’s arguments.  David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990), Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon and London, 2005), Michael Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2009) and, most recently of all, Laura Ugolini’s Civvies: Middle-Class Men on the English Home Front (Manchester University Press, 2013) all contributed to at least some part of the argument being made.  And these are simply the works that spring most immediately to mind, reflecting as they do my own particular research interests. With greater concentration (and rather more time at my disposal), I suspect I could compile a further reading list of recent scholarly research so extensive as to be potentially daunting to an undergraduate, let alone a curious but not obsessive Monday night television viewer.

The problem this highlights is the fact that, as there are no footnotes on television, how do professional historians (both academic and otherwise) working on the history of the First World War ensure that their work is properly acknowledged?  Many have spent a great deal of time and effort, not to mention funds, sourcing and interpreting the primary source material, as well as formulating the arguments that Paxman so authoritatively deploys.  For academic historians, this work forms the basis of their professional reputations and the intellectual capital that they deploy to make a living.  As such, that work needs to be recognised not simply by specialists but, if those arguments are going to be deployed more widely, then by all those who are making use of them.  This is not merely good manners; it is the very foundation of intellectual exchange and honesty.  But how to do this in a way that is both engaging to a broad non-specialist audience and is fair to researchers remains something that needs urgently to be discussed.  I have been mooting the idea of topic-specific further reading lists to be publicised alongside future programmes, but who compiles these and how their time is paid for remains an open question.  Equally problematic, from the perspective of engagement, is the ethics of recommending books that may have cover prices beyond not merely the interested individual but also the cash-strapped local library.  The Cambridge History of the First World War may be one of the most important recent publications on the subject, but at £90 a volume (£240 for all three), it is hardly going to have a wide circulation beyond university and other specialist libraries.

There is also the related problem in the BBC’s apparent fear of historians as specialist commentators, at least in relation to its most prominent offerings on the First World War.  While BBC 2 and BBC 4 television both seem willing to interview historians as specialists, BBC 1 so far prefers to use Paxman, Kate Adie and Dan Snow for almost all commentary related to the First World War.  Regional radio, working in partnership with the AHRC, has made extensive use of specialist historical knowledge in producing the World War One at Home project. It remains to be seen how the programme is received more widely, but as a researcher and contributor it has, to date, been a positive and highly informative experience.  Yet Woman’s Hour has run a number of features on First World War topics (including Edith Cavell and the aftermath of the war) with no input from historians, despite there being not merely experts but indeed female experts in these fields who might have added useful perspective.* And the major on-line offering, the interactive guides to various aspects of the war, are predominantly fronted by either media personalities or those with contemporary professional interests in the subject, with historical expertise usually tucked away at the end.**  This is the most public and accessible display of historical knowledge of the war that the BBC is providing, yet the role of the historian in all of this is too often hidden and unacknowledged.  This is troubling given that most historians are fundamentally communicators, interested in ensuring that other people know about the work they do and the stories that they uncover.  And many are not only presentable but are capable of learning the skills necessary to engage with a popular audience.  Indeed, in the current academic climate, with its emphasis on impact and engagement, many are not merely willing but feel compelled to do so, whether through formal media training or less formal practices including blogging.

None of this, of course, is new or specific to the centenary of the First World War, or even to the popular media.  Recent impassioned blogs by Matt Houlbrook and Lesley Hall point to the pervasiveness of the potential for mistreatment and exploitation of academics, particularly early-career researchers, by both the media and well-known established historians (and their publishers).  For historians of the First World War, however, this centenary moment presents both a challenge and an opportunity, to ensure not only that our research, in all its originality, is made accessible to a wide audience, but that we gain due credit for we have done and are doing, both those of us who choose to work directly with media outlets and those who do not.  There are no easy answers as to how we do this, but the moment to have the discussions is too opportune to be missed.

In the meantime, I will start compiling my further reading list, to be posted on here at a later date.  Please do get in touch if there is a particular volume that you think should have been cited in relation to Paxman’s programme (preferably with a note as to the bit it relates to) and I will make sure it is included.

*The special extended programme on 5th February made excellent use of Professor Joanna Bourke and Professor Maggie Andrews as commentators, but again, Kate Adie and Baroness Shirley Williams were the guests who names featured most prominently in the publicity.

**Honourable exceptions here are Gary Sheffield and Sam Willis.

Tears, idle tears

Never let it be said that the BBC’s flagship television programme marking the centenary of the First World War, Britain’s Great War, has had no impact on academic research. Following a flippant comment on Twitter, in response to Jeremy Paxman’s description of members of the British cabinet crying at the outbreak of war, I seem to have rather publicly committed myself to writing an article on British soldiers crying during the First World War.

This is actually slightly less ambitious and out of left field than it might first appear. I have a number of examples of men crying, and commenting on crying in relation to their masculine sense of self, while at the front. I am also actively looking for examples of men showing emotion through tears in hospital. These are examples of men crying as a response to fear or to pain. Following from André Loez’s article in Macleod and Purseigle (eds.), Uncovered Fields: Perspectives in War Studies (Brill, 2004), on French soldiers’ tears, I suspect there are also men who cry out of grief and relief/joy.  I would love to find more examples of these, so if anyone comes across any, please do let me know.

I have also been working my way through quite a lot of literature on the history of emotions, as I try to work out my theoretical and methodological approach to the study of masculine subjectivity, something that has definitely changed since I published my book five years ago.  This is a fascinating and complicated subject that I will be posting about at greater length in the near future.  Having a discrete, concrete project to work on that allows me to put a mass of theory into some sort of practice should be quite a useful discipline.  I have always been the sort of researcher who needs to write as she goes, if only to keep my ideas in order.

So I will keep hunting for examples of men whose stiff upper lip trembled far more often than we might believe, and work at locating them in the context of the history of emotions in wartime.  Thank you, BBC and Twitter, yet another job to add to my list!

An apology

For any regular readers of this blog (yes, I mean you, Mum), I apologise for the lack of posts over the last couple of months.  November was wildly busy; December has so far been spent catching up with all the things I neglected to do in November; and now, with only one working day left before Christmas, I am getting seriously demob happy, which means reading is taking precedence over writing as a way of getting anything done.

If anyone is eagerly anticipating more random First World War thoughts, please be assured I am working on a response to David Mitchell’s column about poppies and I am also fighting a battle with some new ideas about gender, subjectivity and cultural history that are emerging from that reading that I mentioned.  If I ever manage to work out an even mildly coherent intervention on the subject, that too will be on here.

In the meantime, I leave you with an early Christmas present, gleaned from yesterday’s edition of Radio 4’s ‘A Cause for Caroling’, on the origins of the celebration of Nine Lessons and Carols.  I had not previously realised that King’s College, Cambridge service, probably the most famous version due to its international broadcast by the BBC, was first held on Christmas Eve 1918 at the instigation of Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College and a former army chaplain who had seen service in the First World War.  As part of the service that he adapted, from an earlier one created by Edward White Benson when he was Bishop of Truro, Milner-White wrote a new bidding prayer that was described in ‘A Cause for Caroling’ as ‘the last war poem’.  It was with the words of that prayer that yesterday’s programme ended:

‘let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.’

Merry Christmas.

A Final Parade

Yes, I know it is over a week since the final episode of Parade’s End was broadcast.  I won’t go into the reasons why I haven’t had a chance to see it before this weekend, except to say that infant sleep patterns were definitely involved.  But I did, finally, watch it, so here are my concluding thoughts on programme.

Let me start by saying that I thought they did a pretty decent job of the trench scenes.  The scene in the dugout with the C.O. was particularly brilliant, capturing the surreality of the war that I think has tended to get lost in more recent representations of the war.  Since Blackadder Goes Forth the tendency has been to merge surreality and satire – the war is mad therefore we must mock it.  This was just pure surreality, without point or purpose, and all the more moving for it.

There was one major source of irritation for me, however, and that was the depiction of the stretcher bearers who appeared twice, once with an empty stretcher, once with an injured man on board.  In both instances the stretcher was carried by two men, one at each end, the typical image of stretcher bearers in the war, you might say.  Except it must be born in mind that First World War stretchers were immensely heavy objects made of wood and canvass, not the lighter metal ones that were used in later conflicts.  They were a struggle to carry empty; loaded with the dead weight of an injured man, usually wearing his heavy clothing and gear, they needed a minimum of four men (one at each corner) and in heavy going like Ypres in 1917 required six.  In fact, as George Swindell, an R.A.M.C. stretcher bearer, noted on several occasions in his memoirs, untrained bearers (those not in the R.A.M.C.) almost always carried six to a stretcher because they didn’t have the practice and training to do so more efficiently.  In the front line, stretchers would be carried by regimental bearers, infantry men told off for stretcher duty from front line to Regimental Aid Post (RAP), rather than R.A.M.C. bearers who generally carried men from the RAP to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).  So in Parade’s End there should have been at least two and most probably four additional bearers for that loaded stretcher for authenticity.  Now that directors seem to be more willing to show the trenches as angled rather than straight, I am starting a new campaign to get them to employ the appropriate number of bearers in their films!

Despite the bearer problem there were brilliant moments in this episode. The scene describing Tietjens, McKechnie and Perowne going up to the line was a masterclass in succinct and spot-on dramatic adaptation, and Roger Allam’s face at the very end, when Sylvia propositions General Campion was perfection.  Allam has been a revelation throughout, and this moment was beautifully done.

I did, however, have some broader reservations.  I’m not sure the final scene worked.  It was too slow and the music too sentimental to capture the sheer joy and relief that book evokes.  There is a tendency to forget  that, behind the lines, the reactions of many, particularly the young, to the Armistice were euphoric, even bacchanalian in some instances. (Dan Todman has an excellent discussion of this, and its cultural impact, in The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon & London: 2005)). Ford captures the immense sense of release beautifully in the final pages of A Man Could Stand Up -. Stoppard and White, I think, lost some of that by sexing the scene up and slowing it down.

I am also in two minds over the wisdom of the decision of simply eliminating The Last Post from the adaptation.  Given Ford’s own later reservations about the novel, and the immense difficulties that I imagine would be involved in adapting the most difficult of the four novels, it probably does make sense.  But I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Christopher and Valentine at this point in their story.  It did feel a little incomplete.

So, in the end, an excellent adaptation beautifully acted but with some problems inherent to any dramatic adaptation of a superb set of novels.  Now I just have to make the time to reread the books…

Parade’s End Again

Well, Downton Abbey is back on our screens. No, I haven’t watched the opening episode yet. My daughter has taken to waking up at 5:45 in the morning so I am currently retiring no later than 10 pm in self-defence. (You will probably start to notice a pattern in the interface between my home life and work revolving around the theme of sleep. Ah, the joys of motherhood!) Anyway, a review of the new season will have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest. In the meantime, I thought I would write a bit more about why I think Parade’s End is such a superb representation of the First World War.

After a great deal of thought, my primary conclusion is that the drama has had the good sense to stay out of the trenches for so long. Other than the glimpse at the end of the second episode (and arguably the brief scene in the slightly too quiet Casualty Clearing Station), all the action has been set firmly behind the lines, whether in England or Rouen. This is not to say that the war hasn’t been evident, but it has been beautifully subtle – the presence of a lorry of soldiers in the background, uniforms mingling with civilian dress, the female railway porter. Yes, the clichés are there – the clueless civilians for whom horses matter more than the lives of men, the general in his chateau behind the lines (although all the men are behind the lines as well at this point), the dangers of bombardment (with air raids substituting for artillery) – but shown in such a way as to demonstrate why they have become clichés. The myth of the war has its basis in reality. By allowing the mythic elements of the war narrative to emerge organically as the background to the story, rather than bludgeoning us over the head with them, this dramatization of a work of fiction demonstrates the complexity of the historical truth that First World War historians have been uncovering for a while now. Yes, there is a strong sense of disenchantment with the pettifogging rules and obsessions of the military with cleanliness (a theme that is very familiar from the numerous letters and memoirs that have formed the bulk of my research to date). And there is horror and pity and fear, particularly in evidence in the death of Oh Nine Morgan, but such emotions are only part of Christopher’s story. There is no disillusionment, at least not disillusionment with why he is fighting. Groby and Michael and above all Valentine, even the formal propriety of his marriage are still implicitly worth fighting for. And if they are not it is because they have already been undermined by social hypocrisy that predates the war, not simply because of his experience of warfare.

Much of this, of course, is inherent to the narrative. In my Everyman copy of the tetralogy the entire time in the trenches takes up 110 pages out of a total of 906. The focus of the novels is on the sense of continuity that Christopher embodies and the stresses that modern life place on his seventeenth-century rectitude. It is in choosing to remain loyal to this theme rather than attempting to shoe-horn the books into a more familiar understanding of what makes a First World War novel that this production is such a triumph.

All of which made me think of the BBC’s other big First World War adaptation this year. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 novel about the war, was adapted by Abi Morgan and broadcast in January to a good deal of acclaim. As with any television adaptation, some aspects of the book had to be sacrificed to the time scale, here two hour-and-a-half long episodes. Morgan removed an entire subplot concerning a young woman researching her family history, an editorial decision that worked well in creating narrative coherence. However, she also chose to seriously underplay another subplot concerning the relationship between the sapper Jack Firebrace and his son, John, who dies of diphtheria during the course of the novel. It does get a brief mention but has nowhere near the emotional impact that it has in the novel where it beautifully illustrates the continuing relationship between home and fighting fronts that was so powerful a motivation for men to fight and continue fighting. Instead, the television play’s narrative chooses to focus on the disjunction between a golden idyll of passion in prewar France and the mud, blood and horror of the trenches in the same geographic area six years later. The war is a space solely of horror and disillusion and the only motive for fighting is the sense that the protagonist has nothing left to live for. This is the more traditional view of the war dramatized by many modern war novels, yet as a narrative it is much less powerful than that of Parade’s End. So while I enjoyed Birdsong (and thought that Joseph Mawle was excellent as Firebrace), it had nothing like the effect on me that Parade’s End is having. Whether that will continue to be true next week, when Tietjens actually enters the trenches, remains to be seen.

(I do realise that I got a little ahead of myself in my last post in saying that this past week’s episode dramatises A Man Could Stand Up -. It was, of course the second half of No More Parades, which means we are going to get very little, or a highly truncated version, of Last Post, which is a pity. As I say, there are always sacrifices to be made in adapting for television.)