Available from Juliet’s blog.
According to ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon, ‘We That Are Left’ grow old.
A historical novel set in Cornwall during and after the First World War, Juliet Greenwood’s ‘We That Are Left’ is, I suppose, a sort of coming of age story, except that the main character, Elin, is a married woman. The plotline meanders but it’s there. Even at the beginning of the book, Elin is not happy with the way her husband, Hugo, a former Boer War soldier suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, marginalises her and generally treats her as a little girl. When the war comes, Elin is left to manage her estate, Hiram, by herself, and does so very well, with the help of pacifist, Jack Treece. Then Hugo returns home in 1918, with, as his manservant, the ghastly Connors, who has already tried to worm his way into their household several times.
Other characters include Lady Margaret Northolme, otherwise known as ‘Mouse’, although it is unclear why she is so called, as her character is the complete opposite of her name. Headstrong, not in the least interested in marriage, passionate about car driving and flying, Mouse heads off to the front, determined to see a bit of action, only she gets too much and pays a high price. The cast of characters is full of strong women – Alice the blue-stocking, Ida the divorced wife, Catrin the go-it-alone Welsh farmer – counter-balanced by what used to be called MCPs (Male Chauvinist Pigs), the latter not so convincing as the former. For me, Mouse’s father is too much of a old fart Victorian pater familias; there is no love there, no aristocratic toleration of eccentricity, and why is he so keen to get her married off, when she has no need to enter matrimony for money or position? Connors, however, is a wheedling, nasty villain, who enrages the reader every time his name appears on the page and every time he opens his mouth to make a contemptuous remark to Elin.
The strongest part of this work is the vivid scenes at the front, ruins and devastation all around, women demeaned by rapes, children – like eight year old, Lisette – left without a home or living family but clinging on to a scrawny puppy. Most colourful of all were the accounts of the guns shaking the field hospital, as nurses – and any other available helpers, like Elin – moved men with terrible wounds or men who are dying, into the basement for safety.
The English style, I didn’t really notice, which must be a Good Thing. What I was aware of, however, was that Juliet like to begin sentences with ‘But’ and ‘And’. Me too. It works. It makes sense. As someone who aspires to write historical fiction, I learned a lot, particularly about writing a historical novel, which is not a history book, but about characters living during a particular period. ‘We That Are Left’ is always Elin’s story, with whole parts of the War campaign not mentioned, which is as it should be. If I am to criticise, I would say that the attitudes of many of the characters, especially the women, are too twenty-first century, and the opinions prevalent at that time, on matters like pacifism and divorce, are glossed over. Surprisingly, votes for women, a truly burning issue at that time, is only raised once.
So would I recommend ‘We That Are Left’? Yes, of course.
Well, Dear Reader, you haven’t asked me about my New Year Resolutions again. I feel sensitive about these now, seeing as you pointed out how ambitious (er, unrealistic) they were. Do you remember number 9?