The Head Girl at the Gables by Angela Brazil (1919) is available for free download at Gutenberg.org.
I chose this book for the The WWI Challenge for several reasons. I already had it on my e-reader, along with a number of others by the same author. I needed to read an English school story as research for a panel at Arisia (held in January). This particular book is interesting because it has some character overlap with another Brazil novel, Monitress Merle. Finally, the novel has more explicit references to World War One than I’ve yet encountered in her work.
The book was published in 1919, which leads me to think it was written while the war was still going on. In the story itself, it isn’t clear how far along the war has progressed–there’s no specific reference to years or events–but it had to have been after gas was introduced as a weapon, because at one point the students are collecting “fruit-stones and nuts, to be sent to headquarters for use in the manufacture of gas-masks for the army.”
The tone overall is one of patriotism and optimism, perhaps more due to the book’s genre than the mood of the country when it was written. Or perhaps the tone is aspirational. When a peripheral character is reported killed in action, there’s grief, but it’s nobly restrained. “Lindon, their one treasured boy, had “gone west”. Well, other mothers had given their dearest and best! She would offer him gladly, joyfully, on the altar of Britain’s glory! But her face seemed to grow suddenly shrunken, and the high colour faded from her cheeks, leaving a network of little red veins instead.”
The sentiments expressed in the school year’s opening speech are exemplary of WWI-era rhetoric:
At this crisis in the world’s affairs we don’t want to bring up ‘slackers’. Your fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins have answered their country’s call and gone to defend Britain’s honour, and you have been proud to see them go. The women of the Empire have played their part as nobly as the men, and it is these brave and splendid women whom you must try to imitate. Do you think they would have been able to give the help they have given to their country unless they had prepared their characters for it beforehand? I’m sure not…We hope it is going to be a beautiful world when the war is over, but it can only be so if we remember the sacrifices that have been made, and determine to be worthy of those who gave up everything for us.
Throughout the story, life goes on. The heroine, Lorraine, is elected Head Girl at the novel’s opening and spends the novel learning how to manage her duties as well as the personalities of the other students. In addition, she finds a mentor and begins to discover her own life’s passion, art. All the while, the War is a backdrop. Two of her brothers are at “the front, in the thick of the fighting” and another is “in training for the Air Force.” There’s also a subplot of spies who have infiltrated the sleepy, artistic English village setting. It’s apparently okay to complain about rationing. “In these days of rations there’s never even a scrap of margarine to spare, let alone butter!” and
“…home-made chocolate concocted with cocoa and condensed milk. Like most war substitutes, it was not so good as the real thing…”
What I like best about this novel is its hints of feminism. The main characters are almost all female, and they’re all active in the war effort as well as in their education. The school’s head quotes Nellie McClung in her opening speech of the year: “A nation never rises higher than its women.” Ultimately, the story has a Victorian tone, though. At the novel’s end, there’s a hint of the “angel in the house” idea when the main male character confesses to Lorraine, “I’ve been a fool, Lorraine. I’m going to start a fresh page, and try to be worthy of my best friends. I simply can’t express what I owe you. You’re the sort of girl that keeps a fellow straight–some women send them on the rocks. When I think of you, I think of everything that is true and good.”
“I’m not much to boast of, I’m afraid,” said Lorraine humbly, “but I’m trying–trying hard, like many other people who are a great deal better, and nicer, and sweeter tempered than I am.”
That scene does not defeat, however, the scenes throughout of girls who make art and uncover enemy activity.
Overall, this was a fun read for me.