By Beatriz Chantrill Williams
If you’ve taken the Eurostar between London and Paris, you’ve seen them: enclosed quadrangles of orderly white headstones, dropped apparently at random across the empty fields of Northern France.
Not random at all, of course. For much of its length between Paris and Calais, the main high-speed railway line runs along the old Western Front, that network of sodden trenches called home by millions of soldiers for most of the First World War. Nearly a century later, the cemeteries still mark its once-inexorable path southward.
It’s challenging to write outside the approved Scotland-Regency nexus of the historical romance genre, particularly when there are no vampires involved. But obsessions do not ask permission before taking over your brain, and the first two decades of the twentieth century – that churning crucible of the modern era – are mine. I can trace the origins of my fascination to a single book: Vera Brittain’s classic war memoir TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, which chronicles her journey from the golden sunset of the Edwardian age to the threadbare Thirties, when the book was published. Not that I made it that far, at least initially. For me, the book ended with the death of Vera’s fiancé, Roland Leighton, at the end of 1915.
Roland Leighton was something of a nonpareil, winning six of seven prizes awarded by Uppingham School to its graduating class (Greek Iambics the only miss, rot the chap) and leading the other boys as color-sergeant of the school’s Officers’ Training Corps, a near-mandatory service at the time. As if that weren’t enough, he woos Vera as much with his feminist principles as his knack for Latin hexameter. He fully supports her efforts to land a place at Oxford’s all-women Somerville College, “if,” as he writes, “I may be allowed to see something of you on the other side.”
But it’s August of 1914, and the bell has already tolled for their generation. Roland obtains a lieutenant’s commission in the Worcester Regiment, and Vera enlists as a nurse at the 1st London General Hospital. Their courtship is carried on mostly by letter: “Good night and much love. I have just been kissing your photograph,” Roland writes from the trenches in April 1915, to which Vera replies rather pointedly that she “env[ies] the photograph; it is more fortunate than its original.” Roland, ever-gallant, assures her that “[w]hen it is all finished and I am with her again the original shall not envy the photograph… But may it not perhaps be better that such sweet sacrilege should be an anticipation rather than a memory?”
He would not, in fact. Vera is thrilled to learn that Roland has secured Christmas leave, and goes about her duties – decorating the ward, making presents for the convalescents – with heady enthusiasm. The morning after Christmas, she receives word that she’s wanted on the telephone, and if you ever want to know how to break a reader’s heart in a few matter-of-fact sentences, here’s your primer:
“Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from [his younger sister] Clare; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me that he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd.”
So ends Part I, and it was fully a year before I was able to pick up the book again and read on. Vera recovered, eventually. After the armistice in 1918, she went back up to Oxford and finished her degree, going on to become a prominent peace campaigner and woman of letters, with several published novels to her credit. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, however, remains her best-known work; for that alone, she can perhaps be forgiven her implacable opposition to Britain’s role in the Second World War.
I have twice visited Roland Leighton’s grave, which inhabits a crossroads cemetery in the tiny village of Louvencourt in the Somme river valley, overlooked serenely by the standard Lutyens-designed Stone of Remembrance inscribed Their Name Liveth For Evermore. The place invites contemplation. It’s become proverbial, and a little too pat, to observe that the First World War ushered in the modern age; that a naïve and idealistic generation sacrificed itself for a world in which the word “intercourse” could no longer be said with a straight face. In fact, the years before the war teemed with social upheaval and hell-bent scientific advancement, with the clash of traditional and modern: as rich a setting for fiction as any Regency drawing room.
And for romance. Tenderness, yearning, conflict, suppressed passion: all these things leap from the pages of Vera’s memoir, and even more boldly in the diary and letters published after her death. (Romantics will be relieved to know that the longed-for snogging did, in fact, take place during Roland’s final leave – and on a moonlit sea-cliff, no less!) This is courtship firmly in the historical tradition, and if my every work of fiction represents a subconscious attempt to give Roland and Vera the emotional justice denied them in life, I guess I can live with that.♥
Beatriz Chantrill Williams does her best to resurrect the fallen mandarins of the First World War in her award-winning manuscript OVERSEA. She begs leave to remind acquiring editors that the highest-grossing movie of all freaking time was a love story set in 1912.
*The Long White Road is from Roland Leighton’s poem "Hédauville," written the month before his death.