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Monday, January 18, 2010

THE LONG WHITE ROAD*

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.

The Great War was famous for that. Military tactics did not catch up with the destructive power of modern weapons until the war’s end, and while millions of ordinary soldiers were slaughtered under the spray of rapid-fire machine guns, the junior officers leading the sacrificial waves faced particularly bleak odds. Memorial tablets at Oxford and Cambridge overflow with their names: gifted scions of England’s finest families, mowed down in their idealistic thousands. (The war’s other belligerent nations, it should be said, fared just as tragically.) Vera was hardly alone in watching her brother, Edward, and nearly all of his school friends meet this fate, one by one; her gift was to bring alive their particular humanity among the millions killed, and no one more vividly than the first.

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?”

By the autumn of 1915, the tone has changed. Roland writes that he “feel[s] a barbarian, a wild man of the woods, stiff, narrowed, practical, an incipient martinet perhaps – not at all the kind of person who would be associated with prizes on Speech Day, or poetry, or dilettante classicism. I wonder… if I could ever waste my time on Demosthenes again.”

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.

5 comments:

  1. I loved that movie. I fought for that movie until a friend gave me a T-shirt: "The boat sank! Get over it!" But...I don't think I ever will. A terrific blog, B.C.W. Poignant, heart-braking and infuriating. Do we never learn? No wonder you're fascinated by the era...and the love story...and the train ride.

    Thanks.
    John

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  2. Beatriz - to have captured so poignantly, in such a short space, the heart-wrenching character of WWI is quite a feat. I, too, cannot understand why the "romance" industry eschews these incredibly powerful stories - because, unlike the rose-colored glasses renditions of the Regency and Scottish Highland romances, the juxtaposition of the monstrosity and horrors verus the bravery, loyalty, courage and love of the two World Wars is riveting.

    Thank you for sharing this particular book, author and her love. It reminded me of the power of life and love in wartime. Not to mention that your writing is lovely and evocative! I cannot wait to read more of your posts, as well as Oversea.

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  3. Beatriz,
    What a moving and beautifully written post! I, too, champion romances set in less "popular" historical periods. (I confess that I am not unbiased here; my soon-to-be-published novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, takes place during WWII.) The change in Roland's tone brings to mind the quote (I think from the movie "Platoon"): The first casualty of war is innocence.
    Thanks for an intriguing post and I look forward to reading Oversea.
    Lis

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  4. Thank you all! I do think the romance industry is in the habit of underestimating its audience, and that there's plenty of room for less-familiar settings and complex themes, so long as the emotional impact is there. Wartime is life writ large, pure catnip for writers: you can go for broke with character, plot and emotional intensity. (On the other hand, it does require discipline to keep the writing spare and let the story speak for itself!)

    In the coming months, I'll be blogging on other people and topics from the 1900-1918 period, so stay tuned!

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  5. Best of luck with your submissions to editors! With your passion for the era, I'm sure you'll find a home for your work:)

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