Women in Exile (1942) by Jean Ross

This wartime novel (written by Scottish author Irene Dale Hewson, but published pseudonymously) takes as its main subject the plight of women evacuees during the Second World War, with the concomitant theme of exile both implicitly and explicitly present throughout. Attention is focused away from the blitz-stricken capital (though London – and also Belfast – remain a key background presence), and instead concentrated on the lives of those whose experience has perhaps been a little less well-represented. Intertwined with this is the drama generated by the unfolding, often antagonistic relationships between the novel’s cast of characters. Prominent among these (and readers are obliged to overlook a general tendency towards caricature) is that between Belfast-born mother and daughter, Kathy Murdoch and Mair Hoolan. Having been bombed out of their home in Kensington, they are at last persuaded by Mair’s brother, Dermot, to take refuge in the recently-vacated rural home of one Nell Heron (a somewhat cold, cerebral figure), an arrangement arising from a recently struck-up friendship between Dermot and Nell’s husband Jack, who has recently enlisted in the RAF.

While Kathy spends a good deal of the earlier part of the novel contending with the influence of her domineering mother, as things progress it becomes clear that this is but half the battle. A pivotal moment is the death of Kathy’s baby daughter, Aline: the personal crisis provoked by this traumatic event turns out to be a key catalyst in bringing about Kathy’s eventual liberation (from her rather unremarkable husband, James; as well as from her mother). Following a moment of revelation in which she comes to realise the value of service to others (‘without which civilisation must perish’) Kathy arrives at her vocation as a trainee nurse, though it also becomes clear that her experience of the blitz has left its own psychological mark:

Kathy was glad that it was morning […] last night she could not sleep for fear, and it was not fear of the ‘planes that tormented her but her old childish fear of the unseen and strange, as if the shock of the raid had loosed the floodgates of the old dark terror and let it in…

As is true of other comparable fiction of the period, the author registers the remarkable, albeit terrifying uncanniness of the blitz experience, while in this case also hinting at further psychic encounters to follow. Yet it also becomes clear that the quietness and lack of distraction in Kathy’s new environment are less than welcome. The boredom and frustration of evacuee life are brought home by the author in clear (and surely recognisable) terms:

There was no escape from the war, the petty trivial restrictions and irritations of the war, the black-out that was worse than the bombs because poor crazy souls destroyed themselves in despair of ever perfecting it and the most hardy dreaded it, the rationing, the evacuees, the feeling, here in the country, of being out of it and yet tried by it; of doing nothing for the war effort except exercising a thinning patience.

It is interesting to note that, such was the timbre of the times, the author felt obliged to add the disclaimer that the latter point represented only the viewpoint of evacuees (rather than farmers or residents). Indeed, Ross’s sensitivity on this point (though somewhat clumsily expressed) perhaps gives something of a sideways insight into the nature of the relationship between the respective war efforts of town and country (something touched upon at greater length in, for example, A. G. Street’s Holdfast).

While the latter part of the novel sees the war theme itself somewhat sidelined in favour of depicting a burgeoning love affair between Kathy and Jack (who is subsequently killed in action), the core theme of exile as experienced by women in wartime is, towards the end, taken up again in explicit terms:

You must remember that in this war it is not only those who are doing the spectacular and dangerous work, those in uniforms of one sort or another who are helping the war effort, but also what I like to call the great forgotten army of women in exile, women like yourself, my dear, who for one reason or another are banished from their homes, their husbands, the work and the friends they love […] the government should have a campaign to tell these exiles that a very large share of the burden of keeping up the country’s morale depends on them…

If we are to take this as the novel’s essential ‘message’, such as it is, then it must be said that Mair’s excursion at the novel’s finale towards occultism, and her own newly-found vocation as professional medium lends a slightly bizarre and arguably superfluous element to a novel which otherwise offers an admittedly imperfect, but often subtle and persuasive account of its subject.

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