Book Review: A Long Long Way

Long Long Way

“And all those boys of Europe born in those times … their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life”

A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry, is the story of one young man’s experience of the First World War. It is a harrowing and relentless account of close to four years spent in or around the bleak trenches that were dug along the front line of battle, along with the effects of the horrific experiences witnessed and acted upon by those men who managed to survive another day.

The story opens at the end of the nineteenth century when William Dunne was born in the City of Dublin. His family hailed from Wicklow where his grandfather had worked as Steward on an aristocratic estate. His father was a superintendent in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. They were loyal to the King and Ireland as it was then. They accepted the order of things and decried those agitating for Home Rule.

Willie Dunne was expected to follow his father, to become a fine policeman, and disappointed them all when he failed to grow to the requisite six feet in height. By the time he turned seventeen there was a war raging in Europe. Good Catholic families such as his, only living in Belgium, were suffering unimaginably due to the actions of the murderous cowards they knew the Germans to be. If Willy couldn’t join the police force he could become a soldier and fight for King, Country and Empire.

Willie left behind his father, three sisters, and beloved Gretta – a love he had kept secret from his family. He wanted to marry Gretta but she disapproved of his decision to go to the war, refusing to commit until he learned to think for himself. The possibility that they might marry in the future helped keep Willie going through the darkest of many dark days.   

There are many, many stories of war written from a variety of angles. This one finds its niche by adding the layer that is Irish history through this turbulent time. While Willie was away the country changed unimaginably. Those fighting for the British king became the enemy. On the battlefields the Irish came to be regarded as untrustworthy.

Willie retains the vestiges of his familial loyalty and his appealing naivety but does start to question what is happening more widely. He must face the fact that his father would regard any change in allegiance as unforgivably traitorous.

The author is a skilled storyteller. Despite the horrors evoked, the language employed is almost poetic. The madness of war, the appalling waste of young lives, is dealt with plainly yet with an understated perceptive elegance. Even when it is necessary to trample over the scattered remains of their physical bodies, the dead are granted dignity.

Alongside many battle scenes there are descriptions of the soldiers’ entertainments. Music and dancing feature. Books and newspapers are shared. I was perplexed that after the horrors of fighting endured, a boxing match was enjoyed. This scene, though, was reminiscent of childhood cruelties described earlier – the stoning of a swan’s nest – how some inexplicably (to me) appear to enjoy watching creatures other than themselves be hurt. 

Mostly though the story focuses on the war and Willie’s longing for home. That what had been home is changing in their absence adds a dimension the battle weary perhaps hadn’t considered when they left with grand intentions to protect and return.

A dark and melancholic tale that is tempered by love and hope for a future. An important reminder that war accomplishes little in the long term and is paid for in ruined lives. 

A Long Long Way is published by Faber and Faber.


Book Review: Winter Flowers

winter flowers

Winter Flowers, by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), brings to life the everyday hardships of ordinary working people living in Paris at the tail end of the First World War. Its protagonist is Jeanne Caillett, a talented flower maker living with her young daughter, Léonie, in a cramped two room apartment on the fourth floor of a building situated in the 2nd arrondissement. Jeanne’s husband, Toussaint, was called up to fight in the summer of 1914. In late 1916 his face was blown apart by shrapnel. He asked his wife not to visit after he was eventually evacuated to Paris for treatment and to convalesce.

The tale opens with Toussaint finally returning to his home and family. It is not just his looks that have been changed. Jeanne has been “waiting for a husband who’s been replaced by a stranger”. Unable or unwilling to speak, Toussaint hides his injuries behind a mask – physical and emotional.

The story explores loss in many forms and how this is dealt with by those directly affected or who stand witness. The authorities hold up the war dead as heroes. Those who return disfigured are openly pitied but expected to cope and fit back in. The Spanish Flu is also reaping lives, while others succumb to illnesses such as tuberculosis. Parents must deal with the deaths of their partners and children with chilling regularity and little compassion given how common such suffering is.

While Toussaint was away, Jeanne worked hard to keep herself and Léonie warm and fed amidst the shortages of fuel and food. They befriended neighbours, a small group of women offering mutual support, sharing what little they had when they could. Hunger and cold were rife. Long working days necessary for survival.

Toussaint’s return means there is another mouth to feed. His lack of communication leaves Jeanne unsure if he will work again or even leave the apartment. Léonie is put out that she no longer has so much of her mother’s attention, especially as her place in the big bed has been taken by a stranger who bears little resemblance to the picture she knew as her father.

As the family dynamic shifts, one of the neighbours finds her burden increased. With only so many hours in the day, Jeanne struggles to offer the support she would have managed previously. So much is being asked of her and still she must work.

The writing is spare and exquisite, the characters given depth, their plight drawn with care and empathy. Although a war story the focus is on the experiences of those who stayed home and must now deal with the aftermath. It is a poignant reminder of the many and varied hardships they faced.

I have read of the war disfigured in The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, and of another father’s return after the war in Her Father’s Daughter. Winter Flowers adds an additional dimension and is as subtly powerful and thoughtfully written while never descending into the sentimental. A perceptive story written with incisive skill.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Gig Review: Rachel Trethewey at Bowood

On Thursday of last week I attended a local author event being held within the grounds of Bowood House. This is walking distance from my home so, under glorious skies, I was able to combine two of my favourite activities.

Walking through the grounds of Bowood to the venue

Rachel Trethewey, author of Pearls before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls, was to give a talk on her book. She greeted all attendees personally so I was able to tell her that I enjoyed reading details of a history I had not previously heard of.

Tea and pastries were served as attendees arrived and mingled. The current Lady Lansdowne, whose family by marriage feature in the book, introduced herself and gave permission for us to tour her private walled garden prior to lunch in the house. This delighted me as the garden is opened to the public on only a handful of occasions each year.

I chatted to several ladies who commented on how moved they had been by the personal stories told in Rachel’s book. Whereas I had baulked at the conspicuous wealth and privilege, at the decadent lifestyle that was soon to undergo change, they had found affecting the impact of the many deaths detailed.

Rachel’s talk was scripted, with accompanying slides. She told us that the four years of research required involved visits to: the Red Cross archives, Christies auction house archives, and appointments with descendants of the patrician families. The idea for the Red Cross Pearl Necklace Appeal came from Lady Northcliffe, wife of the owner of the Times and Daily Mail. These papers listed the names of women who donated pearls. Christies provided lists of the buyers of the completed necklaces.

Sections of the talk were taken from the book, including those pertaining to Violet Astor.

Lady Violet Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, daughter of the 4th Earl of Minto, married Lord Charles Mercer Nairne, younger son of the 5th Marquis of Lansdowne, in 1909. They subsequently had two children. Before the war Charles was equerry to the king. Charles was killed in action at Ypres in 1914. Violet was encouraged to remarry, to bear more children. She continued to mourn her lost love.

Violet and Charles

Rachel’s research involved reading large numbers of letters, diaries and memoirs. She commented on the women’s resilience and how they dealt with grief in different ways. She also read contemporary newspapers and society magazines.

The Duchess of Westminster set up an unconventional hospital in France where elegant ladies dressed in their finery greeted the mud and blood splattered wounded. As much as being an act of compassion, this was an adventure for hedonistic socialites.

Back home, country houses opened their doors to care for soldiers convalescing. Bowood’s orangery served as a hospital later in the war years.

Bowood Hospital – 1918

It was Lord Lansdowne who piloted the bill through parliament that attempted to get the law changed to allow the pearl necklaces to be distributed via lottery. Lady Northcliffe believed this would vastly increase funds raised. There was disquiet among some at the time that status symbols may then be owned by the working class.

The great sadness uncovered during research was tempered by pleasurable aspects. Rachel mentioned a lovely visit to Dorset, to the beautiful home of Lord Julian Fellowes and Lady Emma Kitchener Fellowes. Emma is the great great neice of the first Earl Kitchener who featured on the famous wartime posters – he was killed when his boat sank off the coast of Orkney. (Julian is best known as the writer of Downton Abbey.)

Pearls Before Poppies was launched earlier this year at Christies Sale Room where the necklaces had been auctioned. Many of the descendants of those written about attended. On the night the Red Cross announced a new Pearls for Life appeal. Jewels were received from celebrities, the famous and the wealthy. They were auctioned at the Savoy in July raising around £275,000 for crisis support at home and abroad.

Questions were invited from the audience. Rachel was asked what happened to the necklaces. Although Christies know who purchased them – mainly jewellery houses – they have since disappeared. Fashions change and it is possible the pearls were restrung and no longer exist in a form that could be recognised. Each was sold in a distinctive box and Rachel has tried to uncover any trace of these – asking, for example, organisers of antique roadshows to look out for them. So far nothing has been found. Pictures of the necklaces exist in the original sale catalogue, copies of which are held in various museums.

There was a question about what happened to the money raised. As it was not ring fenced it would have been used where needed.


Corsham Bookshop provided copies of Rachel’s book for attendees to purchase which she was happy to sign.

We were then lead through the beautiful walled garden, shown the site of the now demolished big house, and taken into what is known as the little house.


While the rest of the party went into lunch, I visited an exhibition currently running in the orangery. This includes letters, photographs and details of the history of the Lansdownes, in particular during the war years. It was poignant to read about and to see the pictures of the lost young men.


The many aspects of this unusual author event were both enjoyable and of interest. I am grateful to Charlotte Doherty for my invitation to attend.

Pearls before Poppies (reviewed here) is published by The History Press.

Book Review: Pearls Before Poppies

Pearls Before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls, by Rachel Trethewey, delves into the stories of the wealthy women who orchestrated a First World War fundraiser that, thanks to supportive reporting in national newspapers, captured the wider public imagination. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was instigated by Lady Northcliffe, wife of an influential press baron who owned the widely read Times and Daily Mail. She asked that her fellow society ladies give one pearl from their jewellery collections to enable a necklace to be created that would be auctioned, with proceeds going to The Red Cross to help fund support for soldiers. Pearls were in vogue and many of these patrician women possessed numerous strands, inherited or gifted to them as status symbols from husbands or lovers. It was pointed out to them that one pearl would not be missed, and the gift would be regarded as an act of generosity. How one was seen by one’s peers mattered.

Many women subsequently contributed, often citing their reasons in notes accompanying the donation – a lost child or partner in whose memory the pearl was sent. These included pearls from women of less affluent social backgrounds, some of whom clubbed together to purchase a jewel they could not individually afford to give.

The aristocracy expected their children to marry their social equals or those regarded as superior, which led to a great deal of overlap between particular families. Within the various chapters of this book the reader learns of the women’s personal losses as a result of the conflict as well as the voluntary roles they played at home and abroad. Their menfolk, many having been brought up at the likes of Eton, had had instilled in them the sacredness of patriotism alongside the glory of battle and sacrifice. Prior to the war these young people had been indolent, decadent, searching for anything that would give their life meaning. The women were decorative and their families expected them to behave with superficial decorum. Prior to marriage they were strictly chaperoned while their parents philandered.

The war offered opportunities for freedom and adventure to both sexes. Unlike most factual histories of the time, these accounts focus on the women. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was seen as a fashionable cause and enjoyed royal patronage. Wives and their husband’s mistresses worked together. The tenets of the Christian faith were cited as a comfort in times of bereavement. Infidelities were, it appears, regarded as acceptable.

Many of the women lost brothers, husbands and sons. Concern was voiced that the best of a generation – the heirs to the landed gentry’s estates – were being sacrificed. Eugenics casts a shadow over several of the comments made. The children had been raised by nannies, governesses and schools. Parents did not just lose favourites but also the perpetuation of the family name. Young widows were encouraged to remarry and produce more babies – ‘splendid boys’ to replace lost scions.

Given what we now know about the degrees of difficulty experienced during war between the upper and lower echelons of society, and indeed the role played by powerful men in sending troops to their deaths, it is hard to feel as much sympathy for these privileged ladies as for their working class counterparts. Nevertheless, where all strata of society are levelled is in the emotional impact of bereavement. The loss of a husband may not have led to destitution but it was still challenging to bear with the stoicism expected.

The energy and sense of purpose demonstrated in the fundraiser was also evident in other wartime roles the women played. So many offered to open their opulent homes as hospitals, to be seen to be helping the war effort, that not all could be accepted. Many constrained young society women relished the opportunity to serve as nurses.

“There was some scepticism about whether untrained aristocrats were the right people to run hospitals.”

The Pearl Necklace Campaign was just one of many fundraisers. Other items of value were collected for sale in bazaars across the country or at auction. With the war machine generating wealth for a few and the inevitable currency fluctuations in times of conflict, luxury items such as pearls became an investment. Family assets were to be protected.

Lady Northcliffe believed most money could be raised from the pearl necklaces created if they were raffled. By offering the possibility of attaining such a prize to even the lower orders of women for a relatively small outlay, it was anticipated that vast sums could be collected. This idea caused some consternation amongst her peers. Concern was voiced that such status symbols – pearls symbolised the wealth of the wearer – should not be owned by poor people. A lottery was regarded as gambling and condemned.

Attitudes to the poor were an interesting aspect to read. With able bodied men off fighting the women were doing their work. Although paid less this granted them previously unattainable freedom.

“there was a widespread fear that working-class women were using their […] allowances to buy alcohol and get drunk in public.”

Presumably the champagne parties society women attended were regarded as acceptable to the aristocracy. Any attempts at temperance merely sent consumption underground. Parliament retained its bars.

The auction of the pearl necklaces raised funds as intended. A century later what has become of them is not known. Although the inspiration for this book, the pearls are just one detail in what is an eclectic history of privileged women on the cusp of societal change. Despite the sometimes obsequious manner in which their stories are shared there is much of interest.

The various anecdotes jump around a great deal in time but conclude with a few details on the introduction of cultured pearls into society after the war years. This offers a chance to ponder the intrinsic worth of any material item. However valuable a treasure may be considered by self-regarding elites, worth is either sentimental or what a buyer is willing to pay. The author writes of what the pearl came to symbolise over centuries. The value to the soldiers that this fundraiser aimed to help was measured in the eventual Red Cross donation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The History Press.


Rachel Trethewey will be giving a talk on the 1918 Red Cross Pearls appeal at Bowood House on Thursday 27th September – the Lansdownes of Bowood are one of the aristocratic families featured in her book. For details of this event and to purchase tickets, click here.

Book Review: If You Go Away


If You Go Away, by Adele Parks,  is a romance set in England during the First World War. Its protagonist, Vivian, is a society beauty whose sole ambition at the beginning of the tale is to marry a young, handsome and above all wealthy gentleman in order that she may live a life of comfort and ease. Due to a miscalculation on her part things do not go to plan.

When war breaks out her husband enlists immediately. Vivian is required to leave her family and friends, the glitz of the London which she loves, to take up residence in her husband’s country home in the north. Bored and lonely she befriends a local woman, Enid, whom her husband regards as below their station in life. Enid suggests to Vivian that she become involved in the day to day running of the land, doing tasks that are neglected as all the regular workers have left to fight for their country. The work gives Vivian a purpose and she grows to appreciate her new surroundings.

In parallel with Vivian’s story is that of Howard, Enid’s elder son. Before the war he was a playwright in London. He travels to France with a journalist friend and is traumatised by the brutality and pointlessness of what he sees. He risks his life by refusing to enlist.

As the plot develops the reader comes to appreciate how little autonomy women had at this time. Vivian recognises that she is property, first of her father and then her husband. If she goes against their will then she risks being thrown out, abandoned to poverty with no means of earning a living or even worse, being incarcerated as insane. She would not be allowed to care for her child.

Howard’s decisions make him contemptible in the eyes of society, the results of his actions rippling out to affect his mother. As a man though he retains more control over his destiny. His choices may risk his life but he retains the choice. Through his tale there are attempts to evoke the abject horror of the war and the mindlessness with which it had to be fought in order to survive.

The romance elements revolve around sex which is described in some detail. There are friendships, both genuine and self serving, amongst the women, but the lovers spend more time getting to know each other’s bodies than their characters.

I felt saddened by Vivian’s treatment of her husband. They were both products of their upbringing yet she did not offer him the courtesy of honesty as she did her lover, expecting him to understand her needs without being told. He earned the respect of his soldiers but not of his wife, mainly it seemed because of his failure to excite her in bed.

This is a nicely written romance with its fill of beautiful women and brave young men battling situations beyond their control in order to be together and find happiness. I do not wish to denigrate it in any way when I admit that it is simply not my sort of book.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.