There are few greater delights than a book that draws you in from the very first pages and immediately makes you care about what happens next, that demands your attention in every free moment you can conjure until the end.
Juliet Greenwood, while painting a world that is far from one that we might imagine living ourselves, one that takes place in an enormous stately home on a hill overlooking a village in Cornwall – manages to imbue in the reader a kind of aspiring fantasy that those who prefer an episode of Downton Abbey to Twilight will be more than happy to immerse themselves within.
Two years ago I read her novel Eden’s Garden also set in Cornwall and Wales and adored it. That book was a dual narrative of two women, one in contemporary time, the other in the Victorian era, whose lives we follow and as the novel progresses reveals what connects them.
Now Juliet Greenwood has written a timely novel, chronicling the lives of a group of young women, focused on Elin Helstone, a young wife living in Hiram House, a country estate that has been her family home since birth. Now run by her increasingly distant husband Hugo, he has become consumed by dark thoughts he is unwilling to share connected to events of the Boer War and is now likely to be called up in yet another war. Elin tries to anticipate her husbands needs until the onset of war provides the circumstance that will propel her towards asserting an independence she will find difficult to relinquish.
Elin’s unmarried cousin Alice lives with them, though Hugo pursues every opportunity to introduce her to eligible company in the hope that she too might exit his orbit. Then there is Mouse, Lady Margaret Northholme, whom the two young women meet in the opening pages and become firm friends, their lives will become forever entwined as war descends upon the country and everything as they have previously known it changes forever.
The opening pages possess an air of excitement and potential, young people meet at their big houses, conforming to social convention and can’t quite believe the rumours of pending war.
‘It will most likely blow over. War is such a medieval occupation. I can’t imagine any modern state embarking on such barbarity.’
However, war does arrive and strips the village bare of men, plunging those who stay behind into an alternative way of living, they must live with the fear of not knowing what will happen, of the risk of attack and the dread of a telegram bearing tragic news.
That fear of the unknown will become less significant in comparison with the experience awaiting Elin and her gardener Jack as they depart on their own dangerous mission.
‘Terrified,’ I replied.
‘So you should be. There’s no point in being brave from now on. Forget what anyone ever told you about heroes. Once we reach the other side, it’s fear that will keep you alive.’
Juliet Greenwood creates believable characters, putting them in credible but challenging situations where they fulfill our suspicions of their true natures, while her trademark elements of mystery and intrigue run on continuously throughout the narrative.
She does the same with country locations, we inhabit Hiram Hall and the Welsh farmhouse as if we had known them for years, the author invokes the reader’s imagination bringing the outdoor landscape and its associated elements into the page like fog creeping in from the bay. As Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift reminded us “The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.’
We that are left begins in 1914, a mere five years before Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy (reviewed here) in 1919 and yet the contrast couldn’t be greater.
Here we become immersed in the war years (Déons novel set in the interwar years) where the absence of so many men advanced opportunities for women like no suffragette initiative yet had, though they certainly paved the way for women like Elin, Lady Margaret, Kitty, Alice and others to be able to take the initiative and get involved in the war effort. They learn to drive, volunteer in hospitals, grow food and distribute it to those with little or nothing. Women of the upper classes who were used to being waited on found themselves with few staff and having to manage like common people. Servants experienced the shift in equality between the classes.
Having complained about the lack of female role models with redeeming features in Michel Déon’s coming of age novel, I find them in abundance here and can’t help but observe the contrast in the female characters portrayed here versus those we met across the channel.
The actions of these women were no doubt inspired from Juliet Greenwood’s research into women and the war effort and she mentions the Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow in the bibliography.
I was reminded of the incredible and courageous efforts of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as portrayed in Diana Souhami’s excellent biography Gertrude and Alice; Gertrude having sold her Matisse Women with a Hat she and Alice initially decamped for the French Riviera abandoning Paris, but after some time became bored and returned deciding they too wanted to help with the war effort.
After meeting with an organisation that distributed supplies to hospitals, they were informed it would be most useful if they could provide a truck and do the same. So Gertrude took driving lessons, wrote to a cousin in New York asking for a van to be sent, had it converted and named Auntie and off they went road tripping around the country, becoming known at the garages throughout France, distributing the hospital supplies, writing letters to soldiers whom they referred to as their military godsons and collecting recipes along the way. But that’s another story!
We That Are Left is an enthralling read that sets a compulsive pace from that first intriguing landing and doesn’t let up until the final pages. It is a moving contribution to contemporary WWI fiction and an enlightening exposé on how perceptions and the role of women experienced a complete and irreversible paradigm shift during those years, from which we have benefited more than we realise.
Note: Thank you to the author Juliet Greenwood for providing the photos of Glynllifon Hall above, and to her publisher Honno Press for providing me with a copy of the book to read.