Counting the War Injured

Cross-posted from the Men, Women and Care blog:

In a Twitter discussion sparked by the BBC’s screening of Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ in November, Greg Jenner quoted the statistic that nearly 90% of British servicemen returned home and that half of these were injured. The first statistic didn’t worry me. 88% is the generally accepted rate of survival for the conflict, although it appears high in the context of a cultural narrative which emphasises the death and destruction of the war above all else. The second figure, however, was not one I recognised from my research into disable ex-servicemen of the conflict, so I asked Greg where he had got his figures from, as my own estimate is that about 30% of men returned from service did so suffering from illness or injury. What resulted was a conversation that, as I noted at the time, was one I wasn’t in a position to engage in properly, given that I was lying in bed, attempting to tweet on my iPad after a very long day listening to my son sing in choir at a large-scale Remembrance Service. This, then, is my attempt to think through the issues raised by Greg’s tweet, and my querying of it.

To start with the problem, which is that I believe 50% of all men returning from the war as injured to be an overestimate.  Greg’s figure, which comes from the Imperial War Museums and has been cited by a number of historians over the years, is based on the official Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War: 1914-1920. The summary table of the ‘Total per cent of Battle Casualties and Deaths’, which is tabulated by theatre, gives the rate as 5 casualties to every 9 men sent out to France, 2 to every 9 men sent to the Dardanelles, 2 to every 12.5 men sent to Mesopotamia and smaller ratios for other theatres, including Salonika, East Africa, Egypt and Italy. In percentage terms, this works out at 56% for France, 23% for the Dardanelles, 16% for Mesopotamia and smaller percentages for other theatres. The total percentage of casualties across all theatres has not been calculated, although the History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Medical Services: Casualties and Medical Statistics of the Great War states that ‘the total numbers affected by war service, in the sense of death or some form of war disablement for which State compensation was given, may be estimated at approximately 2,414,000 or 40.2 per cent. of those who served.’[1]

There are some problems with these figures, however. First, figures from the Statistics of the British War Effort include casualties not only from Britain but from the colonies and dominions as well. The statistics cannot, therefore, be considered reliable in discussions of the effect of casualty numbers on British society alone. They force us to think about Britain as a colonial actor in this period, but do make local and regional analyses much harder.

Second, the inclusion deaths in the count of battle casualties makes it much harder to evaluate how many men returned from the war injured or ill. If we could calculate the total percentage of casualties due to death, injury and illness across all theatres, we could subtract the accepted 12% mortality rate that is the generally accepted figure for the British armed forces. But we don’t have that figure. The percentage of battle casualties does distinguish between ‘killed and died’, ‘wounded’ and ‘missing and prisoners’ for each theatre, but specifically excludes casualties due to sickness. The medical services statistics, meanwhile, only counts those in acknowledged as ill or wounded by the Ministry of Pensions, not all those who became casualties during the war.

This raises the question of what is meant by casualty even when deaths are discounted from the numbers. I have focussed on the word injury throughout my discussion so far, reflecting the omission of the sick from the official calculations. But men did not become casualties only through injury, that is damage caused by accident or attack. Many casualties, particularly in the Middle East, were the result of illnesses, including those which could persist long after demobilisation, such as malaria or the rather general ‘debility’, or physical weakness resulting from other illness. [2] Some illnesses, perhaps most notability heart conditions, were the result of aggravation of pre-existing conditions by the experience of war, conditions that had either been missed in hurried medical inspections [3] or had been dismissed as not severe enough to affect a man’s service in light of the ever-increasing military demands for manpower. To say that these men returned from the war suffering from injuries would be inaccurate, yet they undoubtedly returned from the war suffering from physical consequences of their service, whether attributable to or aggravated by it.

Sickness rates are analysed in the official statistics, as part of the wastage rates. Also tabulated under ‘wastage’ are statistics relating to multiple injuries. A single injury does not equate to a single man injured. Because of the military priority for manpower, the work of the medical services aimed at conserving manpower through not only the treatment of wounded men but also their rehabilitation for return to active service where possible. Wounded men were thus often recycled through the military medical system, some multiple times for multiple injuries. This repetition and overlap is at least partially captured in the statistics, but not in a way that makes clear how this affected the headline figure.

Finally, there is the problem of the invisible injury and underdiagnosis in the casualty rates as defined by the official statistics. The most obvious example of this is, of course, psychological traumas which are generally accepted as being underdiagnosed by the British military medical authorities throughout the war, in part due to the social stigma attached to such traumas and in part due to lack of medical understanding of the conditions. (These two things are, of course, related.) It is worth noting, however, that underdiagnosed invisible injury also includes conditions such as hearing loss, where diagnosis had to be based on highly subjective observations. The existence of both invisible injury and the stigma attached to it has led several historians, most notably Jay Winter, in a lecture at the British Academy in 2014, to suggest that might higher numbers of men suffered from disabling traumas than is reflected in official statistics. While the statistics do, undoubtedly, underestimate the number of men so injured in war, the methodology used to arrive at the figure of 25% quoted by Jay remains somewhat opaque.

Nonetheless, it is possible that the numbers of invisibly injured undiagnosed and therefore uncounted in the official statistics cancels out the overcounting of individual men who suffered multiple injuries and illnesses. There is no way, from the statistics available, to demonstrate this, so that 50% feels like a guess rather than solid estimate. Which brings us to the figure that I have been using in my research, also drawn from the official statistics, this time those relating to the men in receipt of some sort of support from the Ministry of Pensions up to 31st March, 1930. This figure is given as 1,664,000 or 27.7% of those who served. [4] Based on the mortality rate of 12%, this gives a figure of 31.5% of those who returned from the war suffering from an attributable illness or injury sufficiently serious enough to warrant a pension or gratuity.

Again, we have to qualify what is being counted here. Men in receipt of either a gratuity or pension from the Ministry of Pensions could do so for either an illness or an injury, so they cannot be described solely as injured men. To receive support they had to show that the illness or injury was either attributable or aggravated by the war, with aggravated conditions often disallowed for support. Other exclusions included injuries caused by carelessness or those deemed to be self-inflicted. Then there is the issue of self-reporting. Pension had to be applied for; ill or wounded servicemen were not automatically assessed for them, although Article 9 of the Pensions Bill gave them the right to apply for a pension following discharge if attributability or aggravation could be demonstrated.  Some men did not apply for a war pension because they had sufficient income not to need additional support; other viewed any sort of state support as associated with the heavily stigmatised aid of the New Poor Law and the workhouse, or else as a form of dependence that was at odds with their subjective sense of self as independent male breadwinners. Of course, the willingness to define oneself as disabled by war might change over time and with circumstances. A wound or illness might deteriorate; financial circumstances might change for the worse. A man reluctant to apply for a pension in 1919 might feel he had no other option in 1927, although he might have a harder time proving attributability at that distance from the point of illness or injury.[5]

So just over 30% of men returning from the war injured or ill is almost certainly an underestimate, but by as much as 20% or 1,056,400 men?  Even in the circumstances, that seems too big a margin of error to me. So I would conclude, not very helpfully, perhaps, that the actual figure falls somewhere between the two, probably more than the 1.7 million men noted by the official statistics but not as many as 2.7 million. If we wanted to talk in round figures, about 2 million men would seem as close a guestimate as can be made on the figures currently available.  According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK population in 1929 was estimated at 45.7 million. Disabled ex-servicemen, it can therefore be argued, made up approximately 4.5% of the British population. But this figure comes, as we have seen, with all sorts of qualifications.

In his statistical examination of casualty records, Those We Forget (2014), David Noonan is sharply critical of the statistical methodologies of all the official histories of the war efforts of Britain and her Dominions. Noonan has attempted a statistical revision of the Australian official record. A similar exercise has yet to be carried out in relation to the British armed services from the First World War, although, in comparison to Noonan, who used the well-preserved embarkation records of Australian First World War servicemen for his re-evaluation, historians of the British armed forces face greater difficulties due to the loss of relevant documentation over the years. Nonetheless, it behoves us to treat the statistics of the war effort, official or otherwise, with critical care. As I hope this post has demonstrated, quantitative analysis can throw up a range of interesting nuances in relation to questions about the social impact of mortality, survival and illness, even if the numbers can’t answer our questions as clearly or easily as we might hope.

 

[1] T.J. Mitchell and G. M. Smith, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Medical Services: Casualties and Medical Statistics of the Great War (Imperial War Museum, 1997; originally released 1931), p.315.

[2] David Noonan, in his statistical analysis of Australian casualty records, defines debility as a euphemism for psychological trauma in the records. There is, however, no evidence that this was, in fact, how it was used at the time.

[3] See J.M. Winter The Great War and the British People (Basingstoke: Macmillan Eduction, 1985), pp.48-64.

[4] Mitchell and Smith, Medical Services, p.315.

[5] This discrepancy can, perhaps, be seen in the estimate of the the International Labour Office of 1.7 million British ex-servicemen suffering from war-attributable disability in 1921, a year after the official statistics recorded 1.4 million men being granted a pension or gratuity for war-atributable disability. ‘Studies and Reports: The Compulsory Employment of Disabled Men’, Series E, no.2, International Labour Office (Geneva, 1921), p.2. I am indebted to Bethany Rowley for providing me with this figure and reference.

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A harder year

Three years ago, I posted an end-of-year reflection entitled ‘A Hard Year’. That year was, indeed, a hard year, as were the two years that came after, filled as they were with the stresses of family illnesses and the labour of writing my book and getting a large project off the ground. None of these, however, can bear comparison with this year, a year that will forever be marked by the terrifying speed with which my mother’s cancer accelerated, the intensity of helping care for her in the final month of her life and the grief induced by her death and the emotional aftermath of commemorating her and clearing her apartment, the home I grew up in, of a lifetime of objects and memories. Nothing could prepare me for facing how hard this would be; that I have survived this year with my marriage intact, my children alive and thriving and my relationships with my family and friends (particularly my two wonderful siblings) more or less intact is a source of wonder and amazement.

Because this year was never solely about loss, grief and mourning. There has been a great deal of happiness, joy, even plain old contentment, from my brother’s wedding through hot summer days spent clearing the garden to one of the happiest Christmas Days I have had in several years. Moving to a house that I grow to love more with each day (in spite of the daunting amount of work that needs doing to it) in a community that has been immensely welcoming has been the biggest source of happiness, even if it has made getting to and from work considerably more complicated.

You may have noticed by now that all of the things I have mentioned as shaping and defining my year have been those associated with my private, rather than my professional life, and this isn’t only because my professional life has increasingly been circumscribed by commuting and the incompetence of Northern Rail. Professionally, this has felt very much like a holding year, albeit one in which I published an article and completed the editing, copy-editing and other production matter on my book. I have worked on various bits of writing, presented at a couple of conferences, explored the possibilities of future intellectual enquiry, manage the project I am currently engaged on. But any accomplishments of the year have been acheived by those with whom it is my pleasure and privilege to work – students completing milestones in their research, colleagues completing books, my post-doc organising a successful and rightfully praised conference as part of Men, Women and Care project.

This has felt okay, even necessary – a moment taken to recalibrate at the end of one venture, the middle of another and the very faint possibility of the beginning of a third. It will provide, I hope, the basis of consolidating the gains made and putting into practice ideas which have been given some time to germinate, particularly around the direction of the International Society for First World War Studies. But if it has meant that my personal life has been the most dominant force in shaping my memories of this year, this professional breath has also provided the space to make some unexpected connections between intense personal experiences and my professional historical understanding.

As I wrote previously, caring for my mother allowed me to make a more profound connection, both intellectual and emotional, with the historical work of caring undertaken historically by women in the home, the sort of care which is going to be the subject of my next book. But, since my son has started singing in a church choir a half hour drive from our home, requiring me to act as a ferrying service, I have found myself attending church regularly. While this hasn’t altered my personal belief or relationship to faith, it has given me time to reflect, sitting under the regimental monument listing all the great engagements of the First World War, on the place of faith and worship in the lives of those I study. The routine and rhythm of the cycle of services, the music created by voice and organ, the ceremony and ceremonial may not have brought me closer to God, but may have brought me closer to my historical subjects in whose lives faith played so much greater a regular part than it does in British society today. It is something I am struggling to articulate, although I hope to do so in a blog on Sarah Phelps’s adaptation of The ABC Murders for BBC1 in the next couple of weeks.

There will be other blog posts, too, in the new year, as well as other work to be done, not least the continued population of the Men, Women and Care database, which is already throwing up interesting material. There will be stresses and strains (other family illnesses are ongoing and my son will be applying for secondary school places come the autumn). And there will be much to celebrate, both professionally and personally. The book’s official release date is 7th February, to be followed in short order by the expected arrival of two new babies in the family.  There is the house to work on, friendships to nurture, ideas to pursue.  It has been another hard year, the hardest yet, and one that I will never forget. But there is a new year to come with all its fears and promises.  May yours be filled with more of the latter than the former.

Happy New Year.

The Many and the Few

In the run up to today’s centenary Armistice commemorations, falling this year on Remembrance Sunday, pretty much every form of British media has been publishing and broadcasting material relating to the war and its aftermath. Many of these have focused on individual experiences of the Armistice and the war more broadly, often drawing on the archives of the Imperial War Museums. Others have focused on the conduct of the final campaigns of the conflict and the politics of remembrance.

One article which caught my attention, however, was the cover story of The Times’ Weekend section on Saturday, 3rd November, ‘The day I found my great-grandfather’s war diaries’.* In it Leonie Roderick narrates her great-grandfather, Trevor Roderick’s, war as an officer’s batman in the Army Service Corps using the text of the diary he kept from 1916. For Roderick, the ‘Slightly frayed little diaries, each measuring 3-5 in … provided a fascinating insight into something that had been kept secret for nearly 100 years’. I, however, was powerfully struck not by their uniqueness but by their familiarity.  After nearly two decades of research which has involved reading hundreds of similar diaries, preserved in archives primarily in Leeds and London rather than left in a family attic, there was much to recognise in these excerpts. The particular experiences may have varied to some extent, but the matter-of-fact tone, the choice of types of incident to be recorded (airplane sightings are always noteworthy and descriptions of physical health and meals common), the run-on sentences linked with plus signs, are all absolutely characteristic not just of one man but of a much wider category of servicemen who kept diaries during the war.

Trevor Roderick was a unique individual and his diary a unique document. For his great-granddaughter, their familial relationship undoubtedly both enhances this sense of uniqueness and piques her interest (as not a professional historian) in her grandfather’s experience. This has, in many ways, been the basis for much of the media coverage of the centenary. Indeed, in 2014, the BBC made explicit its focus on the personal, familial stories of individuals in its centenary programme, most notable in the use of descendants of those who lived through the war as talking heads on Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War, rather than historians. While the aim may have been to personalise a conflict which has now moved almost entirely out of living memory, one result has been to atomise our understanding of the lived experience of war and its aftermath. Every document unseen by descendants becomes a hidden one, every experience unique. The synthesis which forms the basis of so much social and cultural analysis of the war, the bigger picture of war’s impact, becomes almost too big in this approach, and we risk no longer being able to see the wood for the trees.

This effect can be seen in some recent discussions about who is remembered in our centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The nearly century-long focus on the dead and the bereaved who mourned them in British commemorative practice has, in many ways been, since its inception about personal histories. The powerful cultural traditions of naming the dead, the gravestones at Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, now individually depicted on social media, usually in close up to show the individual epitaph, the focus on stories of mothers campaigning for the return of their sons’ bodies in the aftermath of war, all serve to give a name and identity to the dead and missing even as they locate them within the generality of wartime death. The power behind the Unknown Warrior was that he could be anybody’s son, enabling each individual grieving a loss to give him a name and a remembered face.

Yet the majority of those who served with the British armed forces during the First World War survived, 88% to be precise, including Trevor Roderick.  While his great-granddaughter notes this fact (not least because if he had not, her grandfather would not have been born) her reading of his diaries focusses on the war, with the post-war entries on work, family and marriage consigned to a single summative paragraph. For the men who died, their story does, of course, end with the war. But by focussing on a single individual who survived in this way, it is impossible to locate Roderick in the wider experience of the millions of men like him who returned to civil society, or the impact that their experiences of war had on interwar society.

The problem is, in part, how we talk about these men, whose sheer numbers make their experiences of post-war life hugely varied. Many, but not all, were impaired, mentally or physically or both, by the traumatic injuries they received during the war. Many, but not all, managed to reintegrate into civil society. Some were politically radicalised, others returned gladly to quiet domesticity. Some suffered domestic breakdown, others married and had children and grandchildren. Some wrote (and rewrote) their war experience, talked about it openly, displayed their wounds and their medals for all to see; others refused recognition, discarded military titles, refused to speak of about the war, at least not to those left alive to remember. No single person’s story can exemplify this range, but there is still a desire to generalise about the category of ‘First World War veteran’, to try to make one man – be he Trevor Roderick or Harry Patch – speak for all.

The same problem, of course, affects our commemoration of the dead. As we focus on the individual, it often becomes hard to comprehend the mass. In turn, as in the case of Wilfred Owen, symbolic individuals become increasingly significant in how we frame the experience of that mass. How much weight of commemoration and emotion can one man’s memory bear? The impulse is understandable. As Josephine Tey wrote in The Daughter of Time (1951), ‘The sorrows of humanity are no one’s sorrows, as newspaper readers long ago found out. A frisson of horror may go down one’s spine at wholesale destruction but one’s heart stays unmoved A thousand people drowned in floods in China are news: a solitary child drowned in a pond is tragedy.’  But there is still more willingness to view the dead of the First World War as a whole, and a large one,  to locate Owen’s voice as one of the many in a way that still doesn’t happen with the men who survived. Enumerating the dead as many as well as one has a political purpose, underpinning the narrative of war as wasteful and futile. Doing the same for those who survived undermines this dominant narrative in ways that still make us uncomfortable. Yet the job of the historian, at least those of us who study the social and cultural history of the war, is to bridge that gap, to give the individual lives context beyond that of their families’ love and desire for better understanding of their individual experience. It is important for us to point out that not only was Trevor Roderick was unique individual who lived a unique war and his diaries are thus unique records, he was also part of a larger story about how war was experienced and what happened after. There were millions more Trevor Rodericks who may or may not have kept diaries, who may or may not have had great-granddaughters who became journalists and wrote about them in the national press but they too had a voice and a place in history, of which that of Trevor Roderick is a familiar part, not an exceptional exemplar.

88% of those who served in the British armed forces – over 4 million men – survived the First World War. We cannot name them all, any more than we can name all the more than 700,000 dead. Today on social media many people have named the specific men and women of this war and other wars who they remembered today. But as we each remember the few whose names have meaning for us as individuals (George Swindell, Ward Muir, David Randle McMaster), let us also remember that they each were one of many.

*With apologies for the pay wall.

On Time

14947785_10154825019871042_8680925260221803816_nMy mother was early for everything. She believed deeply that both that punctuality was the politeness of princes and that if a travel delay could occur, it would. As a result, she left hours of time for delayed subways, traffic jams and accidents whenever she traveled. From an early age my brother, sister and I became used to arriving cinemas not merely in time for the previews (and later both the ads and the previews) but with time to spare before.  When flying, we would get to the airport not the recommended two-to-three hours ahead of departure, to deal with long check in and security queues, but another hour or so on top of that, when the predicted traffic jam on the way to the airport failed to materialise. It is a habit all three of us have internalised, adopting or reacting against in varying degrees. Now, living at wide geographical distances from each other and our parents, being early has become an important part of our common heritage.

* * *

My mother died six weeks ago, age 73. She left, as always, far too early.

* * *

Time does funny things when you are caring for the ill and dying. The final month of my mother’s life was the longest I have ever lived through. Life was on hold for me and my family. The deadlines which have governed so much of my adult life ceased to matter to its structure, ceased almost to exist at all. Time was measured out in taxi rides, subway delays and promises that we would hear about a hospice bed by next week, Wednesday, that evening, soon. And yet the week I took my children to the seaside, on my own and away from my mother, a week that by all expectations should have stretched out endlessly through stress and worry, passed by in a flash, a suspended interlude of reading, swimming, laughing, paddling, digging and reflection. The day the much-desired hospice bed became available was mainly spent waiting – for the paperwork to be completed, for the doctor to come and see my mother – or driving in entirely the wrong direction, an error which meant my mother’s carefully timed dose of medication was missed. Boredom and anxiety should have stretched the day to eternity; yet it was only when I arrived home that evening, 12 hours after I had left, that I realised just how long it had lasted. By contrast, the hours between 8 and midnight, when I kept vigil at my mother’s bedside for three nights during her final days, drew out endlessly as I listened to her sedated breathing, willing each agonizing, eternal pause between breaths to end.

* * *

And then there were the moments when caring meant stretching out to touch hands with the past. On an earlier visit, when looking after my mother after she had come out of hospital following an operation to fuse her spine, fractured by the pressure of the cancerous tumours that had invaded it, one of my main tasks was to help her shower. Washing her hair and towelling her dry, I was echoing her bathing of me as child and my own bathing of my daughter, linking age and generations through caring touch. I don’t know if my brother, cradling our mother in his arms, with touch the only tool at his disposal to help her contain her pain, felt the same inversion of the parent-child relationship, but generational reciprocity echoed there too. And there were the couple of times my sister, sister-in-law and I shared the task of cleaning and changing her in her final day. In those few moments, within the wider pattern of caring shared among all her children, it felt as if we three joined the long, long history of women caring for the ill and dying in domestic spaces. All the modern technologies and advanced analgesics which we turned to help my mother keep pain as much at bay as possible in those final days could not replace the need for caring human contact, contact which had the power, at least in my case, to take us beyond the immediacy of family relationship and weave us into a longer narrative of human history.

* * *

Time, according to the cliché, is a greater healer. The witness of the many friends and acquaintances who share the common but entirely unique grief of losing a mother is contradictory on this subject. Some have learned to accommodate its ache; for other, the pain has become in time different but not less. Today I remain in the midst of mourning, sideswiped at unexpected moments by furious anger at the fates that did not give my mother more time – time to welcome grandchildren and watch them grow, to celebrate her children’s achievements, to see more films, television programmes, theatre, to read more books – and then to tell us precisely what she thought of them. I still find myself in tears at odd and unexpected times – on the train, on street corners, walking my children to school. I hope that, in time, I will learn to live in a more comfortable way with this new reality of loss and absence that I inhabit. In the meantime, all I can do is take my memories of my mother – her gifts and her faults, her idiosyncracies and habits, her passions and mundanities – and make them transcend time by writing them into my history.

* * *

Mum was the first and most loyal of my readers, whether of my articles, my books or this blog. On the day of her move to the hospice, stuck in traffic on the FDR Drive, with her pain medication wearing off, she asked me if I was planning any more blog posts and, if so, what. Yes, I said, I’m planning to write on care and temporality, but I’m not quite sure how yet. This is that post.

* * *

There have been many who have taught and inspired me over the years, many of them women. All have, over time, shaped me into the historian and writer that I am today.  But first, last, and always, there was my mother.

* * *

In loving memory of

Joanna Anderson

30th July, 1945 – 30th August, 2018.

Dr Who?

So it has been a while since I have posted on here, and I was going to make my comeback with a post on the Reith Lectures and 20th-century masculinities, but that can wait, at least for a couple of weeks when the lectures are due to start. In the meantime, I have been spurred back to the keyboard by the latest Twitterstorm over Dr Fern Riddell’s insistence on her right to use her hard-earned title in public without shame. Dr Riddell’s challenge to the many men who took the view that they were entitled to police her behaviour and challenge her claim to expertise has morphed into a movement of women changing their Twitter handles to include their academic titles in solidarity and as expressions of justifiable pride in their achievements. The movement has spawned its own hashtag, #ImmodestWomen, in face of the claims that the use of such titles displayed unfeminine immodesty in the public sphere.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will see that I have not followed suit. This is not because I am an appropriately modest woman. I doubt any of Dr Riddell’s detractors would define me as such, and I take great pride in my title and use it often. So why was my instinctive reaction to this campaign one of resistance – not to the women changing their titles but to the idea that I should do so myself?  Was it the sense of embarrassment, even shame, about declaring our credentials publicly which a number of my colleagues articulated?  Perhaps in part, not least because I have complicated feelings about the process through which I earned my title, arising from the way in which I completed my doctorate, as I’ve previously discussed. While I now absolutely feel that the title is mine, earned as of right, it has taken me a long time to get to this position and a large part of that sense of ownership comes not from my work on the degree which led to its award, but rather from the work, struggle and achievements that came after and that ultimately led to my promotion last year. Calling myself Dr Meyer reflects that position in ways it never did my PhD alone.

But there was more than a sense of embarrassment behind my reluctance. What was making me uncomfortable was not any sense that blowing my own trumpet was inappropriate in anyway, but rather the extent to which the exercise was deliberately performative.  As Dr Riddell said in her initial tweet, in explanation of why she used her title consistently in public, ‘my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible.’ Which is a stance of courage and commitment, to be applauded and supported, but one which, personally, know that I can never hope to attain.  I may be an expert in my career, but in my entire life? I have multiple identities; as my Twitter bio says, I am a wife and mother as well as a historian. I am more than that – a friend, a sister, a decent cook, a not-in-the-least-bit-expert gardener, a reader, a writer, a knitter. How I integrate those roles and identities into a coherent whole is my daily personal challenge, but, having written an entire book on how men could integrate multiple masculine identities even in moments of personal and national crisis, I fail to see why, as a women, I cannot or should not do the same.

The problem is that patriarchal society does like to define women by monolithic categories – Madonna or whore, stay-at-home mother or career woman, blue stocking or angel of the house, immodest woman or properly feminine. Women’s capacity for multiplicity, complexity, an integrated self, is severely curtailed in our society, which then demands that we perform the roles we are deemed to appropriately occupy through our dress, our language, the titles we may suitably call ourselves by and when it is suitable for us to do so. And #ImmodestWomen the world over are pushing back against that in important ways, but using a title in a public space because men said we shouldn’t feels, for me, reactive rather than proactive. It feels another way in which men define women’s behaviour, making me define myself entirely in a particular way through their mockery or rejection of my claim to that definition as a part of who I am. That robs me of my sense of agency, my ability not only to define myself as an expert through my title and qualifications, but to choose when and where I do so. No man has a right to prescribe, positively or negatively, either when I may use my title or when I must.

So I will carry on tweeting as plain old Jessica Meyer, about things I am expert in and things that I am not, because that is how I choose to occupy that particular public space.  And I will do so in solidarity with all the amazing women displaying the symbols of their expertise publicly with pride.  We are all #ImmodestWomen with a great deal to be immodest about.

Looking back; looking forward

1868_LittleWomen_RobertsBros_tp copy

It has become a bit of a tradition with me that I start the new year with some form of comment, often grumpy, occasionally laudatory, about the one of the historically-based or costume dramas that has been shown on British television over Christmas. (I am including Sherlock in the ‘historically-based’ category here as, despite the modern setting, the raison d’etre of the series is its connection to its literary inspiration.)  This year is going to be a grumpy one, and my subject is, I am sorry to say, the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Little Women (BBC1).

I was really looking forward this programme. Emily Watson (who plays Marmee) is one of my favourite actresses, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March was an inspired bit of casting, and I always enjoy Call the Midwife (BBC1) created by adaptor Heidi Thomas. Above all, the original novels, Little Women (1868) and Good Wives (1869), were an enormous part of intellectual and cultural development as a child and young women and I continue to re-read them on a fairly regular basis. As with many other women raised in the Anglophone tradition, these novels, like those of L.M. Montgomery, E. Nesbit and Frances Hodgeson Burnett have, for better or worse, shaped the woman I am today.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of screen adaptation of Alcott’s classic novel, of which there have been a remarkable number (two silent versions, released in 1917 and 1918, three major Hollywood productions in 1933, 1949 and 1994, plus a 1978 television mini-series featuring William Shatner as Frederic Bhaer). In those that I have seen, the tendency has been to focus on the sentimentality of the novels (and Beth’s death in particular) at the expense of the acute reflections on Civil War-era New England society (and the gendering of that society) that forms the heart of the novels themselves.

To be fair, this is not something that this latest adaptation can be accused of. There are lingering shots of dying Civil War soldiers; the poverty of the Hummell children is depicted as deeply shocking, and Hannah, the Marches’ Irish maid is one of the more well-rounded characters in the drama. And yet these attempts at social realism seemed to miss so much of the complex social reality that Alcott was not merely depicting but actively critiquing in her novels.

Two things, I think, were at play here. The first was the attempt to fit as many of the multiple events that form the novel as possible into three hour-long episodes, rather than simply eliminating extraneous ones. As a result, some key episodes are seriously truncated, while others have their chronology muddled. Both adaptive strategies eliminate much of the subtext that Alcott inserts (not always subtly) into each of her stories within stories. Setting Amy’s valley of humiliation with the pickled limes after the departure of Marmee for the South to nurse her husband puts Jo in the role of the outraged maternal figure, rejecting corporal punishment, rather than Marmee, so that the episode no longer reflects on the polemical ideas about the appropriate way to raise and school young women that are so evident in the text.  The shortening of the ‘Camp Laurence’ episode, meanwhile, to Miss Vaughan’s snubbing of Meg and Beth’s self-sacrifice in talking to one of the twins (who is portrayed as temporarily incapacitated rather than crippled, as in the book), reduces a wider message about American self-reliance in comparison to European class consciousness to a caricature, while failing to fully capture the heroism of Beth’s actions. Most noticeably, the relationship between Beth, Jo and old peppery old Mr Lawrence is so underwritten as to have the emotion removed from it entirely, again reducing Beth’s characterization to a cypher, while criminally under-using Michael Gambon in the role of Mr Lawrence.

It is, of course, impossible to fit everything into a mini-series of this length, but these strategies, combined with shortening the overall trajectory from five years to less than three means that character development is seriously compromised. Amy and Beth are, as usual, cast far too old to begin with (they are 12 and 13 in the book), and all Beth’s ‘rosiness’ is eliminated in favour of portraying her as a permanently frail introvert. And this points to the second reason for my disappointment with this adaptation, namely the modernization of the characters to deliver a message about female agency which results in what felt like a series of mis-characterizations.  Jo’s independence becomes something to be celebrated rather than schooled; Marmee becomes a frustrated house-wife; even Aunt March gets an anachronistic feminist speech of regret in the final episode. Yet this, for me, misses the great joy of the book, which tackles head on the complexity of white womanhood, young and old, in mid-nineteenth century England. The process by which Jo goes from immaturity to adulthood, the challenges that Marmee faces in raising her children in a society increasingly defined by consumption, Meg’s failures at domesticity and the consequent negotiation of marital relations, Beth’s courage in facing loss of health and ultimately death, Amy’s search for a purpose that uses her skills but does not require genius, Aunt March’s loneliness and social isolation – all these plots have contemporary echoes which this programme, in its rush to tell so much about the limits of nineteenth century society for women, missed.

For me, the emblematic scene thus became the final one, with Marmee sitting surrounded by her surviving daughters in the orchard at Plumfield. The camera cuts to their menfolk – Mr March, John Brooke, Laurie and Professor Bhaer. In the book, this scene is one of mutual affection and endeavor, the statement of Alcott’s view that a successful life involves the mutual aid of family, with men and women both having roles, rather than personal independence.  Yet in the programme, the men have been so reduced (with Professor Bhaer in particular barely allowed time to develop at all, as well as being far too young), that the message appears to be that they have been sidelined in a manner that is profoundly a-historical. Misrepresenting historical reality in this way in a work of fiction is not in itself problematic, but this, for me, misrepresents the source text in ways that undermine the whole adaptation.

Alcott, it is worth noting, was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator, philosopher, reformer and member of the Transcendentalists. Her father’s progressive ideas about education and the raising of children are reflected in many of her novels, not only Little Women, but also Eight Cousins (1875), which articulates the case for women’s dress reform, its sequel, Rose in Bloom (1876) and An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870). These latter two, along with the sequels to Little Women, Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1876), are explicit in their exploration of the desirability for women’s independent labour outside the home, and the tensions that this raises with many women’s desires for marriage and family. The novels all end, in good sentimental Victorian tradition, with weddings. However, the portrayal of Jo’s ultimate success as a writer occurring well after her marriage in Jo’s Boys and the insistence on Rose Campbell’s independent philanthropy in Rose in Bloom and Polly Mason’s self-reliance even in face of her lover’s poverty, points to Alcott’s refusal to see women’s work and the achievement of domesticity as mutually exclusive.

The window into the past that Alcott’s work offers, therefore, is one that exhibits a nuanced and complex reality, a past populated by women and men attempting to negotiate tensions and contradictions and, more often than not, succeeding. Little Women draws its loyal readers back again and again not only because of its overt sentimentality (as comforting as that can, upon occasion be) or because we see ourselves reflected in it (although, as the commentary around the television programme demonstrated, many women do identify strongly with the four sisters, and Jo in particular), but also because it shows us a world at once very different from ours but nonetheless asking many familiar questions of women seeking find their own way in a world and suggesting that we may, in fact, be able to find it, but not without cost. In seeking to impose a narrative of frustrated modernity, rather than exploring how the March sisters successfully negotiated these oh-so-familiar challenges, this latest adaptation, as visually beautiful and beautifully acted as it was, was ultimately a missed opportunity.

Beginnings and Endings

Just over five years ago, I posted the first post on this blog, beginning what I thought would be a process of recording the researching and writing of a book about the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War. Just under two weeks ago, I submitted the completed manuscript to the publisher, on the final day the university was open this calendar year. It was a climax, a culmination. But it wasn’t an ending.

There are several reasons why I say this with some confidence, about both the book and this blog. As far at the book is concerned, there is still a great deal left to do – permissions to be sought, images to be sourced, indexes to be completed – and the manuscript itself is to be sent to yet another reader. And this blog has, in the past five years, wandered into all sorts of byways unrelated to the project it was set up to chronicle.  In spite of my neglect of it over the past few months as I’ve concentrated on finishing the manuscript, it remains an important outlet for me, and I will continue to use it to chronicle the ups and downs of academic life, my new research project, my eternal struggle to create an acceptable work/life and, inevitable, a range of thoughts and responses the commemoration and memory of the First World War in British culture.

Yet, while this has been a moment of transition rather than ending, there have been points of ending and new beginnings along the way. The direct funding for this project ended two years ago. In its place, I’ve started on new (related) research , as well as gaining two new job titles. Intellectually and personally life has interwoven, overlapped, bled into itself.

Which, particularly at this time of year, doesn’t stop me looking for tidy endings and new beginnings. Even as I am aware of the chaos of books all over the floor that awaits my return to the office, along with all the projects I’ve been putting off for the past three months, I am also hoping that having given myself permission not to work for two weeks over the holiday period will give me the energy to start if not anew in January, then at least afresh.  There is the blog post I’ve been meaning to write since the summer which, with space from other deadlines, I hope to finally complete; there is the pile of books I’ve been collecting, looking for the time and space to engage with them properly.

There will, I hope, be more, and more definite endings in the coming year, with the final completion of the book. There will also, I anticipate, be beginnings – of ideas, projects, collaborations – as well as the new beginning marked by moving to a new home in the spring. All have looking forward to the near future in ways that hasn’t been true for the past couple of years.

So, at this turning of the year, I wish you all successful endings and hopeful beginnings for the new year.

Happy new year, one and all.