Duty and trauma: ‘The Nurses’ War’ by Victoria Purman
Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.
The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.
The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.
If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.
The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.
Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.The Nurse’s War p79
The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.
Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.
Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.
This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.
At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?
Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.
The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
The real stories of life after WWII – from the women of Australia: ‘The Women’s Pages’ by Victoria Purman
I’ve always enjoyed looking at my mother’s photos of her life in Sydney in the late 1940’s. A young, single woman, she made her living working in a Surrey Hills dressmaking business, and her photos included outings with her workmates, all dressed up in bright, pretty frocks (which they sewed themselves) enjoying life in the immediate postwar time. They looked free from the worries and hardships that had plagued Australians during the long, hard war years.
Photos only tell part of the story, of course. The apparently carefree expressions of the young women in my mother’s photos no doubt hid a multitude of troubles: financial worries, scars (both visible and invisible) carried by family members who served in the armed forces, grief for those who did not return, lingering shortages of food, fabrics, fuel and other necessities.
It is these realities that feature in The Women’s Pages and make this novel’s portrayal of post-war Sydney life so convincing. The story opens on ‘Victory in the Pacific Day’ in August 1945. The main character, Tilly Galloway, observes the delirium of victory and the end of the war, in her role as a war correspondent for a major Sydney newspaper. The celebrations across the city last through the night and Tilly records all she sees and hears for her story.
Tilly is a young woman who has shared the wartime hardships and grief of so many. Her young husband Archie disappeared during his service in New Guinea, and is presumed to have been taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Similarly, her flatmate Mary is longing for the return of her own husband, a prisoner at the notorious Changi prison camp. Tilly’s father is a waterside worker, with failing health and bitter, recent memories of the ‘Hungry Mile’, where desperate men thronged Sydney’s docks area, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work during the Depression years. (This area is now the Barangaroo development, housing restaurants, bars, offices and upmarket accommodation – a very different space from the grime and grit of its working class waterfront origins.) Money is tight for most people in Tilly’s world, and wartime shortages and rationing not yet eased.
In addition, Tilly experiences the sexism and opposition of male colleagues who sexually harass, dismiss and disrespect women – and pay them less than the men. The scenes in which Tilly and other women confront these behaviours echo parts of Natasha Lester’s 2019 novel The French Photographer, which chronicles similar struggles faced by female war correspondents in the US and Europe during the same period.
In The Women’s Pages, Tilly pushes hard to be allowed to cover the war but is only allowed to go as far as Darwin on a tour for female correspondents. When the war ends, she is relegated to stories about the ‘home front’ and things to do with women – though she knows that women want to read about much more than fashion and dinner parties. She is also confronted by the shocking inequities in the way different people are treated – war widows, those women who took on ‘men’s jobs’ during the war years, and those men physically or psychologically damaged by their wartime experiences (and their wives and families).
While one might have thought the war had been a great equaliser, given death knew no class or rank distinction, Tilly realised that the war had only cemented Sydney’s social strata, not shattered it… Her anger at the inequality made bile rise in her throat.The Women’s Pages p363
Reading about the ways in which Australians battled grief, anxiety and poverty was a timely reminder, in these COVID19 days, that being separated from loved ones, ‘making do’ with what you have, shortages in shops, coping with constant worry and uncertainty, and adjusting to new routines, are not unique to our time. There is even mention of the suspension of international and national cricket competitions – shades of the tumult faced in recent times by athletes and sporting groups around the world. If I didn’t know how long it takes to get a manuscript written, edited and published, I’d almost suspect that Victoria Purman began work on this novel just months ago!
As news of atrocities committed in all theatres of war begin to filter through, Tilly realises that the suffering of so many – those returning from the front and those waiting for them at home – will continue. There is no instant fix and no guarantee that Australians can resume their previous lives anytime soon. Purman paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional upheavals confronting all Australians in this period. Her heroine, Tilly, and Tilly’s family, friends and colleagues, are believable and sympathetic characters. I cared about them. And Tilly’s decision to do what she can to address the injustices she sees, made me cheer.
The Women’s Pages will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction firmly rooted in reality, and who like learning about the past while they get lost in a well told story.
The Women’s Pages will be published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (Harper Collins) in September 2020.
Thanks to HQ Fiction for an advance copy to read and review.