Women writers in World War I

Recently, I finished reading Tereska Torres’s Women’s Barracks. The book is a 1950 novel based loosely on the years she spent serving in the Free French Forces in London during World War II.

Torres wrote the book partly at the urging of her husband, Meyer Levin, who thought that the anecdotes of barracks life would find a natural audience among American pulp readers. Levin was right — after he translated the novel from French to English and made some changes suggested by the American publisher, it went on to sell 4 million copies.

Much of the book’s success is likely attributable to its more risque elements, as the novel deals frankly and repeatedly with the subject of affairs among the women in the barracks. This made it one of the first lesbian-themed novels from the postwar pulp publishers, and helped kick off a new (and popular) subgenre. When the book is discussed today, it’s usually in this context — as a pioneering work of gay fiction (even though many of the changes that Levin made to the manuscript at the insistence of the publisher involved the injection of traditional moralizing into the novel).

But there’s another side to the novel that I found totally intriguing, and that’s the treatment of war by a woman novelist who herself served in the ranks of the military. Torres wasn’t on the front lines during the years that the novel covers (though she did, like countless other Londoners, live through the Blitz and later bombing campaigns), but she was an enlisted member of Charles de Gaulle’s volunteer corps that worked and fought to liberate France alongside the other Allies.

In that way, Women’s Barracks struck me as both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. War is one of the great and common subjects of 20th century novels, and the list of books written by one-time servicemen that deal directly with World War I (to take just one war as a starting point) is almost endless: Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Ford’s The Good Soldier, Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers and Nineteen Nineteen, e.e. cummings’s The Enormous Room, J√ľnger’s Storm of Steel, Graves’s Good-Bye to All That, Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and so on and so on.

For those who want to understand the experiences of male servicemen, the material is almost inexhaustible. But it’s not so easy to find novels and memoirs written by women who served. This is where Women’s Barracks became pleasantly unfamiliar — enough so that it set me in search of more books along the same line.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll be sticking with World War I. Though Women’s Barracks is set during World War II, I’m less familiar with the writers and books of that time. I certainly don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of writers of the “teens” either, but at least I feel on stronger footing.

So what I was looking for was this: Women writers who had served in some active capacity during World War I, and who later wrote about those experiences. I’ve taken a pretty liberal interpretation of “service” — some women were enlisted in the military, but many others served actively in civilian roles as nurses, journalists, secretaries, drivers, propagandists, and so on. Some belonged to volunteer organizations like the Red Cross, others worked for newspapers or government ministries, and others acted more independently.

Because of this broad definition and because of the paucity of easily available biographical information on some writers from this period in their lives, there are very few women writers that I can rule out as having not served at all. However, the list that follows includes those that I feel I can include with some certainty.

Women who served in World War I and later wrote about their experiences:

— Mary Roberts Rinehart. Called the “Agatha Christie of America” (despite beginning her writing career more than a decade before Christie did), Rinehart was a war correspondent in Belgium during the war — one of the few women to have such an assignment. She wrote many novels in her life, most of them mysteries, but at least one, The Amazing Interlude (1918) deals directly with the war.

— May Sinclair. Best remembered today for inventing the phrase “stream of consciousness”, Sinclair was a writer and critic who volunteered with the Munro Ambulance Corps in Belgium. Sinclair only remained at the front for a few weeks, but she wrote about similar fictional ambulance corps in several of her later novels, including Tasker Jevons: The Real Story (1916), The Tree of Heaven (1917), The Romantic (1920) and Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922).

— Edith Wharton. The American Wharton was living in France at the time of the war. She visited the front lines and did volunteer work to bring relief to displaced refugees fleeing the worst of the fighting. She documented some of her experiences and observations in France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915).

— Cicely Hamilton. A playwright (among many other things), Hamilton served in several capacities during the war. She was a nurse in England, then enlisted as an army auxiliary, then head of a troupe that entertained the soldiers. She wrote William – An Englishman (1920), about the effects of World War I on a married couple.

— Colette. A prolific French writer of many short stories and novels about women, Colette operated a hospital out of her husband’s estate at Saint-Malo. She was decorated by the French government for her wartime service. Her novel Mitsou (1919) concerns a woman hiding two lieutenants during the war.

— Gertrude Stein. An American by birth, Stein lived in France for years before the war. She moved to England with her partner Alice B. Toklas in 1914, and then spent the war in England, Spain, and finally France. In France, Stein and Toklas both volunteered as drivers with the American Fund for the French Wounded. Stein included those experiences in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

There are a few other women writers who served in World War I, but who may not have ever written about the war. I haven’t extensively reviewed the work of all these women, but my researches so far have not turned up any writings directly related to their war experiences. However, they might exist!

— Jean Rhys. Best known today for her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Rhys had an early career as a writer in 1920s and 1930s. Before that, she was an actress. During World War I, she was a volunteer worker in a soldier’s canteen. None of her five novels deal with war.

— Agatha Christie. The creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and served as a doctor’s aide at a hospital in southwest England. Although her first two novels, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and The Secret Adversary (1922), both allude to World War I, I’m not aware of any of Christie’s books where the war is more than a background element.

— D.K. Broster. A British novelist and short story writer, Broster shipped out with the Red Cross to serve in a French hospital in 1915 but returned home with a knee infection in 1916. I’m not familiar enough with her writing to know if she ever wrote about the war (though I do know she is remembered for ghost stories and historical fiction).

Several other women writers addressed the war directly in their books, but did not necessarily serve in an active capacity. As alluded to above, I can’t say that these women didn’t serve at all — they may have, and their service may not have been mentioned in the few sources I consulted.

— Rebecca West. West’s first novel was The Return of the Soldier (1918), a “home front” tale of an amnesiac, shell-shocked soldier returning from war, and the women who attempt to shape his future life in England.

— Katherine Anne Porter. An American, Porter spent many of the war years in sanatoriums being treated for tuberculosis. Her novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939) is a “home front” tale of the influenza epidemic of 1918 — during which Porter herself almost died.

— L.M. Montgomery. The Canadian writer of the Anne of Green Gables series, Montgomery finished that series with the novel Rilla of Ingleside (1921). The novel sees several characters fighting World War I while the title character (and others) stay behind in wartime Canada.

— Radclyffe Hall. Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) bears some resemblance to Women’s Barracks, as it is about both war and lesbianism. The protagonist, a woman named Stephen, is an ambulance driver in France. Though Hall did not serve in that role herself, she consulted with her friend Toupie Lowther who was commander of similar a woman’s ambulance unit.

— Mildred Aldrich. A friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aldrich was an American journalist who remained in France at the beginning of World War I. She published her own letters of war observations in four collections: A Hilltop on the Marne (1915), On the Edge of the War Zone (1917), The Peak of the Load (1918), and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1919).

These lists are not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative. In fact, they’re downright haphazard, if you ask me, and I’m sure I’ll think of some important or popular woman writer who I forgot to research as soon as I hit the “post” button on this. But I’ve already got enough new reading material out of this to last me a long while, so I hope others will pick up the baton instead.

One glaring deficiency of this list is that the books listed here come almost exclusively from American and British women, and all except those by Colette were originally published in English. This despite the fact that World War I had global effects. Isak Dinesen, for instance, writes about some of the war’s reverberations as they are felt in Nairobi in Out of Africa (1937) — though the war is a background element there, at best. And no doubt there are many fascinating accounts by women who lived much closer to the front lines — in France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, and so on — which I’m simply not aware of.

I’m always pleased when I read a book like Women’s Barracks which makes me wonder about a subgenre of literature that I hadn’t really considered before. I’m sure if I extended my research to World War II, I’d find much more fascinating material. But one benefit of confining my inquiries to World War I is that many of the books mentioned above are in the public domain in the United States.

American readers should have no difficulty finding free etexts of many of the works by Mary Roberts Rinehart, May Sinclair, Edith Wharton, Agatha Christie, Rebecca West, L.M. Montgomery, and Mildred Aldrich. (Hint: Check Project Gutenberg.) The same is no doubt true for readers in other countries, but alas I’m not aware of all the ins and outs of copyright law elsewhere in the world. Consult your local laws.

As to the book that started this all, there’s a very nice edition of Tereska Torres’s Women’s Barracks from Feminist Press at the City University of New York. It’s part of their Femme Fatales “women write pulp” series, which I’ve become very excited about. The series includes new editions of books by women in several pulp genres, including some with titles you may recognize from well-known noir movies like In a Lonely Place, Bunny Lake Is Missing, and Laura.

In addition to the original American text of Women’s Barracks, the Feminist Press edition includes an illuminating interview with Tereska Torres and a long afterword that places the book in the context of other lesbian literature (particularly “pulp”). Unfortunately, the afterword doesn’t have much to say about the book’s place in war literature by women. This post can’t fill the need for a scholarly discussion of that topic, but I hope it’s at least an imperfect starting point for those who are interested.

If anybody has any additional information related to this topic, please feel free to comment or send me a note. I’d love to hear about it!


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