Youth is a time for dreams–dreams of love, of a successful future, of a happy life waiting to be started “for real.” Ada Vaughan is in her late teens–done with school, working in a fashionable haute couture dress shop in London in 1939. She dreams of her own Paris atelier that she wants to call the House of Vaughn. It’s a long shot–she’s a working class girl who does the right things to better herself, like take elocution lessons. Accent is still the most noticeable class distinction in England.
In the summer of 1939 she meets an Hungarian Count, who woos her with style. He promises to take her to Paris and, against the advice of everyone, she accepts and goes with him on the eve of war. They live together with decreasing happiness during the so-called phony war. When the real war begins in earnest, he flees with her to Namur in Belgium–“Namur–no more” and her life is never again the same, yet somehow, her naivete stays in tact in regarding men. Hmmmm.
It’s hard to remember that in 1939 girls were not anywhere near as sophisticated as they are today. They often had no knowledge of sex, where closely supervised–a reputation as “loose” could cost a girl her job and keep her from marrying. Warnings of the “White Slave Trade,” were either feared or, like warnings to teen’s today about social media, were laughed at an ignored. It’s also important to realize that women had very few rights–yes, even in 1939, what right’s they hard were largely on paper and not in real life.
Women took care of the home, waited on the husband, did what the husband wanted and needed and, often, expected to do nothing else. Housework was done scrupulously no matter how long it took or how back-breaking the toil. If the family was in lean financial times, the women cut her own portions to the bone so that everyone else had enough. This was taken totally for granted. Women who did otherwise, with few exceptions, were seen as “slovenly,” or “loose” and were treated with real scorn. Men, women were told, would not marry them–and marriage was a women’s only real means of support in most social class structures.
Add to this the huge gulf of differences in socialization between working class and the upper classes–toffs–and, well you can see where disaster is coming, can’t you?
It’s very easy to look at situations from one side and make a judgement. It’s harder when you are shown a situation from multiple perspectives. The strength of this book is the end–the way the men “hear” the story. Women’s wars are not like men’s wars. Words do not convey all that happens. I especially loved Ada’s very accurate thoughts on how since her war story didn’t fit the mold, no one wanted to hear it. So true. So true of so many experiences of women. “I could never survive that,” a woman says while the woman relating the story says thinks the obvious “Yes, yes, you could if you’d been in my place.” So easy, too, to twist words, to put a certain tone or spin on a word and change opinions. Are rose hips a weapon? Should one push boundaries when death is the consequence? How bad is “too bad?”
I loved how Mary, so naive, put together that a trial is a piece of theater–especially the flouncing of the be-gowned and be-wigged barristers. And the tactics of the opposition to interrupt the flow of her words by blowing his nose! Brilliant legal theater! As a law librarian for many years, I’ve helped “script” such theatrical performances. It’s much harder without wigs and gowns though.
Mary Chamberlain, a former Oxford history professor,has published on women’s history and feminist history topics, and so does a superb job of showing the bias against women’s war experiences while still telling an edge-of-you-seat story. In spite of this, I did wonder why no one, at any time in the story of the run-up to the war, even mentioned going to the British Embassy for help. A 19 year old girl with no knowledge of the world may never have heard the word, but surely the nuns, who would know what an Embassy was, could have directed her! Never mind, wars cause chaos as the story so vividly illustrates.
A note on the audio version: The read’s voice is odd and hypnotic. Not unpleasant, just very odd. She did a superb job on Mr. Chartwell, but this one got almost too hypnotic.
The Dressmaker’s War (aka The Dressmaker of Dachau), by Mary Chamberlain.