I had intended this memoir as my nonfiction work for Novellas in November, as well as for Nonfiction November. But, life got in the way and I missed the deadline. At 254 pages it was just a touch too long for #NovNov, but it still read like a Novella so that’s that. Plus, first hand account of the Blitz are always fascinating and this one was well worth the extra pages.
“The Blitz was providing something besides bombs. It was making people talk to one another.” (p. 102)
Olivia Faviell Lucas, the real name of author Francis Faviell, traveled the world between the wars. At the time of this memoir, she was about to be married to Richard Parker, a Civil Servant. She lived in Chelsea right by the Royal Hospital, with her little dachshund, Vicki, and earned her living as a painter having trained at the Slade School. The story begin as the war is starting. Frances is a volunteer in the first aid and fire services. Her work takes her into the inferno of dropping incendiaries and other types of bombs in the beginning of the war and the time now known as the Blitz.
In spite of the war, hers is a nice life lived in pleasant surroundings–a home that we would today say was “curated,” that is filled with treasures from her travels including the green glass cat on the cover of the book. His story is told in the beginning of the book. We meet her friends, neighbors, housekeeper, and other residents of her lovely Chelsea neighborhood.
Her work with the wounded and the dead is often very grisly. It is the sort of things we often say “I couldn’t do that” because war has never forced us to try. Due to her language ability, she is called upon to help with a nearby community of Belgian refugees.
The war comes home to Frances while she is expecting her first child–she briefly loses her nerve, then steels herself and gets on with helping the wounded. Like the Queen Mother famously said after Buckingham Palace was bombed, she could look the East end “in the face” so too can Frances look that way at her Belgian refugees.
“The Blitz was doing something else–it was cotninuing the slow difficult process already begun before the war of breaking down class barriers.” (p. 102)
Being political, my first thought was just WHO was the friend that The Rt Hon Leslie Hore Belisha always going to visit in Chelsea–enabling Frances to have a chat with her friend, a volunteer, who was his driver? lol.
More to the point, I wondered how people kept going. Today would we (Americans) ever agree to rationing? To everyone obeying a neighbor appointed as an air raid or fire warden? Please–we can’t even agree on getting a shot today. We’d fight over it till the end. And, people just kept going. Yes, some had what were then called “nervous breakdowns,” and smoking and drinking were rife, but people kept going. Send our children away? I cannot imagine doing that. I just cannot. Euthanize our pets (as many had to do)? Brutal–yet so many at that time did so for the good of all.
There are so many brave moments in this story it is hard to single out even one. The Belgian woman who is castigated for never going to visit her newborn baby is among the most vivid aside from some of the violence from the bombs (too horrific to discuss). Unmarried, not sure she’ll ever see the father again, in a strange country, very, very ill and yet she is harassed by neighbors and do-gooders to get out of her sickbed and go to the countryside to see her evacuated newborn who wouldn’t know her from Adam. That was truly harsh. So too was the clean, tidy, clergyman who told a woman who’d just lost her husband in violent circumstances to accept it as God’s will and move on. He wasn’t really wrong–she would have to accept it and move on at some point, but his timing was callus even for a world war. And, I was with Frances checking out those manicured hands that had never even dug to plant a vegetable, let alone dug up a human or their remains. Judgy? Yep–war is hell.
I’m off my reviewing game, so I’m not really making this sound anywhere near as interesting and as readable as it was. But it’s another of the rare books to which I’ve given a 4.5 rating. Several this year which is unusual. Read it. You won’t be sorry. Like everything coming from Dean Street Press, it is worth it.
Apparently this memoir is mentioned in this documentary.