The series ‘Wren Jane Beacon goes to War’ has taken me deep into another world.
Writing about women in the Second World War is a strange experience: In one way it is all very familiar, from the way the men perceived their female counterparts to the way the eternal theme of boy meets girl played out in what at a glance seems like the way it is still done now.
People looked the same, more or less dressed the same and used the English language in what, superficially, is a similar way. But this is deceptive. In many other ways that period is as different to what we know now, as would be something that Jane Austen wrote about. The superficial similarity can deceive the eye very easily; the reader of 2017 can find themself thinking ‘why don’t they just get on with it?’ But back in 1940 they just didn’t. The social rules of pre-war Britain still held although were about to be torn apart for ever.
Sex was a taboo subject. Because it ‘wasn’t done’ to speak about it, right across the classes women in particular lived in deep ignorance of their own bodies and especially of their reproductive systems. There was a good reason for sex outside marriage to be treated as the ultimate sin, never to be indulged. Not knowing anything about contraception, the only way most woman could avoid pregnancy was not to do it in the first place. And there was a premium on virginity on marriage: in a society with economic foundations based on the family inheritance principle, it was seen as important that the man could know that any offspring were his. The only way of guaranteeing this was for the woman not to allow any other man into her reproductive system. To some extent it could be argued that this is still the case today but with the fog of ignorance blown away and reliable contraception available, the means of achieving it have utterly changed and with that a freedom quite beyond understanding back then.
The test of a gentleman then was that he didn’t press a woman too hard, treated her with respect and kept his urges to himself. Physically, those were just as strong then as now, and it says something for the societal restraints that the urges were kept in check. Has that one changed? Perhaps not but it finds quite different expression nowadays.
There were other attitudes to do with the body that seem strange today. Pictures of the time show that even two-piece bathing costumes were high-waisted. There was a reason for this: exposing the navel was considered bad manners almost to the point of obscenity, and no respectable woman would have dreamt of doing so. Quite why the inoffensive belly button was viewed this way is less clear but it was a long-standing shibboleth that only finally died away in the 1950’s.
Beyond the rules about the body, using it and exposing it, one of the biggest differences is in social relations. As soon as I started writing about the period I found that class was an unavoidable theme to an extent unimaginable today. Even today Britain is a class stratified society but the idea that one did not speak to members of a different class has gone. But back then, eighty years ago, the only contact between even fairly modest middle class clerks, and the manual labouring people tended to be in giving orders.
Many of the other differences had their roots in this stratification of society: deference was still regarded as quite normal. The honest labourer doffing his cap and going “God bless you, ma’am” to those perceived to be more exalted was still seen as perfectly normal behaviour. Unmarried women did not speak to men they had not been introduced to. As they were only introduced to their social equals or higher, this trait re-inforced the tendency for classes to remain in their own circles. Again, this was to disappear forever as different classes were thrown into each others’ close company – especially in the uniformed services – and had to learn to live, work and die together.
So writing about a young woman of that time, posed challenges in bringing her in a believable way to the audience of 2017.
Our values now are quite different: nobody even thought about the environment back then, but did care deeply about preserving social appearances: Trying to explain such priorities is challenging. Quite instinctively, women (and not least Wren Jane) were taking the next steps along the road from emancipation.
The second war ensured that women’s place would never again be defined purely by home and hearth, family and babies, accepting men’s dominant position. For the young women living in this dramatic, emotionally heightened, period it was simply what they lived and did.
For the world of 2017 to be able to understand that and empathise with the position of people in 1939 is the challenge of the writer and it has proved a bigger one than the superficial similarities might lead one to expect. But fascinating.
EDITOR: Read Douglas article about Wren Jane Beacon here. Details of how to buy the book are included within the article.