This is a really extraordinary book that tells the story of a young woman who drops out of Oxford in 1914 to become a nurse for the British military in France and Belgium. For one, she opens with a long section about Oxford life, the expectations of life for women her age, and even mentions that her cohort at school included Dorothy Sayers, who famously went to Somerset. The book then goes on to her decisions to leave school and join the service.
As she’s gone, her voice, written and published in the 1930s, where she’s perfectly situated before the telling signs of the next war and old enough to really understand and frame her experiences of her youth in mature and wise ways, explains to us more than simply her choices and their impacts, but a careful understanding of the total context of those choices. Her emotional maturity, the truly terrible experiences she has, and her casting herself squarely in contrast to the mostly male-dominated industry of war memoirs really makes this an interesting and important work. It’s early memoir and it’s the kind early representation of a form that’s almost perfected in the first go.
The most glaring issue with the book is that it’s too long. It should probably be two or three volumes, and while length in a good book is not always an issue, here it weighs down the impact of the most important sections. For example, it’s hard to be that into her return to Oxford and the 200 pages that takes up after 300 pages of wartime.