A Bitter Harvest: A poignant generation of women

I was bought up in a small village in Leicestershire. All three roads into the village were gated and there was no pub or shop. And yet, in the early sixties when I was a child there were at least half a dozen elderly women - though they were the age I am now - who were spinsters. Why had they never married? Because their husbands, or rather potential husbands, had been killed in the First World War.

One of this poignant cohort was very close to my family. Vossy, Miss Edna Voss and her two sisters (and ‘Aunty’) lived in the next door village in a house that was an Edwardian period piece. There was electricity but no electrical appliances other than heaters. A television appeared in the 1970s. They had an outside privy and wash day was once a week using a hand worked mangle. Their bath was a zinc hip bath and was, again, used once a week. Vossy worked for us as a cleaner and nanny and arrived on a bicycle, Freda, the youngest had a car and worked in Leicester and Mary, who was ‘simple’, was locked in the house while they were away. She was  much loved by her two sisters.

When I was young I saw their situation as ‘normal.’ For them, of course, it was a personal catastrophe as they, like all pre-war young women, saw the meaning of their Edwardian lives - marriage and children - disappear with the terrible news from France. The Pals battalions, raised locally, meant that the men of a village and indeed a whole area were often killed together. Vossy had a ‘young man’ who she sometimes spoke of - but only in the most general terms.

This generation was like a rabbit going through the snake. Those  born from about 1900 onwards avoided the slaughter and those born earlier - say 1890 may have lost a husband but they would probably have had children. It was those born between 1894 and 1900 who bore the brunt of a lifetime of sexual and emotional starvation with unfulfilled maternal instincts with none of the comforts of old age provided by grandchildren. It was a poignant cohort.

As I tried to imagine this for A Bitter Harvest it was easy to become depressed about the sad future lives of these women who were coming to terms with such a bleak outlook. But youth is youth and like green shoots coming out after a fire, many turned their lives towards other opportunities and relationships with their own sex. The war emancipated women in more than just their ability to vote. Though the background was melancholy, life went on - and their courage and stoicism was something to admire. 

I hope this admiration comes across in A Bitter Harvest.

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