- British Women’s Poetry:World War I
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WHILE QUOTING an essay by Whitney Womack on the poet Lady Margaret Sackville (1881–1963), Argha Banerjee muses: “It is strange that in spite of being a prolific and immensely popular writer during her time, Margaret Sackville ‘has been all but forgotten by contemporary literary critics’ of today” (141). This sort of observation appears in many forms throughout Women’s Poetry and the First World War, as Banerjee, a faculty member in English at St. Xavier’s College in Kolkata, applies it to a long list of figures, few of whom have survived as objects of critical interest. As he notes, too, regardless “of their remarkable contribution to war poetry,” women writers “have been sadly overlooked in most poetry anthologies of the First World War” (231). But large numbers of these poets get their due at last in Banerjee’s volume, which pays close attention both to better-known authors such as Rose Macaulay, Charlotte Mew, and May Sinclair—all of them more famous now, of course, as writers of prose fiction than as poets—and to truly obscure and neglected ones, such as May Cannan (1893–1973). The latter is honored here with a fifty-four-page-long chapter devoted to analyzing her poems, a number of which were autobiographical and which conveyed “the adventure of getting to France for four weeks during the war, to help work voluntarily at a Canteen for soldiers going to the Front” (390).
Banerjee’s selection of writers is admirably comprehensive, embracing middle-class women who served in France or Belgium in various capacities (whether as ambulance drivers or, like Vera Brittain, as nurses); women who answered the call for “landgirls” to replace agricultural workers in the English countryside; and women who undertook no special war-related work, but who gave voice both to the anxieties of those left behind, when soldiers left for battle, and to the grief of those mourning the dead. What Banerjee does not address, however, are the many poets in the United States and throughout Europe who also responded to the events of 1914 to 1918. For the sake of accuracy, this volume should more properly have been titled British Women’s Poetry and the First World War.
The timing of this publication could not be better, given the renewed interest in World War I created by its centenary and the proliferation, in particular, of new information about previously underexplored aspects of women’s wartime culture in books such as Lucinda Gosling’s Knitting for Tommy: Keeping the Great War Soldier Warm (2014) and Lucy Adlington’s Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe (2014). It is, therefore, a shame that few readers in the West will ever [End Page 446] see Banerjee’s ambitious and welcome study. That is entirely the fault of the publishers, who have done little to bring it to the notice of scholars in the United States or Britain and have not made it available through distributors such as Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, or even Amazon.co.uk. The author has been ill served by the New Delhi–based firm of Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, Ltd. in other ways, too. It is not a propitious sign when the copyright page contains the following disclaimer—“if some mistakes persist in the content of the book the publisher does not take responsibility for the same”—and invites readers to act as editors: “If the readers find any mistakes we shall be grateful to them for pointing those to us [sic] so that they can be corrected in the next edition.” Clearly, there has been no copyediting of this volume, which is marred throughout by typographical and spelling errors, as well as problematic syntax and word choices.
Thus, “In fact” appears as “Infact” (307); Remapping the Home Front (2002) has been attributed to “Deborah Cohen,” rather than to Debra Rae Cohen (10); and the composer Dame Ethel Smyth becomes “Ethel Smith” (109). There...