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  • WW I Memoirs & Romances By Women
  • Judith Ruderman
Jane Potter. Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War 1914–1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. xiii+ 257 pp. $99.00

The title of Jane Potter's study of WW I memoirs and romances by women takes its impetus from a patriotic 1914 song Boys in Khaki, Boys in Blue, in which the lyrics "sing in praise of Britain's boys" and express the confidence that "Lads, we know you'll do your duty." Potter sings in praise not only of the combat duty of several lesser-known women writers who served in the Great War as nurses, and who published accounts of that experience in the years between 1914 and 1918, but also of those female romance writers who served their country through the reinforcement of patriotic values and stereotypes. While making no claim for the literary achievements of these women, Potter resurrects them from the obscurity into which they have largely fallen and features them as important participants in, and exemplars of, the war effort.

As Potter notes in her introduction, the Great War has come to be commonly viewed through such literary lenses as the modernist poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon or the memoirs of Vera Brittain, Edmund Blunden, and Robert Graves. But there are numerous female authors, now largely forgotten, whose writings were very popular during the war period in great part because they served the dual and seemingly contradictory purposes of support for and escape from the conflict. Potter has selected a few unfamiliar texts for close analysis—literature that is "less elite" (as she politely puts it) than that commonly studied in the classroom. Through analysis of these works she demonstrates how their authors, all of them middle-class women, both incorporated and promulgated majority opinions about duty, gender, race and class.

Potter begins her study with a chapter on the Boer War of 1899–1902, and the years leading up to 1914, in order to set the popular works of WW I in their historical context. The main subjects of her study were, after all, conversant with the periodicals for youth that conveyed the manly, imperialist values of the late-Victorian era at the same time as—under the influence of the New Woman movement—they depicted "plucky" girls on complementary yet appropriate (i.e., feminine) adventures of their own. In real life, women during the Boer War were relegated to such conventional work as knitting for soldiers or caring for widows and orphans, whereas in the next British War, women could engage in "official" war work as nurses, ambulance drivers, or munitions [End Page 118] workers. Potter discusses the important differences as well as commonalities between the literatures of the two periods. The critical aspects of popular fiction of the Boer War that had "tremendous staying power" were an acceptance of the need for war and the nobility of sacrifice to it.

During the Boer War, advertising in magazines for youth and adults alike was a vehicle for propaganda and employed many of the same words and images as the magazines and romances. The same was true in the war to follow, as the "ideology and iconography" of a wide variety of visual media—recruitment posters, picture postcards, magazine illustrations, public pageants, cartoons, calendars, writing pads and stationery, film and theatre—were mirrored in the texts of popular fiction and memoirs. Chapter two discusses the publishing industry, the production and dissemination of books during the Great War, as well as pertinent government policies on censorship and propaganda. Here as elsewhere in her study, Potter acknowledges dissenting voices, such as publisher Stanley Unwin, but concentrates on the war work done via word and picture. It should be mentioned in this context that the study contains throughout a good number of useful illustrations that evidence the power of pictorial images, especially those employing women in their roles of devoted mother or sweetheart/wife; victims of the evil Hun; or potential recruits to battlefield or hospital nursing.

Potter's final two chapters, on romance novels and memoirs respectively, constitute the meat of her study. In the first of these...


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pp. 118-120
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