- Forbidden ZonesThe Representation of Quiet Trauma in Recent British and French World War I Novels
The Great War confronted the belligerent countries with an unprecedented number of war neuroses. The number of men displaying symptoms similar to hysteria, diagnosed by Victorian psychiatrists as a woman's disease, surprised the army and medical staff. Hysterical soldiers challenged the traditional ideal of masculinity, according to which men were expected to be self-controlled, courageous and honorable, and to prove their virility in war. Consequently, "wounds of the mind" were often interpreted as malingering or moral weakness and were even punished with court-martial and execution.1 While the reality of shell shock, a term introduced by Charles Myers in 1915, was reluctantly accepted by the medical authorities, war neuroses among civilians who did not experience any direct death encounter were already reported in The Lancet at the beginning of 1916.2 Shocked by the news about war atrocities and the mass deaths of the first industrialized war, civilians experienced vicarious traumatization that took specific forms. According to Trudi Tate, these "war neuroses were not always the same as peacetime neuroses: some were specific to the experience of the war, whether real or fantasized."3 Constant anxiety about the men at the front also created symptoms that today would be classified as PTSD. As Ann E. Kaplan emphasizes, stress does not only profoundly affect the soldiers fighting at the front but also their relatives indirectly involved in terror. Wives, mothers, and sisters in particular have [End Page 7] to struggle with anxieties concerning the fate of their husbands, sons, and brothers.4 In her understanding trauma is redefined to include the "traumas of loss, abandonment, rejection, betrayal," the quiet trauma suffered by families who do not participate directly in war, women in particular.5 This concept breaks new ground in trauma studies, which have generally focused on trauma as suffered and perpetrated by men.6
Although World War I has been traditionally seen as liberating for women by opening the public sphere to them, in reality industrial labor was presented as a temporary burden that they had to endure "for the duration." Both in England and France traditional gender codes were invoked to prevent sexual disorder and protect the status quo.7 According to Claire M. Tylee, "[a]s the public world became ever more inhuman, so the pressure was stronger for women to represent the excluded human values in the private sanctuary of the home."8 Both the challenge to and the forced maintenance of conservative gender roles proved traumatizing to different groups during the 1914–1918 conflict. Furthermore, as Susan S. Grayzel suggests, the term home front started to be widely used during World War I and reinforced the gap between genders by creating an artificial borderline between the front lines as inhabited exclusively by men, and home exclusively by women.9 The concept of "quiet trauma" challenges this rigid distinction, showing that psychological disorders affected people at both the military and home fronts in the first global war. Nevertheless, since the Great War has been conceptualized as an archetypal masculine experience, women's experience, including that of mental disorder, has been marginalized in militarily oriented historical and fictional accounts of the Great War.
The purpose of this article is a comparative study of quiet trauma in selected novels of the Great War published recently in England and France: Zennor in Darkness (1993) by Helen Dunmore, Dans la guerre (2003) by Alice Ferney, Les Fleurs d'hiver (2014) by Angélique Villeneuve, and My Dear I Wanted to Tell You (2011) by Louisa Young. The four novelists refer to different, rigorously researched historical contexts: Dunmore creates the portrait of a Cornish young woman who misses her dead lover and is faced with the consequences of their love affair; Ferney focuses on a French farmer's wife who becomes overburdened with work and worry when her husband leaves for the front; Villeneuve examines [End Page 8] the trauma experienced by a working-class Parisian who suffers from air raids and confronts the return of her psychologically maimed and facially disfigured husband; Young explores the experience of a...