The Woolworths Girl’s Promise by Elaine Everest – the story of Betty’s promise from a War and the life she discovers
The Woolworths Girl’s Promise by Elaine Everest
There is a whole series of Woolworths Girls books, beginning with the lives and fortunes of small group of young women in 1938, following their lives and those around them, right up to a new generation of Saturday Girls in the 1950s. This book is a worthy addition into the world of Woolworths Girls, but I think it would also stand as a book on its own, as it tells the story of one of the slightly older characters in the first books. Betty Billington is a crucial character in the Erith Woolworths store, but the way she achieved her senior role and so much else is the focus of this well written and engaging novel. It begins in London in the disturbed days of the First World War, when Elizabeth as she is then known by her parents lives a sheltered life. Her progress from that point is the story told in this novel, together with the challenges she meets and the remarkable people she encounters. Throughout the book a central theme remains, how her promise made to a young man shapes her thoughts and decisions, and how she comes to identify herself with the much loved shop. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this absorbing book.
The beginning of the novel introduces Betty secretly meeting Charlie, a young man bound for the Front in 1917. She has had to conceal her relationship from her strict and ambitious parents, who are determined that she will make a suitable marriage and never become involved in the sordid world of work. When the worst happens, Betty’s reaction alerts her mother to her secret romance, and from that point on she is effectively excluded from her home. Betty seeks sanctuary with Charlie’s bereaved father and younger sisters, and in so doing discovers a whole new world in which her innocence and sheltered upbringing is in sharp contrast with the women who have to earn small amounts to survive. As she discovers that her accent and clothes proclaim her as someone very different, her experiences at the Woolwich Arsenal munitions works are traumatic. It is only when she discovers the local Woolworths store that she begins to hope for a new way of life, in which she can begin to live as an independent woman while keeping her promise to the man that she loved.
As with all the Woolworths novels, this book deals with the setting of War, when so many suffered huge losses. The emotional upheaval is so well dealt with, as Betty mourns her own loss and is confronted with the realities of life for so many others, especially women. The research in this book is an excellent bedrock for the story. While the dangers and difficulties faced by the employees of munitions factories during the First World War are perhaps well known, the terrible effects of an incident are brilliantly and accurately described within this novel. The emergence of the “Surplus Women” who were left with few marriage prospects after so many men were killed in the War is deftly drawn here; while some dispute the figures, there was certainly a perception that many lives were irreparably altered in the way that confronts Betty and those around her. A more positive attitude is shown by an unexpected ally of Betty’s whose life has always been one of stubborn independence from men, and who presents a whole new world of possibilities.
This is a novel that is based on a promise that is made by a young woman. I found it immensely readable and offering a real atmosphere of the world emerging from War but finding new challenges. Betty’s story is well told, embracing so much that was going on in the world, but also revealing the emotional problems of many. I recommend this book not only to those who have encountered the Woolworths girls before, but also those who are yet to experience the story of this well -loved shop through the eyes of some fictional women who worked there.