Eve’s War – The diaries of Evelyn Shillington from the Second World War, edited by Barbara Fox
Diaries of real people have a certain appeal, and when those people live in interesting times they are fascinating. They have an immediacy that is valuable in many ways, an honesty without the benefit of hindsight and self editing. When they are well written as this volume they reveal a lot about the experience of the author and those they have contact with, people relevant to the overall story. This volume has been edited really well by the talented Barbara Fox, who has an excellent record of using people’s memories to construct a narrative. This book is the record of Evelyn, who is married to an army officer, from 1935 to 1946. She actually moves around a lot, in Britain until July 1946 when she arrives in Italy. It is the story of a woman who is deeply in love with her husband, and determined to follow him wherever he is stationed. She has the happy talent for making friends wherever she goes, despite frequent moves when her housing becomes unavailable or unsuitable. She is a meticulous diarist, writing about her feelings, the setting, her clothes and what else is going on. Not that she is self centred; she is a keen recorder of what is going on for herself and others in the context of what is happening with the war as well as locally.
When the diary begins Evelyn is in her early forties, and is happily married to Rex, a popular and effective army officer. She is returning to Britain from Hong Kong where he has been stationed as the diary starts. Barbara has supplied a list of Evelyn’s most significant relatives, friends and acquaintances, which is useful as the friends in particular can only be mentioned briefly, or be a constant reference point. As the book begins Evelyn is grieving for her mother, a successful playwright, who has died while Evelyn has been abroad. Evelyn makes frequent reference to attending productions of the shows which have a popular appeal.
The diaries are valuable as a record of what happens as the peace breaks down in Europe and elsewhere. There are moments of hope as war seems to have been averted for a while, but then it becomes a reality. Evelyn is not ever in direct danger, which is fortunate as she evidently hates going into shelters. Rex has to work long and difficult hours ensuring supplies are being dispatched to the army units which need them, especially as the Normandy landings are in preparation. Evelyn is sometimes involved in the duties of being a senior officer’s wife, presenting prizes at games and other events. Not that it is always straightforward, as early in the diaries petty jealousies among the army wives make her life miserable. She also volunteers for the war effort in many ways, not limiting to herself to gentle tasks but such heavy tasks as cleaning guns for the Home Guard and sorting out vast amounts of clothes for those who have lost everything in bombed areas. She also sets up an advice centre, and is naturally irked when someone else takes the credit. She records holidays and dog walking, setting out the progress of the seasons in the plants, trees and gardens where she is living. Some places are better than others, where she has to eat the meals provided or cook whatever she can obtain in difficult conditions. When confronted with a personal maid in Italy she worries about underclothes that have been made to last. In the end of the book she is able to observe a war trial, and writes very movingly about the experience.
This is a lively and excellent read. Never dragging but always moving on, as it is well paced and interesting. These are deeply personal records, yet this book does not feel like prying or invasive notes of a sad woman, but instead the positive writings of love, involvement and interest. This is a really good read, fascinating to anyone with an interest in the Second World War Home Front, and the role of women who did not serve in the forces. I recommend it to the specialist and general reader as a well constructed book that deserves a wide audience.
This is the second book that I featured in my “Three for V.E” post last Friday, and was a really good read. The final one is Kate Atkinson’s “Transcription”, so i hope to read and review that over the next few days.