This is a book which spans most of the twentieth century through the eyes of one woman; an ordinary woman by her own admission. Millicent King is a superb creation, a realistic witness to the great events of two World Wars, a relative of some who have died, a participant in some great social upheavals. The clever thing that Forster achieves through this book is to leave gaps, the sort of spaces that someone who kept a diary for most of their lives would probably naturally leave. Thus the run of the mill, routine months and years do not slow down the pace of the book, and the reader is left convinced that this is indeed the life story of a woman who has experienced so much. This is a well written book, full of the challenges of real life, as observed by one person first hand. Lack of communication between family members, unfinished business and the disappointment of other people’s choices are themes that run throughout the book. There is hope, resilience and real affection in this woman as she does her best, does the unpredictable, and records it all. This is an effective book, revealing so much about life in Britain between 1914 and 1995.
The book begins with Millicient as a middle child, aghast that her parents keep having children, annoyed that she has to help look after them. She is not desperately excited by school, but becomes keen on doing a course in teaching as an effort towards independence. With an older brother at the Front, she begins to appreciate the real nature of the War. She meets Tom, but as her family’s fortunes fail tragically she has to work in a shop. When eventually she begins another job, she is suddenly given the opportunity to travel. On her return, she meets other men and she makes the dramatic decision to sleep with one of them, making a conscious and responsible provision. In the background her family develops, changes and sometimes make demands on her, but at all times she tries to keep in touch out of a touching mixture of affection and duty. She meets a man, Robert, through her work, but there are many barriers to their relationship and when she has to assume enormous responsibilities her life dramatically changes. As another war ends she begins to think about the bigger issues and discovers that even an ordinary woman can make a stand.
I think I can recall that some readers made a fuss when they realised that Millicient was a character rather than a woman they could have actually met. Such is the effectiveness of the writing that I could feel the frustration when there was a gap in the diaries, that it was not possible to discover more about this contradictory but impressive woman. Having read several real diaries of women written during the twentieth century, this book is an incredible success in imitation and homage to women who lived through this period with all its challenges. This is sometimes a painful read, but always honest and consistent with the main character. This is a second read for me, and I recommend it as an example of historical fiction at its best.
I really enjoyed rereading this book, despite the fact that I have so many new books to read. It is a really well researched book in every sense.
Meanwhile some deadlines for the conference that I was speaking at have come and gone. Now one of Northernvicar’s two churches has its Bicentenary over the next few weeks, so either I will get a lot of reading done as I sit around in the background, or there will be jobs to be done! Still, a Bicentenary doesn’t happen that often!