Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2021

A History of the Great War, a novel, by Peter McConnell

This week, in the same week that President Biden announced the withdrawal of troops from the 20 year conflict in Afghanistan, The Conversation drew attention to an interesting phenomenon: a marked decline in attendances at Anzac Day dawn services.  Whatever the reasons for this might be, I like to think that thoughtful Australians are still taking time to reflect on war, its effects and its aftermath, as well as why, how and whether the nation should get involved in warfare.  It is after all, one of the most solemn decisions that a nation can take.  It should always be a last resort if undertaken at all.

A History of the Great War is a novel, not a work of non-fiction.  Conceptually, it’s a work that traces the way the two world wars impacted on the lives of women who lost loved ones from two generations of the family.  Ida’s fiancé Ralph Mitton comes back from The Great War a changed man… he has numerous operations to remove shrapnel from his legs and is in constant torment from the damage to his nerve endings.  Despite his efforts to take up employment, he can’t ever really work again because of his bad temper and excessive drinking.  But they marry anyway, getting by on his pension and on her exceptional needlework.  They have two sons, one of whom dies in the Second World War.

There is nothing unusual about such a story.  Such tragedy was not uncommon for numerous families whose lives were changed irrevocably by the world wars of the 20th century.

Set in the Victorian regional town of Bairnsdale, McConnell’s A History of the Great War is a history, one that is often not told.  Its omission from the national narrative is a mystery in itself, in a land where memorialisation of the Anzacs is an industry as well as almost an obligatory responsibility whether one feels ambivalent about it or not.  The novel is written in 3rd person from Ida’s point-of-view, but with almost no dialogue.  The text, however, uses words and expressions from her way of speaking that place her in in the generation born in the late 19th century, who came of age when World War 1 broke out.  This style of expression leads me to suspect that the novel is someone’s intimate family memories turned into a novel.  You can almost hear an old lady relating these memories over a cup of tea, sepia photos of her loved ones looking down from the mantelpiece…

Mrs Mitton’s parents were farmers who had lived in the district most of their lives.  They had come out from England in 1869, hoping to better themselves in Australia.  At home they were poor folk, her father a farm labourer and her mother a servant girl in the town of Little Dunmow.

They had selected a block in East Gippsland and her father had cleared every last tree himself with an axe in years of back-breaking labour.

Ida remembered him as a thin, stooped man with a grey moustache, worn out by his endless struggle to make a go of the farm, but gentle and kind-hearted.  He had a great love of horses and to the end of his days spoke with a soft Essex accent.  (p.21)

Ida is not a fully fleshed character in the way that one might expect but she is not intended to be. We see little of her interactions with other characters, or her daily labours, and we know little about her private thoughts.  What we see is what we would today call ‘self-talk’: the way she suppresses her fear for her loved ones, her grief, and her loneliness by internalising the notion of duty, as she has been taught to do, and which becomes the expectation for all women in this era. But still, Ida comes alive, because we see her back story.  She is a country girl, smarter than most but doing a soul-destroying job in retail because her family can’t afford to send her to university.  Ida is rather plain, but attractive enough for Ralph to choose her rather than the other girls at the dance because she isn’t ‘forward’ or ‘showy’.  Their courtship is related in some detail (about a third of the novel) and Ida’s gratitude in being chosen by such a handsome young man has the authenticity of someone’s long-cherished nostalgic memories of youth.

The plot follows a predictable trajectory without anything much in the way of narrative tension.  In telling this history of a tumultuous era, there are no great moments of drama.  The stoicism and way of thinking that marked this generation is conveyed like this:

Ralph, needless to say, decided to enlist.  It was expected of him at the Shire Office and besides, being young and adventurous, he wanted to go.

Ida’s heart turned cold when he told her, but she said nothing to dissuade him.  That would not have been right.  It was the duty of Christian men to bear arms and serve in the wars.

Their marriage was postponed until he should return.  At that critical moment the Empire needed all its sons and daughter to rally with brave hearts.  It was not a time for selfish, private concerns.  (p.79)

There is a simplicity about the prose that feels as if it’s an authentic retelling of a survivor’s long life.  Without embellishment, the reader sees a plain and simple woman making the best of things despite tragedies that would have crushed a lesser woman.  A History of the Great War is an empathetic portrait of a life blighted by war.  It’s a book that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.

A History of the Great War is beautifully presented.  Published in hardback, it was designed by Peter Lo, with a pitch-perfect dust-jacket, plus endpapers featuring a sobering sepia photo of huge crowds at a war memorial.  The design also includes a reproduction of a handmade quilt, best described by blurber Chester Eagle:

‘The soul of the book is Ida’s tapestry, onto which she stitches every image of importance from the years of her century, gently correcting the madness of “great events” with her own infinitely modest appraisal.  World history seems small beside the statement Ida wrings out of huge disasters and tiny joys.’

I finished this book with a sense of great respect for women like Ida.

You can read other brief reviews at the publisher’s website.

PS One of my favourite authors Amanda Curtin, has posted five recommended titles to read at Windows into War on her blog Looking Up Looking Down.  The books she suggests all encourage empathy and compassion, and it’s perhaps not surprising that they are all also stories of love…

Author: Peter McConnell
Title: A History of the Great War, a Novel
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2008
ISBN: 9780975022887, hbk., 237 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Transit Lounge.

 


Responses

  1. Dear Lisa
    Thanks for another insightful and informative review.
    You have added another title to my growing reading list, which is rapidly outpacing my reading time.

    This type of fictional recounting of war-related experiences, when well done, can of course make more impact than non-fiction accounts of war and its aftermath. I feel that particularly at the moment as I am re-reading Bernard Cornwell’s non-fiction account of Waterloo, very good in its own way, but not as moving as his fictional account in “Sharpe’s Waterloo”. I am reading these to compare them with Georgette Heyer’s masterful and highly accurate fictional account of Waterloo and the surrounding events in her ” An Infamous Army” for an upcoming article.

    I find the tension between fact and the narrative and dramatic needs of fiction a very interesting topic that informs and provokes one’s literary imagination.

    Best wishes
    Chris

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  2. Hello Chris, it’s good to hear from you:)
    I agree, though I’ve read very little NF about war. But before I went to Russia I read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and then read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, and I know which one had more impact.

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  3. Tempted again… straight on to my library list. Thank you, Lisa. :-)

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  4. If I had infinite time I might read one WWI fiction from each decade, to map the way our concerns have changed – from Empire to to nationalism, to anti-war, to concern for returned soldiers, to concern for families. Historical fiction says far more about us-now than it does about us-then.

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    • And you wouldn’t like any of them except the ones written contemporaneously with events.

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  5. Thanks for the link, Lisa :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mrs TD and I are researching our family histories; my brother sent me one of those sepia photos you mention- of my grandfather (who died a few years before I was born) in his WWI uniform . He looks very proud and distinguished – and just like me. A strange experience. I was told he was gassed, and was unable to work much after the war. No ‘home fit for heroes’ for him. The story in this novel sounds representative of countless others, sadly.

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    • Yes, it’s not hard to understand the reluctance to go to war again in 1939, not when there were memories of the slaughter. There were appeasers who were pro-fascism, but there were also people who still thought ‘never again.’
      We are lucky that enough men felt that the cause was just in WW2 and enlisted…

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  7. I seem to have read a fair amount from the first half of the 20th century recently, and I can’t imagine how it felt to have to go and fight in a second war after the horrors of the first. Such a sacrifice and it sounds as if this really captures a typical story of the time.

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    • Yes indeed. There was an ancestor in The Offspring’s family tree who fought in both wars, and three of his sons went with him in the second. What that must have been like for his wife and their mother, I can’t imagine either.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] thank you, Lisa, for drawing my attention to this […]

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