Thursday, 27 January 2011

We that were young (Rathbone)

Although I read this book at the start of the Virago Reading Week, it has taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts about We that were young. I am surprised that it took me more than halfway through my project before I came across it, because it was a book that very much appealed to my areas of interest - the world wars from a female perspective. Throw in their affairs of the heart and some distinctly readable prose and the result is an unputdownable book that may not exactly be great literature but is immensely readable.

If you liked Testament of Youth, then I would certainly recommend this book to you. Similarly autobiographical it gives a broad account of women working during the First World War - with a foreword by VMC author E.M. Delafield no less, who wrote the (non VMC but nonetheless fantastic) The War Workers.

I did nearly put the book down on p.3 after reading what to me felt cringeingly awful: "Oh Colin, I do care for you, you know. I am your friend. and it's not thatI despise the sex business, but I just don't want it yet. To me a friendship between a man and a girl is the loveliest thing in the world. Why can't you think so too and leave the rest?". Of its period of course, but I was worried that the subsequent 446 pages would be more of the same; luckily they weren't and the plot and the characters and the WW1 detail and insights more than made up for the occasional bit of cringeyness.

The book follows Joan Sneddon during the war, and her friends as they take part in the war effort. Between them they work at YMCA camps in France, serve foods, take up nursing as a VAD and munitions work. It is not really a plot spoiler to reveal that Joan loses both her brother and lover during the war and becomes hugely embittered by it, coming out the other side as a pacifist since the process of this happening is gradual and interesting.

A fascinating and readable book, this definitely deserves to be more widely read. Only published the once by Virago with an original green cover but I see that there are a number of copies available on Amazon (where I picked mine up from)


  1. This sounds right up my street, Verity. Lots of similarities with Vera Brittain's life as well, by the sounds of it. I shall try and get hold of this - though I'd be gritting my teeth at that cringeworthiness too!!!

  2. Interesting, I've never read much about WW1 from a female perspective, I'll have to get on that.

  3. I loved WTWY Verity but I love WWI books, especially from a woman's perspective. Have you read Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith? Another VMC & another side of a woman's WWI experience. AMbulance driving this time.

  4. Lyn - yes I have, and The happy foreigner. I hope I will discover some more WW1 things among them.

  5. I love that cover--may have to try and find a copy of the VMC to keep. I agree that some of the dialogue is a little stilted/dated, but I like getting the feel for what the period really was like.