“There used to be tea rooms on almost every street in England.” An older friend was reminiscing about her youth and her parents’ generation. “Women needed something to do, and they knew how to bake, and to make proper tea.”
With bureaucratic cruelty, the post-war census labelled them “Surplus Women”. After almost ten percent of British men under the age of 45 died in World War I—the Great War—Britain was left with two million more women than men. In my friend’s family, none of the women of the previous generation had husbands or sweethearts who survived the war. One of her aunts said that when they sent their husbands, sweethearts, brothers, and cousins off to fight, so few returned that girls were told only one in ten of them could expect to marry.
You can see this in almost every town and village in the UK. At the town center, or in a churchyard, or in a specially made park there is sure to be a poppy-decorated War Memorial dedicated to their men who didn’t return. In our own tiny village, which couldn’t have had forty households at the start of the war, there were sixteen men who didn’t come home. Meanwhile, the men who did return were often not only physically wounded and handicapped, but suffering the effects of the nightmare carnage that was trench warfare.
I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on, no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case of musterd gas – the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great musterd coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they will choke. —Nurse Vera Brittain, in her ‘Testament of Youth‘
I was thinking about that generation today, the ones Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation. And while that phrase usually evokes images of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frantic, edgy expatriate generation, it also includes a generation of women who had no choice but to carry on despite lost hopes and failed expectations.
Today I’m posting my review of the newest release from one of my favorite authors. Judith Barrow tackles the difficult topic of the so-called Great War, but from the viewpoint of a teenage working class girl left behind when her glory-dazzled young lover lies about his age and disappears into the maelstrom of war.
The Heart Stone by Judith Barrow
1914. Everything changes for Jessie on a day trip to Blackpool. She realises her feelings for Arthur are far more than friendship. And just as they are travelling home, war is declared.
Arthur lies about his age to join his Pals’ Regiment. Jessie’s widowed mother is so frightened, she agrees to marry Amos Morgan. Only Jessie can see how vicious he is. When he turns on her, Arthur’s mother is the only person to help her, the two women drawn together by Jessie’s deepest secret.
Facing a desperate choice between love and safety, will Jessie trust the right people? Can she learn to trust herself?
Book Title: The Heart Stone
Author: Judith Barrow
Genre: Historical Family Saga
Publisher: Honno Welsh Women’S Press (18 Feb. 2021)
Length: 320 pages
In my high school English class, our teacher screened Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, assuring us we would love it because the leads were played by actual teenagers. And I tried, really I did, to get into the tale of star-crossed lovers. Only… not so much. Romeo seemed whiny. Juliet had a bit more backbone, but still didn’t do it for me. It wasn’t until several more versions of the story later that I realized the problem. Romeo and Juliet isn’t a love story—it’s a hate story with shallow protagonists. The events unfolded, the emo lovers angsted and died, not only because of the hatred their families and friends didn’t hesitate to escalate to the level of open warfare, but because the two young lovers lacked the emotional resources to see beyond their own personal loss.
In Judith Barrow’s luminous new novel, The Heart Stone, the star-crossed young couple are also teenagers. In 1914, on the eve of World War I, sixteen-year-old Jessie and her childhood friend Arthur are the children of working class families who have managed a rare day’s seaside holiday. But their day out holds both the fragile stirrings of their love and foreshadows the future looming on their horizon. At the Punch and Judy puppet show, Jessie thinks Punch’s querulous voice reminds her of the man courting her widowed mother, while Punch’s violent battering of his Judy sickens her. And their visit to the boardwalk menagerie fills her with sorrow for the leopard. “It must be awful to be trapped in a life you hated. I wouldn’t be able to bear it, she thought…”
As their train pulls into the station at the end of their holiday, Jessie is horrified to hear that the nation is at war. But Arthur is elated, sure he will be able to join with his friends to deal a stunning defeat to their enemies. Convinced the war will be swift, and fearing they will miss out on the excitement and glory, Arthur and his friends lie about their ages and enlist.
The young couple manage a few stolen moments before Arthur is deployed. But before he leaves, he shows Jessie a secret, the heart-shaped stone in a wall surrounding a field near their village. He places a sweet message under the stone and promises to return to her before Christmas.
Then Arthur leaves to meet the third main character of their story, War itself, which possesses him far more thoroughly than the young girl he leaves behind. The boys who march gaily off to their certain victory are embraced by War, their youth and dreams stripped from them. Boys don’t become men—they become survivors with mangled bodies and shredded souls.
Meanwhile Jessie must face the next four years of fear, heartbreak, and loss. The war that is brutally eviscerating a generation of young men in the trenches is also spreading a sweeping flu pandemic. Jessie finds herself, like the leopard, trapped in a life she hates, seemingly powerless because of her age, her sex, and her class. It would have been easy for her to give up, choosing death like Juliet facing the loss of her Romeo. But Jessie doesn’t have that luxury. With those she loves depending on her, she finds the strength of desperation and stubbornly builds a life for herself.
Jessie has what was missing in Juliet. Although a young girl herself, she grimly forges not only an existence for herself, but one that holds love and friendship and generous care for others. At a time when other women are actively campaigning for their long-denied rights, Jessie has an honest understanding of the difficult road ahead of her.
She makes bad choices for good reasons, good choices that don’t work, and irrevocable choices she must live with. But what really makes her stand out for me is how Jessie keeps going even when the only choices she has are all bad ones.
The Heart Stone is not a perfect book. At the end, things happened so quickly I found myself going back to see if somehow I had just missed them. I don’t want to include spoilers so I’ll just say some of the conclusions we have to figure out for ourselves. But the historical research is meticulous, Jessie’s world is stunningly real, and the story of the war for those left behind is both believable and riveting. Of course, what raises it to the level of five stars for me is watching Jessie survive and overcome obstacles as she grows from a timid young girl into a strong woman who embraces her own quiet power.
I suspect that Judith Barrow can’t write a bad book, and The Heart Stone is no exception. But it’s also a perfect pandemic read because along with Jessie’s devastating stumbles and hardship, we readers are invited to share the quietly stunning coming of age of an ordinary girl who becomes an extraordinary woman.