”Women were wanted everywhere, gone were the days when they fluttered fine cambric handkerchiefs from castle walls as the men rode forth to battle”
Homeward Bound Lethbridge p156
For the purpose of this blog I have steered away from Fortune Grass and instead used Homeward Bound Mabel’s third and last autobiography that not only tells us how this inspirational woman assisted on the home front during 1939-1945 but also talks of her personal battles.
In 1939 Britain was on the brink of war and Mabel helped with the evacuation of children to the countryside. A huge demand for blackout curtains kept her busy sewing and at the same time she was writing articles for various news publications.
On September 1st 1939 she moved into her own boarding house employing a butler and his wife then one week later ‘bombs began to fall and our spirits fell with them!’(p.88). The butler and his wife were so afraid his wife ‘was temporarily stricken with paralysis of her limbs, through her terrible fear’ (p.91). Mabel describes the bombing raids in great detail and how every time a bomb dropped she relived the explosion in the munitions factory.
During the raids, stoically and heroically, Mabel and her sixteen year old daughter Sue, went about London helping others.She recalls a time a bomb hit a water main and the street was flooding. Due to her quick thinking she managed to save the life of a woman living in a basement flat. Mabel’s account of the falling bombs and the horror she encountered is upsetting and graphic in content especially her description of the people trapped in the basement of the crypt.
Mabel and Sue worked tirelessly making tea for the rescue squads and firemen working on the raging fires. Mabel had persuaded the authorities to give her access to medical supplies and together with Sue they went around the shelters tending to the wounded and raising their spirits.
Mabel joined the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service as a driver where she continued to work hard. It is fascinating to read Mabel’s account of her everyday duties and the attitudes of the women she encountered. Despite Mabel relying on memory, only from an autobiography could I engage with such presence of a service woman’s experience.
From the Ambulance service Mabel went on to do other driving jobs and then in August 1942, when a bomb dropped close by, she sustained a debilitating injury to her good leg. Because of the severity of the wound and her need for an operation, Mabel pleaded for the release of Sue from the air force. It was in Stoke Mandeville Hospital that her strength of mind was challenged ‘in that ward I was to know fear, the brain reels at remembrance of the horror, that even in sleep stalked derisively through one’s dreams’ (p.175). Mabel describes in graphic detail the graft needed to help her leg heal and the pain she endured in the process.
Mabel Lethbridge lived and worked through two world wars and wrote about her experiences throughout with flair and candour. In the final pages of Homeward Bound she is brutally honest about her personal war subsequent to ‘the munitions explosion that had mutilated and bereft me’ (p.203). In the knowledge that her injuries would never heal, Mabel is nostalgic for her childhood, remembering Ireland when she was fit and healthy.
Remembering facilitates the turning from melancholia , and its associated state of loss and repeated excavation of memory, towards mourning (Roper.199)
In heart breaking honesty Mabel concludes that she could never accept the truth of the accident and her constant struggle for independence was her way of ‘winning the impossible battle’ (p.204)
Similarly to Mabel, the author Vera Brittain kept journals throughout both wars and recounted her experience through the novel form. She wrote England’s Hour immediately after the Battle of Britain in 1940 ‘when the outcome of the war was still in doubt’ (Klein.131). Both women were fated to experience not one but two devastating wars.
When a person has gone through a terrible trauma like War, Roper’s article treats re-remembering as a process motivated by the psychic needs of the past. Roper examined two accounts of the same incident written by Second Lieutenant Lyndall Urwick five weeks after his arrival in France. The second account written sixty years later uses much more detail such as reported speech and descriptions of the soldier’s actions.Roper says the events had been reconstructed in memory to give a personal testimony of war as opposed to a collective memory of memorialising.(Roper.183)
Perhaps in her writing Mabel constructed a past that she was able to understand and process consciously. Sadly, Mabel died in 1964 so she didn’t get to see her final memoir published.
Klein, Yvonne M. Beyond the Home Front : Women’s Autobiographical Writing of the Two World Wars (1997). New York University press
Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4
Lethbridge,Mabel. Homeward Bound, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1967.
Roper, Michael. “Re-remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War.” History Workshop Journal 0.50 (2000): 181-204