Regeneration (reading-as-a-writer 11)

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My interest – indeed, my passion – for the #GreatWar started with Jeremy Paxton’s Great Britain’s Great War (2014), after which Testament of Youth made me cry and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress (second and third volumes of Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised autobiography) restored some balance. My fate was finally sealed To Fight alongside Friends: The First World War Diaries of Charlie May (edited by Gerry Harrison, 2014). I then tried Birdsong, hated it – and moved swiftly onto Pat Barker’s Regeneration (the first of her famous trilogy, published in 1991). Fellow writers will recognise the dread provoked by that bit in agent submission letters requiring one to suggest authors with whom one would align ones work – and doubtlessly be equally aware of advice not to put Dickens or Tolkien. I’m not sure if I have the nerve to write Pat Barker – even though her name is as synonymous with #WW1 as trenches and Tipperary – but I really want to because when I read Regeneration I had two thoughts: “I want to write a book like this” followed by “I think I could write like this – in 30 years’ time”. Three gifts for the writer/reader: (1) Sparseness of tone and earthiness of subject matter. (Barker hated any hint of “sensitive lady novelist” – but then don’t we all?) (2) A complex anti-hero in the character of Billy Prior (invented by Barker to counterbalance the upper-class beauty of Sassoon and the middle-class innocence of Owen); a pretty distasteful chap all round, but nevertheless one guns for him, which is no mean achievement and worthy of study. (3) Consolation. Regeneration isn’t perfect. There’s an odd scene of Sarah and her mum and another with her chums which really don’t add anything to the plot. (One imagines Barker’s editor: “I say, Pat – can I call you Pat? – I say, we really need a female voice here, not much, bit of chit-chat over tea or shell cases or whatever.”) And a few facts do land with a bit of a look-at-my-research clunk in the narrative – but maybe that’s just the picky prism of the intervening 27 years daring to post-judge a book that really did break the mould of #historicalfiction #amwriting

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#100 days of writing 3

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#100 days of writing 2

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Beauty and the Beast

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Another unexpected literary inspiration – and evocative image – for my story; the traditional tale of Beauty and the Beast. Written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, first published in 1740 (as La Belle et la Bête), and endlessly adapted since for book, screen and theatre. The illustration above is by Warwick Goble from a 1913 retelling of the story (appropriate timing for my story is set in the #GreatWar, #WW1!) We all know the story: A ship-wrecked merchant picks a forbidden rose and is confronted by a hideous humanoid Beast. Fearing for his life, the merchant agrees to send one of his daughters to live with the Beast. His youngest daughter (“lovely, kind, well-read, and pure of heart”) agrees to fulfil this request and lives in luxury with the Beast, enjoying his company, engaging in long conversations but refusing to marry him. After a time, Beauty becomes homesick and the Beast allows her to leave provided she returns to him after one week. Beauty breaks her promise and lingers at home, encouraged to do so (according to the original tale) by her wicked sisters. When she eventually returns to the Beast’s palace, she finds him “lying half-dead from heartbreak” amongst his rose bushes. Beauty weeps over the Beast, declaring her love for him. As her tears fall on his broken body, the Beast is transformed into a handsome prince. The prince tells Beauty that long ago an evil fairy turned him into a hideous beast and that only by finding true love could the curse be broken. (The original tale has the evil fairy attempting to seduce the prince, but Disney glosses over that detail.) The pair marry and live happily ever after. My story reflects the redemptive power of my heroine’s love for a man made ugly by his experience of war. #amwriting #writinginspiration #amwritinghistoricalfiction #historicalfiction #historicalromance

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Shellshock in 1920

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Frontline​ care in the Great War

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Field Medical Cards (Army form 3118) from #WW1 #Great War used by doctors in Regimental Aid Posts (Field Ambulance) close to the front line. If the soldier required further treatment his card would go with him to the Casualty Clearing Station and then to a Base Hospital (and even to Blighty). The first three cards are for men suffering PUO (pyrexia of unknown origin), diarrhoea (a very common compliant, along with boils), and trauma sustained when “thrown by a mule whilst clipping its mane”. All three soldiers recovered. The next man was not so lucky. In spite of aggressive treatment of influenza (including rectal caffeine and Phenacetin, an early analgesic and antipyretic drug) he was pronounced “moribund”. Note high white cell count (WCC) and respiratory findings. The third image shows the medical cards of two more soldiers; one receiving treatment for syphilis (repeated injections of mercury and other compounds) and the other treated with an “infusion of whole blood”; reasonably standard treatment late in the war. If my notes are accurate, this man sustained gun shot wounds to both knees. Sadly, in spite of a bilateral amputation, he died soon afterwards of shock and blood loss. These medical cards are battered and stained. A few are completed in elegant fountain pen, most in pencil. As a healthcare professional I find reading these cards incredibly moving; the familiar terminology, the scrawled signatures, the abbreviations and dashes and arrows. I am also awed – by the innovations in wound care and resuscitation, and by the sheer professionalism of the men and women caring for the sick and wounded in crowded dug-outs and tattered marquees 100 years ago.

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Devotion to duty

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Dancing on active service shock

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Excitable with peculiar mannerisms…

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Another afternoon in the #NationalArchives, this time browsing references written by matrons for nurses wishing serve in France in the #GreatWar #FirstWorldWar #WW1 with Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps #QARANC. The women are all single (there isn’t an option in the register for ‘married’ – although widows were permitted) and in their mid to late 30s. Their backgrounds are solidly middle-class; fathers’ occupations include Army major, dental surgeon, surveyor, solicitor, merchant, farmer, and clergyman (lots of those!) Many trained in London hospitals still familiar today, following this with additional training in fever nursing, the care of children or consumptives – even midwifery training. Some have considerable private nursing experiences; a few served in the South African War of 1899-1902. Whilst I’m sure the “quiet refined gentlewoman” and the “nice minded conscientious girl” are lovely nurses, I particularly like the sound of these two women: “has peculiar mannerisms and is excitable” and “has a critical attitude towards those in authority and gives the impression of being very opinionated with not enough experience to justify it”. I feel a bit sorry for the nurse whose matron considered to be “a thorough nice woman but not one of our best nurses” – and I’m already a scared of the woman who is “not sufficiently patient to train probationers but can keep discipline amongst patients”. According to the record, they were all offered staff nurse posts, so even the opinionated one must have interviewed well.

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#100 Days of Writing

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