Imagine yourself as an Edwardian debutante with servants to tend to your needs and chaperones to ensure that ardent swains don’t try to steal a kiss. Or as a young gentleman with the leisure and means to race the new-fangled motorboats or be daring enough to fly a flimsy aeroplane. After all, this was the heyday of that famous tune, “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine”.
Now imagine yourself suddenly thrust into the horrific arena of war.
This is what happened to countless men and women during the Great War as they became part of the “lost generation”. What fertile soil for an author, not only in being able to illustrate the contrast between the “Age of Elegance” and the war years, but also in taking characters through the physical and emotional turmoil of one of the most cataclysmic times in modern history.
Young men went eagerly and patriotically off to what they thought would be a short-lived adventure. Millions now lie in silent cemeteries where row upon row of headstones are a moving reminder of sacrificed youth.
Women did “their bit” by stepping in to take over traditional men’s jobs, and also by working as Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses and ambulance drivers. The nurses were hastily trained, but learned quickly on the job. While VADs spent much of their time changing linens, sterilizing equipment, and serving meals, they were just as readily asked to hold down the exposed intestines of a mortally wounded soldier, as was Canadian Doreen Gery on her first day in a British military hospital. Her protest to the Nursing Sister that she would rather die than do that, earned the retort, “Well, die then! You’re no good to me if you can’t do the work!” Like other VADs, Doreen stoically got on with the job. Giving up was considered the equivalent of cowardice in a soldier.
These newfound responsibilities and freedoms for women had a profound effect on them and on society. In her classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, VAD Vera Brittain wrote, “Short of actually going to bed with [the men], there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years.” She stated that this gave her an "early release from the sex-inhibitions... [of] the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage."
Like Vera, VADs were generally from genteel and sheltered backgrounds. Some were aristocrats, like Lady Diana Manners - the "Princess Di" of her day - reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and expected to marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was very much against Diana becoming a VAD, as Diana states in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. "She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them," The Duchess gave in, but "knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand," Diana says, and goes on to admit, "I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years." Nursing plunged her and other young women into life-altering experiences.
I’m enthralled by the memoirs, letters, and journals written by people who lived during a time when life was intense, and death, unpredictable and unprecedented, when even those who survived the war were forever changed. So I draw heavily on these fascinating primary sources for incidents, attitudes, morality, and other details in order to bring that era to life in my novels.
Beginning in 1914 in the renowned lake district of Muskoka - the playground of the affluent and powerful for well over a century - The Summer Before The Storm takes readers on an unforgettable journey from romantic moonlight cruises to the horrific sinking of the Lusitania, regattas on the water to combat in the skies over France, extravagant mansions to deadly trenches. Its sequel, Elusive Dawn, continues to follow the lives, loves, and fortunes of the privileged Wyndham family and their friends through the tumultuous war years.
For Book 3 in this “Muskoka Novels” series, I am now discovering the radical “Roaring 20s”… and all that jazz. For more information, visit theMuskokaNovels.com.
Born in Germany, Gabriele emigrated to Canada as a young child. She is currently working on her fifth novel, which is Book 3 in "The Muskoka Novels" series.