Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918

Published by Clarendon Press, 2008, 257 pages, ISBN 978-0199543212

Today Vera Britain's Testament of Youth is the only widely known book on the First World War by a woman. Yet many were published during the war, and they are the main subject of Jane Potter's Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women's Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918. Jane Potter is a Californian with five degrees - a Californian A.B., three British ‘masters', and an Oxford D.Phil from Wolfson College, supervised by Jon Stallworthy - and teaches publishing at Oxford Brookes University. Her book, first published in hardback at £62, is now in more affordable paperback. It is an academic monograph with scholarly apparatus and nineteen monochrome illustrations. It covers some women's writing on the Boer War, the Edwardian social and literary background to the Great War, wartime publishing and propaganda, the war in ‘romance novels' by ‘popular or middlebrow writers', and memoirs by women - nurses, V.A.D. and F.A.N.Y. - of their active service. On prose, not verse, it considers ‘less elite literature ... texts that are not canonical' and ‘attempts to get to the heart of feeling during the War, as evidenced in the literary responses of women'.

The book is a work of history, but history approached through the academic subculture of Eng. Lit., and readers used to conventional history - especially military history, possibly the most pragmatic, down-to-earth branch of history - may find the Eng. Lit. aspect unfamiliar, even off-putting. Yet if they were put off, they would miss much of value and interest. The book's basic message is the pervasiveness of patriotic propaganda through varied print and visual media. Parts of the book , especially in the memoirs chapter, are so sad and moving they stay in one's memory. Parts stimulate question and debate, for example on clerks and their image. Clerks, and opinions of them, varied, and against the patronising disparagement of the book's quotations may be set Conan Doyle's description, written earlier but still valid, of a stockbroker's clerk, ‘well-built ...a smart young City man, of the class who have been labelled Cockneys, but who give us our crack Volunteer regiments, and who turn out more fine athletes and sportsmen than any body of men in these islands'. Among the sometimes disparaged clerks was young Bill Slim. With nurses there was an unstated class factor. Most British snobbery is within the middle classes, and the professional nurses may well have resented the V.A.D. girls' superior social status. The book is stronger on its main subject, the Great War, than the preceding period, on which it has several errors. F.A.N.Y., the Girl Guides, and Saki's When William Came are misdated. The Girl Guides were not founded by Baden-Powell's wife Olave. Responding to grass-roots ‘Girl Scouts' groups, B-P founded the Guides, with his sister Agnes as president; Olave subsequently excluded and replaced Agnes. A presumed ‘typo' states that in 1911 Germans were ‘25% of the population of England and Wales'.

Jane Potter's Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print was the joint winner of the Women's History Network Book Prize and has been favourably reviewed elsewhere; the Times Higher Education Supplement called it a ‘thoughtful study'. It is a significant contribution to our knowledge of the Great War.

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