A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

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Reviewed by Kate Macdonald

This is the first of the new reprint series from the Dean Street Press to be curated by the Furrowed Middlebrow blog, a truly admirable enterprise. They have nine titles in preparation or published, all reprints from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, by three authors: Rachel Ferguson, Winifred Peck and Frances Faviell. I hope many more will be reprinted in due course, and that the literary estates of authors still in copyright but also out of print will be cooperative.

Faviell’s A Chelsea Concerto (1959) is a memoir of being Blitzed in the Second World War while she lived in Chelsea, then an arty and eclectic area (now extraordinarily expensive) that became one of the most bombed areas in London due to the proximity of the river Thames and its bridges, Battersea Power Station across the river, and the Chelsea Hospital. Faviell spent the early years of the war as a volunteer nurse in Civil Defence, and supervising a group of volatile Belgian refugees.

Although the back cover description does signal that her story describes dangerous, horrific and violent events, I was completely unprepared for the sheer horror of her account. She records incessant bombs, night after night after night. The dust, the glass underfoot, the wreckage, the vanished houses in a row, the craters in the road full of roof beams and rubble, the complete disintegration of a church and all the firewatchers who were on its tower, and the daily specificity of roads being blocked and the Heavy Rescue working teams constantly under fire: this is a story of accumulating, dogged endurance under brutal attack in the dark. Thankfully, the horrors are leavened by delightful and moving slices of life, sprightly, cheerful and
matter of fact. Faviell is an artist, will marry her second husband, Richard, during an air raid, and has close friendships with her neighbours and her daily char and cook Mrs Freeth. Her past history means that she has nursing experience, an impressive command of modern languages and a very attractive practicality that makes her indispensable for all the neighbourhood volunteering that had to be done.

Her surrogate mothering takes up a lot of her time: as the marraine to the truculent Belgian refugees, which seems to consist of breaking up fights, and negotiating with British bureaucracy on their behalf. The men want to join the British fishing fleet but their boats have been impounded, so Chelsea resounds to the pent-up squabbles of a Flemish fishing community with nothing to do except argue over whose wife cooks next. Frances keeps an eye on Catherine, a 19 year old Belgian girl who is descending into depression as her illicit pregnancy proceeds and she loses hope of ever seeing her fiancée or her home again. She also has to handle Ruth, a German Jewish refugee who is descending into (quite justifiable) paranoia, tries to gas herself, and spends most of the war in a mental hospital, leaving Frances to organise a school and the fees for her patient ten year old daughter: another young woman thrust upon her responsibility.

And then there are the grimmer parts of her war work. Because she studied anatomy at the Slade School of Art, and because she has nursing experience from when the Japanese invaded Shanghai, doctors ask Frances to assemble the body parts picked up after the night’s bombs into approximations of complete corpses so that there is something body-shaped for the families to bury. She is walking down the street one night on her way to her shift at the nursing post in the air raid shelter when she can hear screams, and sees a newly collapsed crater with people standing round it, irresolute. Because she is the slimmest person on the scene, she is lowered into the hole to administer chloroform to a man unrecognisable from his injuries, and without a mouth to place the chloroform-soaked pad over.  This sort of ghastly thing keeps happening, interspersed with normal social interactions, snatched meals, constant clearing up and moments of ridiculous fun and beauty, such as darting and laughing when she and Richard smother miniature incendiary bombs as they rain down on their building’s roof.

The pacing of this memoir is expertly handled: the tension may relax as bombing ends for the night, but it picks up abruptly when a German fighter-plane tears down the King’s Road, machine-gunning passers-by as it tries to reach the river. The climactic event of Frances’ war was when she was bombed out of her home. She found herself crouched on the floor beside her bed in the dark, covered in dust and rubble, her beloved dachshund Vicki safe underneath her, and her baby (Frances was about six months pregnant at this time) beginning to move. As if being trapped
on a slowly collapsing upper floor wasn’t enough, she could see the searchlights through where the roof had been, and there is an arm thrown across her neck, still warm, wearing rings, and dripping with blood at the shoulder where it had been ripped off moments before. It’s not her arm, and it’s not her husband’s arm either. They both escape, but no-one else in the building does. Some days later Frances and her unborn baby are safe with slightly unwilling relatives in the country.

Reading this memoir was very powerful. My grandmother suffered a miscarriage during the Blitz, and my grandfather was a firewatcher, so Frances’ story seemed disturbingly personal for me. I had troubled dreams, and felt almost angry at the authors of other war memoirs that I know well, for not telling the truth about war and its murderous destruction as well as this memoir does. It also recalled the destruction of Rotterdam, Coventry, Dresden and Dusseldorf, pretty much any city battered into rubble by enemy bombers. Hiroshima and Nagasaki too. Many others since. And now we have Aleppo.

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Kate blogs at https://katemacdonald.net/ where this review was first published. 

Frances Faviell, A Chelsea Concerto (1959) (Dean Street Press, 2016),  978-1911413776, 252pp., paperback.

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