Paperback review by Laura Marriott
Miss Carter’s War opens in 1948, in smoky post war Britain, introducing us to the woman who is going to take on the world. Half French half English, Miss Marguerite Carter is as scarred by her war time experiences as the landscape in which she finds herself. However she becomes determined to save the world from falling back into its dark past, a desire that takes the reader into the heart of both the woman and the novel.
Author Sheila Hancock is well known as an accomplished and well-loved actress of the stage, screen and radio with a career spanning over sixty years including spells with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, for whom she directed as well as acted. She was awarded an OBE for services to drama in 1974 and a CBE in 2011. Hancock’s first outing as a writer was 1987’s Rambling’s of an Actress followed in 2004 by the number one bestseller The Two Of Us, a memoir of her marriage with husband John Thaw written after his death. The Two of Us won the British Book Award for Author of the Year and was followed in 2008 by her memoir of widowhood Just Me.
Miss Carter returns Britain after the Second World War after having spent much of the war conducting secret operations in France, becoming a heroine of the French Resistance. She becomes one of the first women to attain a degree from University of Cambridge. With it she decides the best way to change the world is to become a teacher, educating her girls and inspiring lives and hopes one at a time. Alongside this her social activism and empathy for others make her a truly remarkable individual.
Education becomes her life’s passion and as the years pass and the country changes so does he life as a teacher. From this position she sees the changes in each generation of the young and encounters both hope and despair. Through her students, often marked or neglected by the devastation that only war can bring Miss Carter is able to continue to dream of a better future, one in which the next generation will not suffer or see the darkness that she has seen.
Her war time experiences are told in short, sometimes brutally clear flashbacks but are not bought fully to life. Like many of that generation Miss Carter does not speak of the things that happened to her, but instead the human consequences of war ripple throughout her life and throughout the following generations.
The novel brings the reader through the tumultuous twentieth century, through the depression and rationing that plagued much of the fifties, the fashion and optimism of the early sixties into the increasingly hostile seventies that sees a new generation emerge for whom the is just a lesson in a history text book, before winding through to the dawn of the twenty first century. Miss Carter’s War is a portrait of a woman that takes on a sweeping panoramic of twentieth century Britain.
Carter is a fully fleshed out character and her close, enduring friendship with fellow teacher Tony proves itself to be a fascinating and deeply touching relationship that leads the reader through the well-researched historical detail.
The plot is believable and skilfully written in an easy style of writing full of empathy and understanding. The cast of supporting characters, their traits and behaviours are clearly bought out, making them recognisable, as they interweave in Miss Carter’s life. They also provide a link to the previous generation with, for example, the language and mind set of northern miners that are challenged, and perhaps even lost, by the rapid social and political changes. The novel paces on and when Hancock focuses more on the political and the grander scheme of things the plot can start to lose a little focus but it always returns to the personal, keeping the reader hooked.
The central relationship is both all-encompassing and at times heart wrenching. Hancock’s prose and understanding of her characters allows the reader to fully invest in them. In showing love for what it is and in all its guises the novel questions what relationships are and what they can mean, to both individuals and society as a whole, which is perhaps best encapsulated in the campaign for gay rights. The disappointments of life, of dealing with an uncompassionate system, and of love in particular, never quite manage to extinguish her idealism.
However as the novel ends shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the reader, knowing what comes next, finds it a little harder than Miss Carter to maintain a sense of optimism and belief in the ideals that thread through the book in the hope of leading to a brighter future. Similarly, when historical characters rub shoulders with our fictional heroine the reader has a second opinion to that of Miss Carter. For example when a young Margaret Thatcher appears at a 1950’s political rally the reader already knows the path her political desires will take and how they contrast with the idealistic young Miss Carter and her partner in crime Tony.
The ending brings Miss Carter back to where she began as her character finally confronts her past, both of the war and of the lover she left behind. A lover who has haunted her through the years almost as much as the vivid horrors from her operations. Some of the later chapters that deal with hopelessness, despair and grief are perhaps the most touching and universal.
Miss Carter’s War is a slow burner that grows into an all-encompassing journey through post war Britain, from despair to hope and is an engrossing and enjoyable read. Shiny New Books will be hoping for future fiction from new novelist Sheila Hancock.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet.
Sheila Hancock, Miss Carter’s War, (Bloomsbury: London, 2014), 9781408829172, 422pp., paperback.
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