Literature on British Mothers
During the World Wars

            People living through any war know they are living through some hard times.  The British women who lived through World War I and II were no exceptions.   We are able to grasp an understanding of the experiences they had and the effects the wars had on their lives thanks to women writers who penned their thoughts and experiences during and after the wars.  Other writers wrote fictional works depicting life during the wars, such as Elizabeth Jane Howard (though she is a contemporary writer).  One popular theme in these works is motherhood, not only in the sense of taking care of children but also as being a mother to the country.  To describe how women as mothers were affected by the two World Wars, this paper will analyze several poems composed during World War I and a novel set during World War II.

            Prior to World War I a woman’s responsibility was mainly domestic, centered in the household.  But, with the men off at war, women moved into munitions and other factory work.  “Women at Munition Making” from Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry & Verse of the First World War, a collection of poems written by women in England during World War I, is a poem about women working in the factories (Reilly, 24).  In the poem, Collins writes that women’s “hands should minister unto the flame of life, / their fingers guide / the rosy teat, swelling with milk, / to the eager mouth of the suckling babe” (lines 1-4).  Here, the poet argues that a mother’s hands should be nurturing her newborn child.  The role of women is to be a mother, raising her children and tending to the household.  But since the war has started, “their hands, their fingers / are coarsened in munition factories” (11-12).  In the poem, Collins compares a woman’s body as a mother to that of a mother who is also a munitions maker, specifically using the hands and fingers.  Women are supposed to create life, not to build weapons that ultimately destroy lives.  A mother’s hands and fingers should be soft and gentle to show her tenderness towards her children.  Collins emphasizes that this is the way mothers should be.  A mother’s touch is a way of showing her love and affection as a caregiver and nurturer.   She dislikes the fact that instead of giving life to children and taking care of them at home women are working in factories building destructive weapons.  This job takes away their essential role as mothers.  They are now exposed to a world in which only men had previously been involved.  In a way, they have been sheltered from this physically demanding type of work prior to the war because the men were usually the ones going out to work while the women stayed at home.  Their responsibilities as women have changed from being devoted mothers and wives to being mothers in addition to taking over their husbands’ jobs.  Women, especially mothers, were expected to be peace loving, but now, even they are participating in the killing process.  It is unclear from the poem whether Collins is against women taking up a job outside the household, but it is clear that she does not like the idea of women working in the factories making munitions.

            The working class women of England were affected by the wars more than the women of any other classes.  Mothers from the working and lower classes especially had a hard time since they struggled to keep their children adequately fed and clothed with a small allowance.  Women writers show these struggles in their literary works.  Even prior to World War I “the private sphere of the home was women’s personal and literary forte, and this translated in wartime into an obsession with domestic conditions, typically food, housekeeping, and deprivation” (Goldman, Gledhill, and Hattaway 32).  One such example is the poem “Her ‘Allowance’!” by Lillian Gard (Reilly 41).  In the poem, the narrator is having a conversation with a female acquaintance who has a better quality of life than she does.  The narrator says, “’Er turned up’er nose at the patch on me shoe! /’And’er sez, pointed like, ‘Liza, what do’e do / With yer’llowance?’ /’Er looked at the children (they’m clean and they’m neat, / But their clothes be as plain as the victual they eat):” (lines 2-6).  Unlike the other woman, who is dressed in a “long feather and trimmy-up gown,” the narrator and her children’s clothes are not as elegant nor in as good condition (9).  The narrator, being the mother, provides for her children the best way she knows how to.  Their clothes are plain, but clean and neat.  Her own shoe is broken, but she has it patched up and she wears it again.  The other woman, who does not understand the limited budget on which this family is living, suggests that the narrator buys new clothes for her children as a treat.  The narrator knows very well she cannot afford to buy anything new unless it is a necessity.  Instead, she saves some of her allowance for future use in case her husband returns from battle wounded and is unable to work, or he does not return at all.  Though the poem is short, it describes how a typical mother lives during the war.  Her husband is away fighting in the war; her only source of income is a meager allowance, and with that allowance, she must carefully decide how best to spend it for her and her children.

            Women writers also portrayed nurses as motherly figures during the wars.  While the men fighting in the wars were considered as sons fighting for their country, the nurses were regarded as the mothers nurturing the sons of their country.  This concept is described in Mary H. J. Henderson’s poem “An Incident,” another poem written during World War I (Reilly 52).  In the poem, Henderson describes an incident where she tends to a wounded soldier.  She explains, “for each son of man is a son divine, / not just to the mother who calls him ‘mine’” (lines 21-22).  In wartime, the nurse took care of the soldier as a mother would take care of her sick child.  At a time when a man may need his mother the most, the nurse was the closest he could get to having his mother by his side.  In this poem, the soldier is identified as a divine being and the nurse caring for him as the Virgin Mary.  Henderson takes care of the soldier as the Virgin Mary takes cares of Jesus, the Son of God.  The idea of nurses as mothers is a popular concept in many literary works written by women during the wars, not just in poems, but also in fiction, memoirs, plays, and art. 

            In the same poem, Henderson also compares women to the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother.  She describes how the soldier “could not hold the spoon or cup, / and [she] fed him….[like] Mary, Mother of God,” (14-15).  Henderson compares herself to the ultimate Mother Mary who is the most nurturing and perfect mother in every way.  Just like Mary was given the divine responsibility by God to raise Jesus, the nurses have been given the important responsibility of taking care of the wounded soldiers.  In the final stanza, Henderson compares women’s sharing of the soldiers’ pain to Mary’s sharing of Jesus’s pain on His Cross when she writes, “and still on the battlefield of pain / Christ is stretched on His Cross again; / and the Son of God in agony hangs, / womanhood striving to ease His pangs” (16-19).  By choosing to compare this scene of the battlefield with the crucifixion of Jesus, the poet is also acknowledging the death, along with the pain and suffering of the soldiers.  And just like Jesus’s death had a purpose, so does the soldiers’ death: they sacrifice their lives so that those alive (women and children) will have a future with freedom and peace in “the Mother Land” (24).

            Elizabeth Jane Howard’s
The Cazalet Chronicles is a collection of four novels that follows the lives of the Cazalet family living in the United Kingdom from pre-World War II until after the war ends.  Howard wrote the books during the 1990s but they are set during the period around World War II.  Because the Cazalets are an upper-middle class family, their living conditions are a lot more tolerable than those of many others were, even with the war.  They live in the English countryside, but they travel periodically to London to conduct business and to socialize.  The third novel in this series, Confusion, follows the everyday lives of the family members from 1942 to 1945 with World War II in the background.  Though the reader does not get the full picture of how lower-middle class people and those below them lived during the war because the Cazalet family is a lot better off than most people were, the family still feels an impact from the war.

            Villy Cazalet, who is married to the second son of the Cazalet family, must face her son becoming a fighter pilot.  Like most mothers during the war, she is worried for her son’s safety.  She does not get to see him for long periods of time and must always be prepared for the worst.  Michael, her son-in-law, also participates in the war, and whenever he is allowed leave, he stays at his mother’s home for the majority of the time because she misses him greatly when he is away and asks him to stay over whenever he can.  He often goes on bomber raids and though his mother doesn’t like the idea, she understands he loves his job and tells him “ ‘you must do what you want’” (Howard 163).  Michael’s mother must make the sacrifice of spending less time with her son and the possibility that he might not return from one of his bomb raids, but as a mother, she also realizes she cannot protect her son forever.

During both World Wars, women who had children were not required to help with the war.  But those over eighteen and without children could be called upon to do various work for the war.  Many women in this novel see the war as a good opportunity to help their country in whatever way they can and take advantage of it.  Some enlist to fight directly in the war, such as Edie, the Cazalets’ kitchen maid, who voluntarily leaves her job to join the Women’s Air Force.  Others participate in the more conventional way by becoming nurses, such as Villy’s niece Nora does.  Nora works at a hospital where she tends to wounded soldiers.  It is here where she meets and falls in love with one of her patients, whom she eventually marries.  There is a parallel between Henderson’s poem above about nurses being compared to mothers and the Virgin Mary, and Nora’s new role as the wife of a paraplegic.  She does not mind making the sacrifice of taking care of him for the rest of his life. 

            Literary works that describe romantic relationships, such as the example of a nurse falling in love with her patient, are very popular among women writing about the World Wars.  Another example from the novel of a woman who falls in love during the war is Louise, one of Villy’s daughters.  She falls in love and marries Michael, the son of a respected veteran from the first World War.  Everyone tells her she’s so lucky for finding such a loving and well-respected husband.  In the beginning of her marriage she agrees with all of her friends and family and truly does consider herself lucky.  Her example is the most evident example of how mothers, especially new mothers, were affected by the war.  Soon after she is married at the age of twenty, she becomes pregnant with her first child, even though she had not planned on having children so soon.  She feels confused and lonely during this new stage of her life.  Louise knows the responsibility for the child will solely be hers when her husband is away from home in the war.  What scares her even more is the thought that he might die in the war and that she will then have to raise their child by herself.  She tries to talk about her fears, “not the
labour of having [the baby]…but the fact of his existence,” to Michael whenever he’s home, but he is usually all too eager to return back to the war, and he never really has the time to comfort her or understand what she is going through (Howard 280).  Instead, he tells her she will feel different once the baby is born and that everything is going to be all right.  Even though Louise clings to this hope for the rest of her pregnancy, she stops confiding in Michael, realizing that he would probably just brush her anxieties aside like he has so many times before.  She also does not want to annoy or worry Michael, since “leaves for serving men were meant to be respites; [she was] not supposed to rock the home boat, as it were, rather to provide a calm and restful time and happy memories for [him] to take back to the war” (304-305).  But, once her child is born, she finds it hard to love the baby the way everybody else says a mother should.  She continually tries to develop the mother-child bond between her and her infant son, but believes “love is lost between [them]” (303).  Louise cannot seem to stop her baby from crying no matter what she does.  She just assumes she is not good with children.  After awhile, she is secretly and guiltily glad whenever the baby is brought to live with his grandparents in the country because of the bombing raids near London.
            In conclusion, women writing about British life during the two World Wars considered a number of different aspects of the ways in which both wars changed women’s lives, especially those of mothers.  The maternal theme is used to describe the lives of women who had children, as well as in a more metaphoric term by extending it to include nurses who had treated the wounded in the wars.  People who had lived through the wars lived through some very tough times in which everybody had to make at least some sacrifices.  Those who worked directly in the wars as nurses tending to the wounded observed the ultimate sacrifice of soldiers since they were giving up their lives to fight and win the wars.  Women on the home front had to make the sacrifice of seeing their sons and husbands go off to the wars and had to worry about the limited amount of food and money and taking over their husbands's job in the factories.