I spent a quiet New Year’s Eve in the company of an old friend: Hester Christie. With Mrs Tim Carries On by D.E. Stevenson in hand, I saw out 2012 and also finished my first reading of the Mrs Tim books, for this was the last one I had left to discover (even though I have only – so far – reviewed the last book in the series). Though it is not my favourite of the four, I still loved this dearly.
Like Mrs Tim of the Regiment, the first book in the series, Mrs Tim Carries On is based on Stevenson’s own diaries and experiences as a military wife. Published in 1941, it focuses on Hester Christie’s diaries from February to December 1940. It is Hester’s perspective as a career military wife in wartime that I found particularly fascinating here. When Hester is called on to break the news to another of the regimental wives that her husband has been killed, we hear nothing more about it. Hester knows – as do all these women – the dangers their husbands face, just as they know how excited the men are (especially the younger officers) to have a war to fight after years of uneventful peace. The women have spent their entire marriages dreading war but they are at least prepared for it in a way the civilian population never could be.
But being prepared does not make the awfulness of war any less miserable, just slightly easier to bear. When the novel begins, Tim is stationed in France but, unlike other members of the regiment, does not make it home after the evacuations at Dunkirk. Hester must go on for several months not knowing if he is dead or alive, trying to stay cheerful for Bryan and Betty (their two children) and, most importantly, for herself:
None of us could bear the war if we allowed ourselves to brood upon the wickedness of it and the misery it has entailed, so the only thing to do is not allow oneself to think about it seriously, but just to skitter about on the surface of life like a waterbeetle. In this way one can carry on and do one’s bit and remain moderately cheerful.
When she does finally break down, she finds “in some strange way it is a relief to give way to misery. It does nobody any harm, for there is nobody to see. Just for a few moments I can take off the mask of cheerfulness. Just for a few moments I can allow myself to think.“ But Tim, after some perilous adventures, does return and, surprisingly, remains present through the rest of the book.
Tim’s presence allows the reader to contrast the Christie’s happy marriage with the stressed one of their younger friends, the MacDougalls. Jack and Grace MacDougall are always squabbling, putting one another down, and longing for opposite things. They are both so selfish and it is easy to see why other regimental wives disapprove of Grace, who can barely manage to be kind to Hester, her closest friend and, it seems, only defender. Hester and Tim, on the other hand, have a marriage of equals, described repeatedly as a partnership. They love but never crowd one another. Hester notices the changes in Tim after his experience in France and Belgium and accepts that these will mean a certain adjustment in how they relate to one another:
Now that I have time to observe Tim, I have discovered what the difference in him really is – the ‘something new’ which I noticed in him on the night he arrived home. Up to now I have always felt that I was older than Tim – not older in years, of course, but older in spirit. I have felt that Tim was my junior partner, a sort of large child to be humoured and managed and loved, but now our relationship has changed and, all of a sudden, Tim is the elder. He has borne tremendous responsibilities; he has met and overcome desperate dangers, and in the course of a few weeks he has endured a lifetime of suffering. When this is understood it is easy to see why he seems older.
It is a marriage that can keep growing as both its partners grow – a lovely thing to see.
As the war begins in earnest, Hester records many of the ways life – both for her and her extended family – has been altered. In London, her brother and his wife must get used to air-raid sirens and almost daily devastation during the Blitz. In the Norfolk countryside, Tim’s uncle and aunt are enraged by the machine gunning of civilians in fields and in villages by German planes. More happily, there are also Hester’s descriptions of how the small Scottish town where Tim’s regiment is based handles the sudden and overwhelming influx of Polish refugees – both soldiers and civilians. It is enjoyable to hear how the town adapts itself (shops put up notices in Polish, bookstalls sell Polish newspapers) and befriends these new arrivals. The Poles are certainly very present in Hester’s home: her teenage friend Pinkie, who stays with the Christie’s for almost the entire book, gathers a few Polish admirers who she can converse with in French; Tim and one of the officers find that though they lack a common language they can act out fine discussions of strategy; and Bryan (only twelve years old) becomes great friends with one of the younger soldiers and spends his school holiday playing with him and trying to teach him English. These encounters and details felt much more natural than Hester’s southern excursion to London and Norfolk, which had a feeling of being shoehorned into the book to give a survey of how other regions were being impacted by the war. It was a little too “Hester Experiences the War for Benefit of Posterity”.
While the war intrudes every now and then, most of the book is focused on Hester’s day-to-day life which, as usual, involves delicately managing her friends’ affairs, taking on far too many voluntary roles within the regiment, and being amused/horrified by her children. Though times are obviously tense, there is still plenty of fun and, because this is Hester, humour. Bryan, who writes horribly spelt but still wonderful letters from school, and Betty, who is as blunt and forward as ever, provide much of the humour but, really, it comes down to Hester herself and her wonderful attitude to life. The world may be ending but she can still laugh at herself:
The experience of listening to someone else waxing lyrical over the good qualities of my offspring is unprecedented, and I cannot help thinking that Mary is an exceedingly perspicacious woman, and that her conversation is intensely interesting…but fortunately I am able to smile at myself…
I read a lot of D.E. Stevenson in 2012 but, as much as I enjoyed some of those books, Mrs Tim remains my favourite D.E.S. creation. I could never tire of her and now that I have finished reading the books for the first time, I look forward to many years of rereading them.