SHORT & SWEET REVIEW: MISS CARTER’S WAR BY SHEILA HANCOCK

Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet). 

Miss Carter's War

First up, I’ve got to say how much I love the coat on this cover … and the pink gloves. Coat envy is happening right here, even if it is summer in Perth. There, I said it and now you know I’ve got a bit of a thing for jackets. I don’t feel too bad, though, since the Miss Carter of the novel has a penchant for beautiful clothes, too. In the first chapter she ponders what it means to “dress appropriately” as she starts her career as a teacher – a year earlier she had graduated from Cambridge, hoping to accept her degree in a stunning French-style outfit, only to be counselled to dress down lest it offend the men who had reluctantly accepted women into the university. Here’s the blurb:

It is 1948 and Britain is struggling to recover from the Second World War. Half French, half English, Marguerite Carter has lost both her parents and survived a terrifying war, working for the SOE behind enemy lines. She has left behind her partisan lover Andre and returned to England to become one of the first women to receive a degree from the University of Cambridge.

Now she pins back her unruly curls, draws a pencil seam up her legs, ties the laces on her sensible black shoes and belts her grey gabardine mac and sets out on her future as an English teacher in a South London girls’ grammar school. For Miss Carter has a mission – to fight social injustice, to prevent war and to educate her girls.

From the first Aldermaston march in the 1950s, through the rise of the Labour Party and the Swinging Sixties to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and the spectre of a new war – in Iraq, through deep friendships and love lost and found, in telling the life of one woman Sheila Hancock has created a powerful, panoramic portrait of post-war Britain and a remarkable chronicle of our life and times.

What a fantastic read! While “peace” may have been achieved post-war, inner peace was harder come by for many who had lived through the war. For Marguerite, there are other “wars” to be fought, all in the name of social justice. She wants to make a difference, but she doesn’t just talk the talk. Instead, through education and political protests, she stands up for what she believes in. She’s a terrific character – not without flaws – but compassionate, strong-minded and determined. If only more teachers could be like her. While she’s not willing to submit to the male-expected role of “harmless” lady, but models feminism in a non-confrontational manner.

Hancock’s portrait of post-war Britain is informative and fascinating, offering glimpses into different lifestyles and classes, illuminating the challenges, discontent and fears of several generations. The differences in the education system were revealing and surprising, mirroring some of the difficulties we experience today (big classes, not enough teachers). The indifference the younger generation who had not experienced the full impact of the war was also surprising, but also echoed responses I’ve heard from young people today who think its irrelevant … don’t get me started! The rise of AIDS and the collective fear that ensued is another issue that gets a poignant touch.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin (RRP $29.99). This Bloomsbury imprint came to me via Allen & Unwin.