Aleta Day by Francis Marion Beynon (1919)

For a new course this fall on the Literature of World War One, I’m reading around, looking at chestnuts worth a fresh glance (and yes, I’m working my way through Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth [1933] with great pleasure) and some less-well known texts that offer a new perspective on the war.

Yesterday and early this morning, I read Francis Marion Beynon’s Aleta Day (1919; Broadview Press). It’s an autobiographical novel about a pacifist woman’s experience of the war, set entirely in Winnipeg. The opening chapters about a prairie childhood with strict parents (and an abusive father) are really terrific, lovely spare prairie prose (like Munro or Cather or Mildred Walker). From the first page:

It is wonderful how early one can be made into a coward. I was one at five. I remember a golden summer morning when the milk pans were all about the kitchen and flies were buzzing between them and the window. Jean was tugging at my hair and I slapped her hands and said, “Darn you, stop that.”

Mother’s portly figure revolved until she was facing me.  “What did you say, Aleta?” she demanded sharply.

The scene goes on—it makes up the whole of the first chapter in this very short, many-chaptered book—to give an account of her beating and her false apology for saying “darn”: “I was still ashamed to meet the big wind when I went out to play, and I tried to show him I was not a coward by shaking my little fist at the house and shouting, ‘I’m not sorry, and I hate you—I hate you—I hate you.’”

About halfway through the book, the war breaks out, testing her blossoming romance with a fellow journalist, a Scotsman and a Tory. The writing is less good here, but the book is just as interesting, even as the plot shades into melodrama (McNair drinks; McNair has a wife from a youthful marriage; he enlists; he disapproves of her suffragism). What’s valuable, is the pains that Beynon goes to to give an account of the hounding and public shaming her heroine faces as a pacifist. (According to the too-brief preface, Beynon herself was forced to resign from the newspaper she worked for because of her views.) The preservation of the taunting rhymes and Aleta’s pained and sincere efforts to write to her lover, at the front, an explanation of why, though she loves him dearly, she must speak out against war, are terrific:

Said the Pacifist, ‘He only killed my brother, and Resistance isn’t right!”

Said the Pacifist, “He only kicked my mother, and it’s very wrong to fight!”

I think it’s wicked rather, to defend an aged father, for it might end in a quarrel.

If a Hun assaults your sister (said the gentle Pacifister), turn you other sister to him and be moral.

Isn’t that stunning? I’ve seen the scenes—in Downton Abbey, for a start—of women passing out white feathers, but this offensive little bit of doggerel captures something of the rage against the pacifists that I haven’t read much of, so steeped in Bloomsbury pacifism have I been.