I read the first Maisie Dobbs novel with delight and meant to read more.
On my parents’s last visit to New York, my mom gave me her copy of Jacqueline Winspear’s latest, non-Maisie novel, a World War I book called The Care and Management of Lies. I expected it to be soapy and entertaining, something along the lines of Downton Abbey. I made few demands of it other than to entertain me.
I ended up feeling—and this is very rare for me—that this was a profoundly rotten and unethical book.
It centers around four characters, very young people caught up in the War:
- Thea is a suffragette who toys with pacifism, but its danger scares her, so she volunteers to drive an ambulance.
- Kezia is Thea’s best friend and the newlywed wife of Thea’s brother, Tom. She is pretty, and comes from a slightly better class of people than Thea and Tom.
- Tom is a farmer who volunteers to fight a few weeks after most of his men join up.
- Edmund is the brooding, Rochester type, the son and owner of the local estate that adjoins Tom’s farm. He writes poetry, for goodness sake, and is, reluctantly, Byronically, dashingly, an officer who is very good to his men.
Ugh! So how many clichés of the War can we squeeze into four young people? Thea’s description fairly groans with all sorts of things that happened to women who were not obedient wives. Maisie’s character is like that, too, but in genre fiction it’s sweet and interesting. On Downton Abbey, for goodness sake, characters are more rounded that that. In a novel, it just feels lazy and gross.
For all the care in the historical set-up, the novel is careless about the actual progress of the war. Months after the fighting starts, characters are weary of trench warfare (a weariness that was unlikely to have been general before mid-1916). Conversation in the trenches is full of stiff-upper lip, period slang, and clichéd enlisted man/embittered sergeant/noble officer nonsense that seems never to have heard of Blackadder (ok, that’s a recent discovery for me, too, but take a look.)
Most of the book is about how Kezia comforts her husband with letters detailing the meals she will cook for him. Even as rationing sets in, she pretends to be roasting rabbits and adding a little sage to the compound butter. Tom reads these letters aloud to his fellow soldiers and they help him “bear up,” as Winspear might say.
But the ending is the most disgusting of all. After many hints that Tom has married above him in marrying Kezia, Winspear kills off both Tom and his sister Thea, leaving the field open for the Byronic lord. Oh, spare me your fantasies of class mobility via cannon fodder. This is a kind of war nostalgia I hope never to encounter again.