Enid Bagnold is probably best known for writing National Velvet, but her other beautiful and rather poetic novels are her true legacy. I read and greatly enjoyed the moving and lyrical The Squire and the strange and haunting The Loved and Envied in my pre-blogging days, and have swooped on copies of her other novels where I can find them ever since, but I hadn’t felt particularly compelled to pick any of them up until this week, when I fancied reading something war related in the wake of Remembrance Sunday. Diary Without Dates (available free on Project Gutenberg) is a unique and intriguing exploration of life as a VAD nurse during WWI, based on Bagnold’s own experiences, and it is hugely revealing both of the realities of war and of the class bound nature of British life in the early 20th century.
The exact details of the hospital location and circumstances around her decision to be a VAD are kept deliberately vague in this short, scattered account, but the matters of real interest are pinprick sharp. Bagnold describes the officers’ convalescent ward, with its crisp sheets, vases of flowers, armchairs, real lemonade and afternoon tea. Ritual and order are of the utmost importance; it is just as vital for a bed to have mitred corners as it is for a patient to receive his medicine on time. Some patients give the nurses trouble with their unwanted attentions; Bagnold’s wry accounts of trying to get rid of one amorous convalescent can still strike a chord with the modern day woman!
Other accounts are more shocking: the callousness of Sisters who demand that stoical men in agonising pain must ‘grin and bear it’; the carefree glamorous life of parties and shopping that continues in London despite the hell of the Front; the flippant treatment of grieving parents who come to share their sons’ last days. It is a remarkable account for its candidness and lack of censorship; Bagnold reveals the cruelty and ridiculous officiousness of hospital life, where men are dehumanised, nurses couldn’t care less and keeping up appearances on the ward for wealthy visitors is more important than providing pain relief and comfort to suffering men.
However, Bagnold also shows the camaraderie, the fun and the triumphs of nursing. The friendships she strikes up when she is moved to the ‘Tommies’ ward are touching and provide much comic relief for the endless days spent on her feet, fetching, carrying and watching men suffer and die with little she can do to help. In the Tommies ward, there is no fireplace, no smoking jackets, no fresh lemonade, no choice cuts of meat for supper; there are also no Lady Bountiful visitors and no sympathy from the harassed Sisters. The wounds the Officers and Tommies have received are exactly the same, but their treatment couldn’t be further apart; this is something Bagnold heavily criticises.
Diary Without Dates is very short, but it reveals so much within its beautifully, evocatively written pages. The exhilaration of escaping for a night off into the crisp, cool night of early Autumn, the pleasing repetitious motion of laying out cutlery on trays, the pain of forbidden love, the tenderness of a cool hand laid on a feverish, frightened brow; it is all so vivid, and so immediate. There is much to shock, and to evoke pity; the snobbery, the indifference, the ridiculously misplaced priorities, the suffering – it is a magnificent document of WWI written from a woman’s perspective, and infused with the emotion and passion of an experience still being lived through when it was written. The difference between reading a book written in medias res as opposed in retrospect in a wartime context is profound; there is no sense of closure, no sense of melancholy; instead, there is a weariness, a fear, and an uncertainty that gives these accounts a power that cannot be rivalled.
Diary Without Dates is a must read for anyone interested in WWI and women’s experiences. Apparently, Bagnold got dismissed from the VAD service due to her criticism of the hospital system (the book was first published in 1917) and spent the rest of the war as an ambulance driver in France. She also wrote these experiences down for posterity, in The Happy Foreigner, which is still waiting patiently on my bookshelf. I can’t wait to read it and find out more about the fascinating life Bagnold led; people who know her just for National Velvet are really missing out. She’s also the great grandmother of Samantha Cameron – who knew?!