“It’s dark now. The church clock has long struck midnight. Betty and Madge, twins and my younger sisters, went to sleep the moment I blew their candle out, but I can’t sleep and I’m wondering if I ever will again.”
Thus begins Ellen’s People, the first novel in Dennis Hamley’s Ellen Trilogy. Ellen Wilkins, a young woman living in rural England on the eve of World War I, has just witnessed a recruitment drive in her village. She has also witnessed some of the less attractive behaviour associated with such campaigns: jingoism, hatred of “the Hun”, and fury against those who openly prefer peace to war. To Ellen, this is more than a purely abstract concern: her beloved brother Jack has enlisted, and she worries about what might happen to him. “I don’t know much about wars,” Ellen admits, “except soldiers and sailors get killed and Jack might get killed with them.”
Ellen’s first-person, frequently present tense narration is deceptively simple. Hamley achieves a beautiful balancing act here: Ellen is highly intelligent and insightful, and yet her tone fits that of a country girl from a simple background who has received rather a basic education. Like many girls of her class and time, any form of Further or Higher Education is out of the question for Ellen: simple economic necessity means that she must, at a young age, go out to work as a maid for a wealthy family. The appalling drudgery of such work is not glossed over; Ellen and her fellow maids work long, gruelling hours for little pay and even less gratitude. When they act together to win a small but significant victory over their employers, we’re absolutely behind them. This small act of rebellion – which is really little more than a simple demand for respect – is also an indication that the determined, courageous Ellen will not remain a housemaid for long.
In the meantime Jack returns from the trenches – alive, but missing a leg, and carrying a world of rage and distress within. As Ellen struggles to nurse him and hold her family together, she develops a strong empathy for the injured and sick, and an interest in nursing as a profession. Eventually, she goes to London to train as a nurse, and from there to join the nursing corps on the Continent. From this point on, the war – which occasionally seemed rather distant in Britain – becomes shockingly real and immediate. There are hellish depictions of the bloody reality of trench warfare. Soldiers are brought into the hospital with destroyed limbs, burns, gaping wounds in their stomachs; many die in agony in front of Ellen’s eyes. There are times when she wonders if she can carry on. She does anyway, constantly growing in empathy and insight. In the end, Ellen transcends her own limitations, the expectations imposed by her sex and class, and becomes a truly rounded, sympathetic, experienced woman.
Ellen’s People is not only about war, but about the prejudice, tribalism, and blind patriotism that give rise to warmongering. It is about much else besides: a class and social structure that was slowly being eroded, family and social relationships, and the increasing shift of power to women as they not only entered the workplace but began to take on ever more responsibility. This is, in short, a world that is becoming more recognisably like our own. 1914 and the outbreak of World War I are, obviously, a full century in the past now, but their repercussions are still being played out today. If anyone thinks that this period of history has lost its immediacy and power to shock, try reading Ellen’s People. Ellen’s urgent, insistent voice speaks directly to us, and her experiences become our experiences too.