2014 being the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War seems to have provided inspiration for a number of novelists. Helen Dunmore’s The Lie and Anna Hope’s Wake were both published in January. Now we have Adele Parks’ first foray into historical fiction with Spare Brides.
The title refers to the number of men killed in the war. It suggests husbands and fiancés in particular, although as Parks explores in the novel the years after the war were a time of great change and the reality quite complex.
The novel focuses on five women: Lady Chatfield – Lydia – whose husband Lawrence escaped active service after his eldest brother was killed during the Battle of Mons and second brother died falling off a horse during a hunt. To prevent his remaining son and now heir dying, his father arranged for him to have a desk job. Lydia is embarrassed by this and considers her inability to get pregnant (for it is her inability, as one of the many doctors she sees tells her: ‘invariably the problem lies with the woman, you know’) as punishment for Lawrence not fighting the war.
Two sisters and their sister-in-law – Sarah Gordon, Beatrice Polwarth and Cecily Polwarth. Cecily rarely leaves the house now she has to devote her time to caring for her husband:
Her ability to have fun – even her sense of entitlement to fun – had been blown away with Samuel’s limbs on 9 October 1917; flesh and hope splattered across Flanders and buried deep in the mud there.
The word Passchendaele haunted the house. It could be heard in the tick-tock of the clocks, in the tip-tap of the servants footsteps on the wooden floorboards. Passch-en-daele, Passch-en-daele…
It was never heard on anyone’s lips.
Sarah’s husband, Arthur, was killed during the war, as was a man that Beatrice might have married. Both sisters are given an allowance by their brother.
Sarah, mother of two and war widow desperately misses her husband. She has no interest in remarrying and lives a quiet life in the company of her children and her brother.
Beatrice is a sad figure, poor (in relative terms) and plain. She’s considered dull and boring by many members of the society she finds herself on the fringes of. ‘…in all probability she was destined to be an old maid’.
The fifth woman is Ava Pondson-Callow, the life and soul of the party:
Ava was fast, but rich enough for it not to matter a jot. She was thoroughly modern. She wore lipstick, rouge and mascara; she smoked in public, drank cocktails, and it was rumoured that she had danced with a black man when she visited America last summer. At the very least she’d danced with him.
She’s also the least likely of the women to consider herself a ‘spare bride’:
She’d never been so consumed by a man that she’d consider being indiscreet in public; desire was always on her terms and in private, and whilst she’d probably made love with many more men than any of the other women in the room, no one could be sure.
And she’s definitely not interested in starting a family:
She wouldn’t trust withdrawl; in an amusing perversion of the usual roles of the sexes, she insisted that men were out to trap her.
The lives of all the women are about to be shaken further by the arrival of a handsome stranger. Lydia sees him first during a visit to London:
…a man with a ramrod posture, a man with an air of resilience and triumph. His strength and masculinity oozed out and engulfed the entire room; Lydia noticed that Sarah was watching him too. Every woman in the room was. Some were doing so carefully, from under their lashes or out of the corner of their eyes; others were brasher, and practically allowed their jaws to openly hit the table. Lydia stared. She was incapable of not doing so, even though somewhere, on some level, she realised it was unacceptable.
It was habit too to wait, to see if they could stand, if both arms were in place, if when they turned they might be scarred, burned beyond recognition. But this man turned and he was perfection. It was his absolute perfection that struck her.
This man is Edgar Trent – ‘catapulted through the ranks…Went in as a commoner, came out practically one of us’. Although Edgar appears perfect, he carries the mental scars so common with soldiers who’ve seen and done horrific things in the name of war. As an outsider to the society the women are part of, he’s also well placed to bring a critical voice to their lifestyles and expectations.
Spare Brides takes a good look at the options open to the women left behind after the war; although it focuses on the upper class, there is some consideration of working class women, particularly in relation to the burgeoning women’s rights movement of which Ava becomes a part. It is also, of course, a love story; one played across the class divide, a device which makes it all the more interesting and gives us some of the best scenes in the book. It’s a good read, well plotted, with a couple of unpredictable twists, one of which led me to gasp aloud. Well worth your time if you’re looking for a page-turner.
Thanks to Headline for the review copy.