White Feathers tells the story of Eva Downey and her role as a suffragette prior to and during the First World War. When we meet her, she’s being escorted by Mrs Stewart, a friend of her stepmother’s, to Eastbourne and The Links School for Young Ladies. She’s collected from the rail station by Miss Caroline Hedges, the headmistress:
Then she dragged the hat down on top of the scarf and dashed around to the read to crank up the engine while Eva sat watching her, enthralled at the sight of a woman working a car, driving on the road.
‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ Miss Hedges laughed, when Eva commented on her driving. ‘We can do anything we want! I do encourage my pupils to bear that in mind. There is more than one way of finishing one’s education these days…It’s hard,’ Miss Hedges continued, shouting over the wind, ‘to reconcile this sort of education with proper feminist principles. We do try to arrange alternatives for our less fortunate girls, who might not have the opportunity to marry.’
Eva’s at the school because she’s been bequeathed money in Lady Elizabeth Jenkins will after writing for her New Feminist suffragist magazine. Eva’s stepmother, Catherine, is far from happy with this arrangement. She attempts to promote her own daughter, Grace, at every opportunity and both Catherine and Grace are spiteful towards Eva and her sister Imelda at every opportunity. Imelda’s been ‘left to languish at home’ due to her ‘weak constitution’.
It’s not long before Eva has a favourite class, her English Literature lessons with Mr Shandlin. When he mocks the girls about thinking they’re the Faerie Queen rather than reading the poem, Eva borrows it from the library. Finding herself disappointed by Spencer’s attitude towards Ireland, she challenges Shandlin:
‘Sir, I want to know why we are reading the work of a man who advocates the eradication of an entire race. I’m talking about Ireland,’ she continued, as Mr Shandlin looked ever more incredulous. Irish monks kept Europe alive through the Dark Ages when Mr Spencer’s race were still living in huts and fighting with clubs!’
Chaos breaks out. When she apologies to him for ruining his class, he:
…broke into an unexpected grin. ‘Oh, don’t be. You’re the first person in the school who has expressed the slightest interest in anything other than being fattened for the altar. Try to get out of here, if you can manage it at all.
During her time at the school, Eva and Shandlin begin to develop a fondness for each other but then war breaks out, Imelda takes a turn for the worse and Eva has to return home. There, her father encourages her to court David Hopkins but when he won’t support her desire to further her education, she rejects his proposal. This combined with her comment that Grace loves her army captain fiancé’s rank more than she does him leads Grace to take her to a meeting of The Order of the White Feather. There Eva finds many suffragettes in attendance having switched their fight from suffrage to apparently cowardly men.
‘Our aim is to be watchful of our men and to make sure that none shirk that most sacred of duties. As mothers, sisters, daughters, we must offer their blood as Christ offered His to save mankind!…I would ask each woman here to seek out every man of fighting age who is not in uniform and to present him with a feather. If the men of our empire will not save women from the Hun’s depredations of their own free will, then they shall be shamed into it! They shall be shamed!’
Eva’s forced into taking a feather and then forced to present it to someone dear to her. Her actions will haunt her for years.
I often complain about the number of novels set during either of the world wars, there’s so many of them and how many different versions of events can be told? Every time I do complain however, I’m reminded that there are still excellent novels set during these periods being produced and White Feathers is one of them.
One of the reasons I think the novel’s successful is Lanigan’s decision to have an educated female protagonist forced into decisions she doesn’t want to take. The incorporation of the suffragettes and a feminist leaning finishing school makes Eva an interesting character and although she’s forced into particular behaviour her reasons are complex and so are the outcomes. Her behaviour is juxtaposed with that of her stepsister, Grace and stepmother, Catherine, who fight continuously to feel as though they are legitimate and will act as underhand as they think they need to in order to reach their desired aims.
White Feathers is an impressive addition to the canon of world war novels and a cracking good read.
Thanks to Susan Lanigan for the review copy.