I normally associate Clare Morrall’s books with my home town of Birmingham, so it was a surprise on opening her latest novel to discover that it is set in Exeter. Equally, in a year when many writers are concentrating on the 1914-18 conflict and its aftermath, it seemed almost disorientating to find myself reading about the 1942 bombing of that city and the devastating and long term effects that it had on some of those who lived through that terrible night and the weeks and months that followed.
Exeter, along with Canterbury, York, Bath, and Norwich was bombed as part of the Baedeker raids ordered by Hitler in retaliation for the Allied attacks on Lübeck and Rostock. The cities were chosen simply because they had three stars in the Baedeker tourist guide and Hitler wanted to cause as much destruction to historic Britain as he could. For Exeter this meant one night of sheer horror on the 4th May, followed by weeks of waiting to see if the blitz would be repeated. In an opening section that captures something of the terror those people must have undergone, Morrall takes us through that night in the company of a group of fifteen year old school girls and their teachers as they flee from the boarding accommodation at Goldwyn’s High School for Girls to their air raid shelter where they have to wait out the hours of darkness not knowing what they will find when the raid is over. This is particularly difficult for one of the girls, Alma Braithwaite, because her parents are doctors at the Exeter hospital and she knows that at the first sounding of the sirens they will have reported there rather than taking any form of shelter.
In the aftermath of the raid the girls find themselves evacuated to one of the men’s colleges at the local university, their own premises having taken a direct hit. This is disconcerting for the quite and mild-mannered warden, mathematics tutor, Robert Gunner, who has no experience of the female of the species and little understanding of the way in which the advent of the girls into his life will change how he sees the world around him forever. The reader, however, does know because the chapters set in 1942 are alternated with others that take us forward twenty-one years to 1963.
In 1963 Alma is safely ensconced back at Goldwyn’s as a Music teacher and returns after the Summer break to discover that Robert’s eleven year old daughter, Pippa, is going to be in her form during the coming year. Alma really is safely ensconced at Goldwyn’s because she has never got over the trauma she suffered during 1942 and has refused to move on, keeping the family home the same and returning after her teacher training to the school that has been a substitute for the family she lost. However, Pippa Gunner is not the only troubling factor that Alma has to face as the new school term begins because the much beloved head teacher, Miss Dulcie Cunningham-Smith, who saw the school through the war years and beyond, has unexpectedly died and been replaced by one Miss Wilhelmina Yeats. Miss Yeats has great plans for Goldwyn’s and they certainly don’t include maintaining the status quo. Immediately battle lines are drawn as Alma feels her security coming under threat.
All three of the main characters have been deeply affected by the war. The reader witnesses, through the 1942 sections of the narrative, the traumas inflicted on Alma and Robert and gradually the horror that Miss Yeats endured, returning to Coventry to find her whole family killed in the persistent bombing of the city, is revealed as well. As a result none of them have been able to make truly deep relationships. Robert has perhaps fared better than either of the women, having married and had what appears to have been a loving relationship with his wife, Grace, before she dies in childbirth, but he is still aware of the problems he has communicating with his children and you sense that he doesn’t fully appreciate how to access their emotional needs.
Miss Yeats may have forged a successful career for herself, but her greatest empathy is for the American President, John Kennedy, and his death sparks a crisis in the school that forces much of the tension that exists between her and Alma, who emotionally is still caught in that summer of 1942, out into the open.
There are some very strong features in this novel. Morrall is brilliant on girls’ schools in 1963. I know I was there – two years ahead of Pippa, just going into my third year as the latter section of this book begins. I was immediately transported back to those days and at times could swear I was able to smell the very corridors and science labs, not to mention the changing rooms and the showers. She is also good on characterisation. Here, for example, is the inimitable Miss Cunningham-Smith facing down a Squadron Leader who has been foolish enough to suggest that a breach of rules on the part of four of her girls has simply been a matter of ‘messing about’.
‘Messing about?… They should not conclude that this is an acceptable way to carry on during a war.’ She makes it sound as if a war is a passing inconvenience, a situation that has to be acknowledged but not allowed to take precedence over good manners… ‘Rest assured that action will be taken over my girls’ part in this. They will not escape punishment.’
‘I wouldn’t be too hard on them,’ says the squadron leader. ‘I’ve been persuaded that it was just high spirits. We must make allowances for youth.’
Miss Cunningham-Smith stares at him so hard that he has to look away.
However, I did feel that the conclusion of the novel was perhaps too open-ended. I had hopes for Alma but would have liked to have been more certain about the action Miss Yeats was going to take. She isn’t a character to whom I could warm, but she had found a way to triumph over a level of adversity with which I could sympathise and I would have liked more of an indication as to which way her decision about her future was going to go.
So, all in all, not for me Clare Morrall’s best book but certainly one I am glad to have read and one that I can recommend, especially to anyone who has memories, as I do, of all girls’ schools in the 1960s.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for making a copy of this book available for review