‘Miss Carter’s War’ by Sheila Hancock
This novel, and the novel previously reviewed, I found myself reading at much the same time. My eyes drawn to their covers, I’m surprised to notice that both feature images of headless women – what is it with headless women? – both viewed from the side and wearing dresses and red shoes and waiting demurely. Both images do, at least, help to place the action in a certain era – post-war – with all that implies: Feisty women who make it through the war, and what happens next?
I’m intrigued by Sheila Hancock: she seems a woman of many parts, and at the same time nicely elusive and not easy to categorise. Not seeking fame, exactly, but famous because of her abilities to act. And to write. Predictably enough, this novel features a heroine who has won the croix de guerre after her involvement with the resistance in France, coping with all manner of horrors before landing up in England and finding employ as a teacher in a fairly select school for girls. Miss Carter is naturally brilliant, and particularly good at getting overlooked children to engage with their own education.
As with ‘The Railwayman’s Wife’ I feel almost as if the plot is secondary to character study. Miss Carter is interesting, engaging and her portrayal, as a woman trying her best against a difficult system, is sincere. As her own personal education advances through the 1940’s and 1950’s, we meet and also get to know Miss Carter’s supporting cast: the headmistress, severe but with a heart of gold; the only male teacher in the school, who, it turns out, is gay – a big secret to carry at the time; two underachievers in her class whose newly woken academic aspirations slam hard against the social and economic realities they have to endure.
As the novel proceeds through the years, it is an easy and engrossing read, with not a few high-notes of moral indignation. One gets the distinct impression that although Hancock is writing fiction, she writes from bitter experience, which has left her kinder, more tolerant of others, impatient of systems and politics getting in the way of happiness for ordinary folk. Not a bad ambition.
I find myself wanting to use words like ‘obvious’ and ‘a bit naïve’, but there is something in Hancock’s portrayal of the characters that pulls at my heartstrings. For all the plot twists and turns, I do get engrossed with the characters and want the story to end well. It doesn’t, not quite; which causes me to brood and to feel regret, not (in suprising contrast to my previous book review) that the author didn’t give me a ‘happy ending’ but that the characters had to suffer so much.
This story reminds me how precious is our personal dignity, and not to take for granted the freedoms that have been won for the under-represented in society through the years. The gains we now enjoy have often been achieved at great personal cost. If you would like a good read, kindly and thoughtful, Sheila Hancock’s book has a few worthwhile surprises in store.