Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Misfits of War: First World War Nurses in the Da Ughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Misfits of War: First World War Nurses in the Da Ughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Article excerpt

In The Daughters of Mars, published in 2012, winner of the 2013 Colin Roderick Award for the best representation of "Australian life in any of its forms" (Pierce 2015: 47), Thomas Keneally explores the war experience of two Australian sisters from New South Wales, Naomi and Sally Durance, who volunteer in 1915 as military nurses. (1) The author himself confesses in an interview,

I was fascinated by the fact that women very young from shires and
townships that had existed for maybe 80 or 100 years could deal with
this tide of damage to young flesh, a quite unrelenting tide of, in
many cases, previously unimagined damage, such as the terrible inroads
gas made on the linings of lungs and throats. And, of course,
shellshock. To be able to do this for days on end, particularly in
clearing stations without cracking was something that fascinates me
about women.
                                                          (Simon 2013)

Inspired by wartime diaries, the history of the Australian Medical Services in World War I (1930-1943) by Colonel Arthur G. Butler, Australia's official military medical historian, Janet Butler's recent studies of nursing at Gallipoli, and The Other Anzacs (2009) by popular historian Peter Rees in particular, Keneally uses historical documentation to fictionalize the lives of nurses during the First World War from nursing in the Middle East, on a hospital ship in the Dardanelles, on the Greek Island of Lemnos, to hospitals and casualty clearing stations on the Western Front. Until recently, the "medical war" has been placed outside the history of First World War combat. The experience of medical staff on hospital ships in particular has received very little attention (Acton 2015: 216-217).

A monumental, five-hundred-page-long novel, The Daughters of Mars thus reclaims a little known history, an important gesture of revision not only in relation to the Australian World War One tradition. Certain aspects of the novel might seem puzzling to a reader accustomed to Western European narratives of trauma and disenchantment, yet, as I hope to demonstrate, they gain meaning in the specifically Australian context.

If women were allowed into the public sphere in Britain and its dominions during the First World War, they were welcome to help, provided they did not challenge the conservative gender boundaries (Ouditt 1994: 87). As Susan R. Grayzel (1999: 11) reminds us, the term "home front" began to be used during the 1914-1918 conflict, as part of a war propaganda that coded the military front as exclusively masculine and the home front as exclusively feminine. Women were supposed to be guardians of the home, who had to endure masculine duties only "for the duration" (Grayzel 1999: 119; Higonnet et al. 1987: 7). In reality, the First World War involved civilians on an unprecedented scale; the boundaries between the two fronts were porous, yet, "the idea of separate fronts helped to maintain the status quo of gender identities and enabled the reinterpretation of popular assumptions about the appropriate roles of men and women during the war without threatening the social order" (Grayzel 1999: 11). In this sense, the nurses' location, as women performing traditional caring roles in the war zones, was ambiguous and unsettling (Christie 2014: 225). They were therefore constructed in the official discourse as willing to sacrifice themselves not only for King and Country but for their men, creating a "a sphere of maternal care within the war arena" (Christie 2014: 231). As Christine E. Hallett (2014: 30) (2) emphasizes, the stereotype of the serene, maternal nurses conceals the violence confronted by these "veiled warriors" in the theatre of war. If we define trauma as a wound of the mind caused by a close encounter with violence and death, which challenges ordinary human adaptation to life and exceeds simple understanding, nurses were on a daily basis exposed to such terrifying experiences during the First World War. …

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