The War-Workers

Date of publication
William Heinemann
To J. A. S. A very small token of innumerable bonds of union.
Published reviews
‘Novel Notes: The War-Workers’. The Bookman, May 1918, p. 74; Gibson, Ashley, ‘Three Women Novelists’. The Bookman; Feb 1919; 55, 329; ‘Our Booking-Office’. Punch, no. 4038, 1 May 1918, p. 15.
In Questerham, the Midland Supply Depot is run by its Director, Charmian Vivian, who has an iron control over all activities relating to war-work in the area. Miss Vivian (Char to her intimates) is the only child of the local squire, Sir Piers Vivian, and his wife Joanna. At the hostel for Depot employees, Miss Vivian’s staff discuss her devotion to the task, the long hours she works and her high and exacting standards, mostly in admiring tones and stressing Miss Vivian’s “humanity”. The hostel residents are generally harmonious, and supportive of each other; this first evening, Miss Anthony (“Tony”) covers Miss Plumtree’s duty when she has a sick headache. Miss Delmege, secretaryt to the Director, is slightly resented by the others for asserting her special relationship and more intimate knowledge of Miss Vivian. The girls share the news that an additional secretary, Welsh Miss Jones, is about to join them. Charmian’s elderly father and her mother, twenty years his junior, are concerned that she is over-working and away from home too much. Char’s devotion to duty is championed by Miss Bruce, once her governess and now Lady Vivian’s companion. The Vivians are visited by Joanna’s old schoolfriend Lesbia Willoughby, married to Major Willoughby and sent to join him in the country by her London doctor, who fears she is overdoing her own war work – entertaining Colonial officers. Joanna’s young cousin, John Trevellyan, is also of the party; he is on leave from the Front after an injury. Miss Vivian works hard but refuses to delegate, and martyrs herself by refusing meals and working late, overseeing every detail of activity. She is surprised by the new secretary, Grace Jones, who is of the same class as herself and calmly self-possessed. The other workers take to Grace, however, since she proves herself kind and generous with a blunt frankness they define as “originality”. This frankness allows her to venture the occasional mild criticism of Miss Vivian’s methods. Lesbia Willoughby proposes, and eventually establishes, a canteen for troops stationed locally. Charmian resents this trespass onto her area of work, but still commands members of her staff to work there in the evenings. Lady Vivian and John Trevellyan visit the canteen, where they get to know, and to like, Grace Jones. Lady Vivian criticises Char for making her staff undertake additional work in the evenings, and Lesbia criticises Char’s tendency to martyr herself. All criticisms only serve to entrench Char’s position. Influenza begins to affect the Depot, and Char herself catches it, but continues to try to complete her work. At the same time, Sir Piers has a stroke, and is left gravely ill. Char, confined to her home at Plessing, frets to get back to her work; she complains that she is doing nothing useful at Plessing, since her father has a professional nurse and her mother spends most of her time with him. Lady Vivian sends for Grace, who travels out daily to help Char perform her duties at home. Grace spends some time each day with Lady Vivian, and their mutual liking increases. One evening at the canteen, the girls are warned of an imminent Zeppelin raid. No harm is done in Questerham, but in the excitement one soldier cuts his hand and Grace bandages it. She is found later, sick and faint, by John Trevellyan; she is not able to cope with the sight of blood. He is sorry for her, and takes her back to the hostel. Char and her mother quarrel over her return to Questerham. Eventually, Lady Vivian insists that, if she is to return to work, she must make arrangements to stay in town, as her late nights disturb Sir Piers; she asserts that Char’s duty is to remain at home, since this would best please her ill father. She appeals to Dr Prince for support; his view is that Char is more devoted to the limelight than to the ultimate cause. Char decides to move to the hostel and Miss Bullivant, the hostel superintendent, gives up her own rooms for her. Char is dismayed by the lack of comfort, poor food and limited heat and hot water, and starts to look for rooms in Questerham. Miss Bruce and Lesbia Willoughby attempt to persuade her to go back to Plessing, but she is adamant. Life at the hostel is doubly difficult as it brings her into closer contact with her staff, making it difficult to preserve directorial remoteness. Shortly before Christmas, Dr Prince is despatched to insist that Char returns home, and to extend an invitation to Grace. They leave with the Doctor late on Christmas Eve in bad weather, and the car slides off the road. John Trevellyan comes out to find them on his motorbike and side-car: Sir Piers has had a second stroke. The doctor and Char travel back on John’s transport, while he and Grace have a difficult walk in the dark and cold, and discuss their shared affection for Lady Vivian; their growing affection for each other is also evident. On Christmas Day, Mrs Bullivant receives a personal note from Charmian: she has been dismissed from her post. The hostel residents are upset, and get up a petition to their Director to revoke this. Dr Prince arrives to collect clean clothes for Grace, and brings the news that Sir Piers has died. He also tells the group that Char refused to stay at home during her father’s illness; her employees are very critical of this decision and consider it “inhuman”, and some declare that they will seek alternative war-work. Some weeks after Sir Piers’s death, Lady Vivian announces that she will make arrangements for Plessing to be used as a convalescent home. Grace, goaded by Charmian, resigns from her post at the Depot, but is immediately engaged by Lady Vivian to manage the home; she also offers work to Mrs Bullivant. Char returns to live in Questerham, with Miss Bruce as Grace’s replacement, but her power at the Depot is diminished and her autocracy somewhat modified. John is sent back to the Front, but not before he and Grace reach an “understanding” that they will become engaged.
First World War mother-daughter relationships novel women's friendships women's work