In the interests of full disclosure, I want to say that the author of this book is a person I know. We have only met in person once, but we are regular correspondents over social media and I have followed her work for some time. That said, I have done my utmost to remain objective both in my reading of the novel and the construction of this review, and I have not let any personal opinions cloud my judgement.
So. Let’s begin, shall we?
Image credit: S.J. O’Hart
White Feathers is a historical romance, based in Britain and Ireland at the outbreak of the Great War, and in its observation of the time, it is note-perfect. I am passionate about the history of the First World War, and the societal mores which governed this period, so in that sense White Feathers played right into my interests. The very idea of giving someone a white feather – the notion that women were encouraged to think of themselves as being the arbiters of social justice on one hand, while the real issue, the fact that they were disenfranchised and in all real senses denied the human rights which should have been theirs without question, was left to fester on the other – is fascinating, and tragic, and terrible. Eva Downey, the heroine of this novel, isn’t a woman who takes what she is given, though, and for that reason (among many) her story is worth reading.
The Prologue of this novel gives a great sense of the story’s feel and setting. We are introduced to a young woman, sitting in a train carriage in a beam of golden light, trapped like a fly beneath amber – both in terms of her era and her story, and her literal position – and we know a tale is about to be told, one in which someone feels they deserve to take the blame for something as yet unnamed. We know that a war is taking place, and that it has taken a huge toll. This encapsulated moment of pain bursts as we begin Chapter 1, and we enter another train carriage carrying another two women, one of whom is Eva Downey and the other her guardian, Mrs Michael Stewart. Eva is being sent to a finishing school in London, which has been paid for out of a legacy left to her by a Mrs Elizabeth Jenkins as thanks for Eva’s work on a publication entitled The New Feminist. This reality has caused huge uproar in Eva’s family, not only because her stepsister Grace has not been afforded the same luxury, but because her younger sister Imelda is seriously ill with consumption, and Eva’s removal from the family throws the burden of her care onto her deeply unpleasant stepmother and largely absent father. This is on top of the fact that Eva is seen with distaste by practically everyone, being a young woman who has expressed an interest in women’s suffrage and who is, in general, no fool.
Eva settles into her new school, meeting Sybil Destouches, the great-niece of the woman whose legacy has allowed her this expensive education, as well as other girls who can’t quite get over the fact that Eva is Irish, having been born and raised in Cork. Letters home reveal that Imelda’s condition is worsening, her odious stepmother isn’t helping, and Mr Cronin – a dreadful man who wished to marry Eva, but who was rebuffed – is still hanging around. Meanwhile, in London, Eva’s feelings for her English Literature teacher, Mr Shandlin, develop from intellectual regard into something deeper, and slowly – encouraged by the incorrigible (and brilliant) Sybil – they reveal their feelings for one another.
All the time, the war hangs in the background, waiting to pounce.
Then, Imelda’s health worsens and Eva is summoned home. A pioneering new treatment exists in Switzerland for tuberculosis patients, one which plugs the holes in their diseased lungs with tiny pellets – but it is ludicrously expensive. Grace, Eva and Imelda’s stepsister, is willing to devote half her sizeable dowry to ensuring Imelda can receive this treatment, but it hinges on one huge condition: Eva must present her beloved Mr Shandlin (a man of whom her family does not approve, both because he is a mere schoolteacher as well as a ‘Conshie’, or conscientious objector, for heartfelt personal reasons) with a white feather of cowardice. If she does this, Imelda’s treatment will be paid for and her life, possibly, saved.
It will also spell the end of Eva’s own happiness.
Eva’s decision, its consequences, and the life which unfolds for her after this pivotal moment plunge us straight into the bloody, brutal heart of war. Eva and Sybil volunteer as medical aides, going to the front and witnessing the worst of humanity; Eva goes down avenues she never would have expected, bringing her into contact with a woman whose presence in her world will later bring Eva a crumb of redemption. A scene in which Eva and Sybil are in a lifeboat, abandoning a sinking ship whose propellers are still churning, was – for me – the best passage in the book, summing up the tension and needless destruction of life, and the bodily horror of what people all over Europe were experiencing at that time.
There were things I didn’t like so much, primarily the unrelenting evil of Eva’s stepmother, the way in which Grace’s story was wrapped up, and the fact that several very important parts of the novel were narrated ‘after the fact’, either in letters or simply dropped into conversation as though they were nothing. Without wishing to give away spoilers, one of these (which came near the end of the book) made me slap it shut for a while, until I recovered from my feelings of being cheated, before continuing. Having said that, perhaps it’s designed to mimic the experience of people who lived through the war, only learning important things about their loved ones once weeks or months had gone by – but I can’t say it pleased me as a reader. I also felt, perhaps, that there were a couple of coincidences too many – people being related to people, or showing up just when they were needed – but that was only a small quibble.
However, I enjoyed the setting, the unflinching look at historical reality, the character of Sybil (with the exception of one scene, which left me shouting ‘No, Sybil! What are you doing?’ at the pages), and Eva’s gentle love story. I think the strongest praise I could pay this book is to say that it kept me reading – and I’m not a person who normally goes in for grand romances. It’s a timely, touching, intelligent and lovingly written book, and it’s worth the read.