The featured Persephone title for May is Doreen (1946) by Barbara Noble. I’m rather obsessed with narratives concerning child evacuees during WWII, and this novel did not disappoint.

From Jessica Mann‘s introduction at the Persephone website:

In 1946 the theme of Doreen was, alas, horrifyingly topical – whether parents should have sent their children away from cities that might be bombed; and if they had done so, whether they could hope to maintain their relationship with them. ‘The experience of this long separation, very difficult for all concerned at the time, often proved traumatic over a lifetime’ comments Jessica Mann in the preface.

Barbara Noble writes with great insight about the mind of a child, 9-year-old Doreen Rawlings, torn between her mother, whom she leaves behind in the East End of London during the Blitz, and the couple who take her in when she is evacuated to the countryside. Everyone wants only the best for Doreen yet, in the end, what is being explored is a clash of values: those looking after her will eventually realise that Doreen will go back ‘to a world where most of the things you’ve taught her will be drawbacks rather than advantages.’

(*Do take note that Mann wrote her own book, Out of Harm’s Way, about an overseas evacuation of children from Britain in World War II.)

This interaction between Doreen and her host Geoffrey, who is not accustomed to children, is charming but also a wee bit foreboding.

They were both of them surprised: Doreen at the realisation that she was enjoying herself; Geoffrey at the change in Doreen. A hidden vitality and mischievousness came into her small, insignificant face and her brown eyes grew bright and expressive. She looked almost pretty. Helen had been very unobservant in describing her as negative, he thought. Beneath her protective surface of colourless, timid acquiescence lay plenty of fire and intelligence. For the first time he felt something more for the child than a purely conscientious good-will. He felt a certain challenge in her presence. To make Doreen happy, articulate and at ease would be something very well worth doing. (47)

My thoughts:

I’ve read quite a few WWII evacuation narratives — fiction and non-fiction — and I was particularly impressed with this story published in 1946, not long after the war’s end. The characters came alive on the page, with the exception, perhaps, of Doreen’s father, who seemed to me a type rather than an authentic human. It is poignant to read of Doreen’s freedom, her social opportunities, her education and access to nutritious food, but the determination of her hosts to “improve” this guileless London girl seems to cause some confusion and heartache. All the while we dread the end of Doreen’s countryside idyll, knowing she will have no choice but to go back to a cramped flat in war-torn London. But should we dread it? Where does Doreen truly belong?

About the author:
Barbara Noble (1 January 1907 – 8 February 2001) was an English publisher and author. She wrote 6 novels of her own, and as head of the London office of Doubleday was instrumental in the publication of thousands of others. (Wikipedia — see full article here)

This first edition recently sold on Etsy for $30! You can order the Persephone edition from their website or peruse the options at Amazon or Abebooks.

Now for Tea:

I chose a chamomile blend to pair with this novel, as it seemed appropriate for a child of Doreen’s age. (Children no doubt drank their share of watered-down black tea at that time, but Chamomile could be grown in the garden, which meant easy access and no hassle with coupons.) The English purveyor Tea Palace offers Organic Chamomile Calm: “this blend produces a light golden liquor with a floral hint of rose. The taste is finished with subtle lavender flavours that add body and a little spice for a distinctive, enjoyable and well-rounded infusion.”

Here’s a quick tutorial on growing your own chamomile.

Stay tuned for June’s offering of a contemporary novel that has languished unread on my shelf…

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