A review of Mrs Tim Carries On by D E Stevenson
Scottish-born novelist Dorothy Stevenson is a bit of a find for me, because every now and again I like to retreat into a cosy, almost twee, slightly undemanding novel and she seems to fit the bill perfectly. She wrote forty novels and was successful in her day, but they fell out of favour. Dean Street Press, through its imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow, is doing a sterling job in bringing Stevenson back to the notice of the modern reader.
Although Stevenson published her first book in 1923, it was not until the publication of Mrs Tim of the Regiment in 1932 that she started writing in earnest. Mrs Tim Carries on, originally published in 1941, is the sequel – there were later to be a further two in the series – but I found that it stood on its own two feet.
Mrs Tim is Hester Christie, wife of Major Tim Christie, who is left in the Scottish town of Donford, where the regiment is based, with her son, Bryan, and daughter, Betty, while her husband is away on active service. The book takes the form of a diary which Hester keeps for the period between February and December 1940, and in some ways is semi-autobiographical as Stevenson kept a diary of her wartime experiences and was a military wife.
In some ways this book can be read as a piece of propaganda, aimed at putting a bit of backbone into the womenfolk while their men are fighting for King and country. The title echoes that famous slogan that adorns many a mug, coaster, and poster these days – Keep calm and carry on – although, despite being commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1939 and 2.45million posters were printed, it was never issued, and the posters were pulped and recycled the following year to help with the paper shortage. Still, keeping calm and carrying on is what Hester does, immersing herself in the minutiae of her day-to-day life, involving herself in supplying “Comforts” to the troops, dealing with guests and their emotional turmoils, and rising above the petty squabbles and grievances of the other army women.
The war does obtrude into the narrative – Major Tim makes a remarkable escape from France post Dunkirk, an enemy plane comes down near Donford and Hester is there as two Germans are captured, and there are reports of the occasional bomb falling – but it is a distant rumble, an irritating form of static to the largely untroubled lives of the womenfolk. The dangers of the war become starker when Hester visits London to spend a couple of days with her brother, Richard, before he goes off to fight. The worries about being caught in a bombing raid are real and beautifully portrayed.
Death makes a somewhat inconvenient entry into the journal. Hester volunteers to break the news of the death of one of the regiment members to his wife, but, oddly, that appointment and its aftermath are not commented on. Death is just part of life, something one must live with. Morale must be maintained, and it is the womenfolk’s duty to ensure it is.
Stevenson’s style is warm, amusing, comforting, with an almost narcotic feel about it. It is a perfect antidote to what must have been the very real stresses and strains of eking out an existence under the shadow of war. There is a sense that it is all a tiresome inconvenience which, thanks to the British spirit, will soon pass and life will return to normal again. Of course, the reality was harsher than that, but it is nice to find a delightful haven to retreat to for a few hours. Although our troubles are very different, perhaps this is why Stevenson’s time may have come again.