A Quiet Celebration of International Women’s Day

Lady Denman, the inspirational chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes showed women courage by example during the Second World War.

I celebrate women every day of my writing life. I do it quietly and with respect, humour and awe. I write about ordinary women who do extraordinary things when faced with intractable problems or simply difficult situations. So while I am thrilled with all the fuss being made about International Women’s Day in this significant year marking the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, I don’t want to lose track of the immense and often dogged bravery of women who are not famous but whose lives are nevertheless impressive.

My current book, which happens to be coming out on 8 March 2018, is not about the Suffragettes or feminists, so it seems to be somewhat out of tune with the current zeitgeist. Or is it? I revisited the stories of women in the book and a few sprang out at me immediately. These are tales of how everyday women rose to the challenge of the times and did things that they did not know they were capable of. Sometimes it was out and out bravery, such as the women who became special agents, at other times it was all about being calm and coping in strained circumstances.

Barbara and Antony Bertram c. 1937

Mrs Bertram, or Madame Bertram as she was known to her French agents, was one such. She secretly housed over a hundred men and women in her modest house in Sussex during the Second World War. She called them the hullabaloos, so named by her two little boys who couldn’t understand the excited babble of conversation that was to be heard in Bignor Manor during the ‘Moon Period’. Those were the two weeks every month when it was light enough for pilots to fly by the light of the moon and drop their precious cargo in France.

This cargo comprised men and women who were working with the French Résistance either as agents, radio operators or couriers. The risks for them were immense. Once in France they had to evade discovery by the Nazis, knowing full well that if they were captured they would be tortured and almost certainly killed. Mrs Bertram provided a safe house for them with comfort, food and friendship. She always managed to find flowers for the bedrooms and cigarettes for the nervous smokers. Her store cupboard was a miracle of minutiae and she prided herself on being able to put her hand on any single thing the agents might want, from hairpins to typewriter ribbons. When returning agents arrived at the house they were given ‘Reception Pie’ which might be a pie or bacon and eggs, but it was delicious and always welcome. When some of them cleaned their muddy boots on the doorstep she would scoop up the mud ‘so that I could offer salad grown on French soil to the next moon’s French’.

Agents were flown from Tangmere in Sussex by Lysander into France. The little planes could barely accommodate three passengers

It is those little gestures of kindness that move me when I write about women. Another perhaps not exactly ‘ordinary’ woman was Lady Bearsted. When she and her husband moved to Upton House in Warwickshire she noticed that the local midwife was doing her rounds on a bicycle, even in the depths of winter. So Lady Bearsted bought her a car. She could afford to but it strikes me still as thoughtful and practical. She noticed children were walking to school along the road and having to jump on the verges if a car or lorry drove by. So Lady Bearsted paid for a pavement for them. During the war, by which time she was nearly sixty, she ran a mobile canteen in bombed out London.

Suzanne Warren soon after she escaped from the Gestapo

Suzanne Warren was one of the heroine-types, if they must be type-cast. She was French but she had a strong link to Britain, having spent much of her childhood visiting Clacton-on-Sea. After the fall of France she could not face the idea of sitting idly by as the Germans marched across her country and into the capital, Paris, where she was living with two aunts. So she decided she would do anything she could to undermine them. At first she acted as a courier, helping to get men left behind after Dunkirk out of France via Spain. It as dangerous work and she was part of an organisation that was ultimately betrayed. She was captured by the Germans and severely tortured but she managed to escape and get to the coast where she was picked up and brought to Britain. At the time she appears in my book she was undergoing Special Operations training in the West Highlands and hoped to be flown back into France. Luckily for Suzanne the liberation of Paris and France came before she was sent back but she would have gone. She was brave to the bottom of her boots.

Another woman who was brave in a very different way was Elsie. She was pregnant as a result of a love affair with a married man (she too was married). Naturally enough she was in deep disgrace and her family disowned her. She left home with one suitcase containing her worldly goods and, accompanied by her partner in crime, as she described him, went to Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire where she was giving a serious ticking off by Matron on her arrival. The partner was sent packing and Elsie was taken below stairs where she was given a brown uniform and told she would have to work in the washing and drying rooms until she went into the second stage of labour. The Brownies, so-called because of their uniforms, were not allowed to be seen by the legitimate mothers for fear that their scandal would pollute their pure worlds.

Mothers in the Prince Regent suite at Brocket Hall recovering from childbirth. Naturally enough there are no photographs of the Brownies

Eventually Elsie went into labour and had a baby girl. She was not allowed to bond with the baby and it was taken away after a week for adoption. After the baby had gone Elsie was sent back down into the kitchens where she was given a blue dress and allowed to wait on the mothers upstairs. She never said anything about her own grief for the baby but she wrote about others:

Most of the girls knew it would be impossible to keep their babies and all they had to look forward to was leaving Brocket heart-broken. Sometimes we got to hear when one of the Brownie babies was going to be collected for adoption. We all congregated at the window which overlooked the back entrance to watch the baby being carried out by the nurse and handed to the adopting parents. How can you hope to ease the pain after the mother had witnessed that? She had loved the baby so much for just a few days and may never have the chance to have another. It was sheer torture for her and we all went to bed very sad and subdued on those nights.

If that doesn’t call for courage, I do not know what does.

For International Women’s Day I say a loud ‘hurrah for brave women’ and then I say it quietly every day of my life even if no one is listening.

Our Uninvited Guests is now on sale in all good bookshops