What’s it all about?:
It is 1948 and Britain is struggling to recover from the Second World War. Half French, half English, Marguerite Carter, young and beautiful, has lost her parents and survived a terrifying war, working for the SOE behind enemy lines. Leaving her partisan lover she returns to England to be one of the first women to receive a degree from the University of Cambridge.
Now she pins back her unruly auburn curls, draws a pencil seam up her legs, ties the laces on her sensible black shoes, belts her grey gabardine mac and sets out towards her future as an English teacher in a girls’ grammar school. For Miss Carter has a mission – to fight social injustice, to prevent war and to educate her girls.
Through deep friendships and love lost and found, from the peace marches of the fifties and the flowering of the Swinging Sixties, to the rise of Thatcher and the battle for gay rights, to the spectre of a new war, Sheila Hancock has created a powerful, panoramic portrait of Britain through the life of one very singular woman.
What did I think?:
Miss Carter’s War was chosen for the Spring Richard and Judy book club this year and was a novel I was looking forward to being set in one of my favourite time periods, the Second World War. The story boasts a powerful, intelligent and independent female character, (hurrah!) Marguerite Carter who is something of a revolutionary. I really enjoyed that we saw her journey over a period of years from a young woman with a lot to learn about the world but with a strong desire to “do some good,” to a mature and much wiser older woman who still manages to achieve her dreams.
When we first meet Marguerite the war is over and she is about to begin a teaching job at a prestigious school for girls. However, throughout the novel we get flashbacks to times during the war which were particularly traumatising for her, working as part of the Specials Operations Executive in Vichy, France where she bore witness (and participated in) some incredibly harrowing events. Now a newly fledged teacher she is passionate about teaching her girls whilst still harbouring strong political notions that throw her into action if peace is in any way threatened or if she feels justice has not been served.
I loved the emotional connection Marguerite developed with her pupils and as life goes on, she descends almost like an Angel of Mercy if any of her girls are in trouble. There is a particularly poignant part of the story where one of her more gifted pupils becomes addicted to drugs and homeless. It is obvious how much love Marguerite has for the girl as she desperately tries to get her back on her feet again. In terms of her own relationships, poor Marguerite isn’t very lucky. First of all she falls for a fellow teacher but there is quite an important factor that prevents them from having a conventional er… “physical” relationship. Following this, she begins a relationship with a man called Jimmy who brings a lot of excitement to her life but has a dark little secret of his own. We as the reader find out quite early on that she has left her heart in France with a colleague from the SOE, Marcel. So will she ever manage to find love? Or will she be married to her precious teaching for life?
As a debut novel from Sheila Hancock, I did think this was a good read but it felt a little slow at points, particularly at the beginning. I absolutely loved the little snippets that we got of Marguerite’s job during the war and wished there were more of them or that they had been longer with more detail as that would have been intriguing to read about. Marguerite herself was a fascinating character and I loved that she was so independent and passionate, but occasionally it felt like I was reading about two different people regarding the flashbacks versus present time. I enjoyed the relationship/friendship that she managed to forge with Tony, the P.E. teacher but didn’t really believe or buy into the relationship with Jimmy all that much. Saying all this, the ending of the novel was really lovely and left me with a little warm feeling inside and I do believe Sheila Hancock has a real gift for writing fiction.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):