52weeks, 52 books, 52 (mostly) women

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

The story of World War II is the story of the greatest generation. The generation that fought for a real cause, the defeat of Nazism and whose heroism knew no bounds. Understandably many of those stories focus on the men and the women of the time tend to get shorter shrift. In fact, many women showed heroism too, albeit within the circumscribed world they were left to live in. Does the fact that they had to stay behind and man the Home Front mean that they did not adapt and act with some bravery and defiance too?

It is the lives of the women left behind that is the focus of Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies Choir. In the early months of the war the quaint English village of Chilbury has to adapt to a new and challenging world as the men leave to fight.

Stories from the Home Front are not entirely new and tend to fall into a pattern. Something like this — communities are bereft of their menfolk and women step up to the plate to carry on. Women then find themselves and an inner resolve they didn’t know they had, arriving at their own awakening with a fortitude and directness they somehow housed deep inside them that has now blossomed.

The war has barely begun and Chilbury experiences the first pangs of life without the men :

“As all our male voices have gone to war, the village choir is to close following Cmdr. Edmund Winthrop’s funeral next Tuesday.” The Vicar

This is the first signal that life is about to change for the sleepy little coastal village and the women left behind. Their determination to form the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is their first act of defiance, in the words of the village battle-axe Mrs. B.

“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely at a time when we need it most! I mean, what’ll he disband next? His beloved bell ringers? Church on Sundays? Christmas?”

Thus forms the choir that constitutes the basis of this predictable though nevertheless charming book about a group of women who keep calm and carry on.

If you’ve been missing Downton Abbey, you can wallow in Chilbury, a small community dealing with issues big and small (though the hardships of war mean that the dresses probably aren’t as stylish as at Downton). In fact, I can already see this story rendered into one of those wonderful TV period dramas, Foyles War meets Land Girls.

Chilbury may be small but there is plenty going on. Among the plot points: a babyswapping scheme concocted by on of the most prominent men left in the village; the presence of a mysterious stranger who may or may not be a nazi spy; an out of wedlock pregnancy; a 10 year old Czech refugee with a secret; a lonely widow who must open her home to an outsider for the cause; There is also a love-struck teenaged girl and young men who want to claim their sweethearts before setting off to battle. And one mustn’t forget the household help looking to work the angles, hardworking farmhands and the local black marketer.

In other words, a lot of stock characters whose concerns may seem slight given the grand scheme of what’s going on in the world around them.

But that world does pierce their bubble eventually, there are air raids and bombings and the loss of beloved villagers as war progresses.

It’s often easy to dismiss stories about the women left behind in war as somehow lesser stories, tales that seem focused on frivolous dramas and a distraction from the convulsive events of a global war. But the reality is that the women left behind did have to change their lives radically as a result of the war and the resulting freedom they experienced couldn’t be rolled back.

The mere fact of pushing back against the vicar and forming a ladies’ choir can be seen as a revolutionary act of defiance. Throughout the book, we are introduced to women who learn how to be direct, how to take matters into their own hands and discover that they like it.

One of the key characters Mrs Tilling, a widow and nurse, whose only son is fighting in the war, develops a confidence and strength that she probably didn’t know she had because circumstances have demanded it of her. One of her fellow villagers describes her thus:

“This war has given her a real boost. You can tell by the way she holds herself more upright now, none of the slouching shoulders and moping face…”

The realization that there are no men to carry the coffin of one of their fellow choir women lost to a bombing raid stiffens the spine of them all and the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir shoulder the burden previously held by men, literally, as they carry their fallen member to her final resting. The women discover that wartime means “there are no rules about anything anymore.”

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is the kind of book that you curl up with on a rainy weekend afternoon, with tea and biscuits close by. Before you know it, you’ve spent a perfectly lovely time in the company of a group of women who possess all the foibles any group of women do, but who also adapt to their changing circumstances without quite realizing how profound that change is going to be.

BEFORE YOU READ:

Length: 368 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Women’s Fiction, World War II

Themes; love, romance, war, grief, defiance, village politics

Commitment: Easy, pleasant read, best consumed with a pot of tea close at hand

Madhulika Sikka is an independent media consultant and someone who likes to read. Learn more about this project here.

Books, women writers, book reviews, fiction, historical fiction