Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Downton Abbey, White Feathers, Misogyny

I have never watched Downton Abbey, but I was fascinated to read the reaction of one Telegraph reviewer to last Sunday's episode, in which a woman of the White Feather Campaign handed feathers to men who hadn't enlisted. Michael Deacon, the reviewer in question, argues that soldiers did not share that resentment, and (courtesy of two misogynistic moments from Owen and Sassoon) that they directed their anger more often at women. His case is problematic.

1. For reasons to do with class, education, sexual orientation and politics, Owen and Sassoon were hardly typical of the soldiers in the trenches, and not even typical of the soldier-poets.

2. I suspect that most women were opposed to the actions of the feather girls (see below); and it's undoubtedly true that the White Feather campaign has been criticised out of all proportion to its numbers of participants. Like Jessie Pope, it is a strategically useful target.

3. It seems odd (to put it kindly) to try to win an argument by uncritically recruiting misogynistic comments for support. Deacon assumes, purely on the basis of two quotations hostile to women, that the soldiers did not object to their able-bodied counterparts' refusals to fight. For every poem which Deacon can find attacking women, I guarantee I can show him twice as many poems by soldier-poets attacking pacifists.

4. Deacon claims that the feather girls shared 'the delusion' that the Great War was 'some glorious game'. On the contrary, they understood exactly what was at stake, which was why they were prepared to shame men into enlisting. We may disapprove of their methods, but for them the War was no game.

Many of the comments below Deacon's article slip into misogyny. Many more of them restate the old and now discredited view of the War as futile and unnecessary. It will be interesting to see how media organisations like the BBC talk about the War during the centenary years, because it looks like the historians have not managed to make much headway so far.

Here is Helen Hamilton's wartime assault on the white feather brigade. As poetry, it's terrible; but as social commentary it is satisfyingly robust.

The Jingo-Woman

(How I dislike you!)
Dealer in white feathers,
Insulter, self-appointed,
Of all the men you meet,
Not dressed in uniform,
When to your mind,
    A sorry mind),
    They should be,
    The test
The judgment of your eye,
That wild, infuriate eye,
Whose glance, so you declare,
    Reveals unerringly,
Who's good for military service.
Oh! exasperating woman,
I'd like to wring your neck,
    I really would!
    You make all women seem such duffers!
    Besides exemptions,
    Enforced and held reluctantly,
    ---Not that you'll believe it---
    You must know surely
Men there are, and young men too,
Physically not fit to serve,
Who look in their civilian garb
    Quite stout and hearty.
And most of whom, I'll wager,
Have been rejected several times.
How keen, though, your delight,
    Keen and malignant,
Should one offer you his seat,
    In crowded bus or train,
Thus giving you the chance to say,
In cold, incisive tones of scorn:
    'No I much prefer to stand
    As you, young man, are not in khaki!'
Heavens! I wonder you're alive!
    Oh, these men,
These twice-insulted men,
    What iron self-control they show,
    What wonderful forbearance!

But still the day may come
For you to prove yourself
As sacrificial as upbraiding.
So far they are not taking us
But if the war goes on much longer
    They might,
    Nay more,
    They must,
When the last man has gone.
And if and when that dark day dawns,
You'll join up first, of course,
Without waiting to be fetched.
But in the meantime,
Do hold your tongue!
You shame us women.
Can't you see it isn't decent,
To flout and goad men into doing,
    What is not asked of you?


  1. In the fiction and journalism of the time, there seems to be much more criticism of the white-feather brigade than endorsement of them. Typically in stories, a woman hands out a white feather, and then discovers that the man is an amputee, or a soldier in mufti, or someone who wants to enlist, but can't for good reason. I think there was resentment of the women's implication that British men were not manly.
    Edward Thomas, reporting on his travels around England in late 1914, writes:
    'It is perhaps curious also I never was in any company where any man or woman said that somebody else ought to enlist. When they have expressed an opinion, soldiers and civilians have said that they cannot understand anyone pointing out his duty to another.'
    Some handing out of white feathers did occur, though, and probably more was imagined. Non-combatants of this period were very conscious of an accusing female gaze, and many probably enlisted for fear of what people might think of them.
    Who were the white-feather brigade? Mainly, I think, young girls, possibly teenagers, who had caught 'khaki fever', and thought they were doing their bit for the war effort by humiliating young men not in uniform. Sylvia Pankhurst also claims that her mother and Christabel's supporters gave out white feathers in towns where they held meetings. This would make sense, because the radical suffragettes who supported the war not only supported it very fiercely, but took the line that if the main argument in favour of male-only suffrage was that in the last resort men would fight for their country - then they were calling the men's bluff, and insisting that all men fight.
    I've not seen Downton Abbey yet, though I recoded it (preferring the red meat of Spooks which was on at the same time). But if this episode was set in 1916, then white feathers were a thing of the past. They belonged to the first couple of years of the war, when men were asked to volunteer. In 1916 conscription was introduced, so shaming men into enlistment was far less relevant.

  2. Generally speaking the history on show during "Downton Abbey" was pretty poor. White feather girls in 1916, un-cut trees next to the trenches, tommies wandering around the trench during bombardment or standing with their heads above the parapet etc.

  3. A belated comment--I hope some of you are still reading this.

    Tim writes: "As poetry, it's terrible; but as social commentary it is satisfyingly robust."
    In my (not really humble) opinion, many of the simplistic attitudes towards the war that have evolved arose because of the predominance of value-judgment in the field of literary criticism. The importance of critical perceptiveness, right down to the level of high school English, has ensured that only the top-ranked war poems continue to circulate. Any of us who wish to deviate from the list of "acceptable" works or writers feel a need to apologise first, in order to protect our reputation as critics.
    Let's rebel: there's no need to apologise if we want to use a poem, whatever its critical worth, as evidence of contemporary attitudes in the war; as historical documents all poems can be treated as equals.
    (No criticism of Tim implied here, but rather of those people who assume, without looking for other evidence, that because a poem is "good" it is also historically representative.)

  4. Agreeing with Elizabeth, I do though sometimes wonder if it also works the other way around - that we are so conditioned to regard the Great War as a terrible mistake that we assume any poem that says so is good, and any that doesn't, isn't (pardon the inelegance). For instance, some of Gilbert Frankau's WW1 poems strike me as being quite good as poems, not just as social documents, yet you never find them in anthologies, I suspect because their take on the war is not the approved one.

  5. The picture, (up top) of the feather girl is my God sister, Rosie jones who i am very proud of and really deserved this role!! Luv u lots rosie! miss u!