Not So Quiet Helen Zenna Smith Analysis Essay

Afterword by Jane Marcus

Praised by the Chicago Sun-Times for its “furious, indignant power,” this story offers a rare, funny, bitter, and feminist look at war. First published in London in 1930, Not So Quiet... (on the Western Front) describes a group of British women ambulance drivers on the French front lines during World War I, surviving shell fire, cold, and their punishing commandant, "Mrs. Bitch." The novel takes the guise of an autobiography by Smith, pseudonym for Evadne Price. The novel's power comes from Smith's outrage at the senselessness of war, at her country's complacent patriotism, and her own daily contact with the suffering and the wounded.

"A powerful condemnation of war and the societies that glamorize it." —Kirkus

"This intriguing book . . . vividly and impressionistically tells of the author's tour of duty in France. . . . One welcomes its return to print." —New York Times Book Review

"The reader of Not So Quiet . . . today is immediately gripped by its furious, indignant power." —Chicago Sun-Times

I will be drawing my references from Evadne Price's Not So Quiet... Stepdaughters of War and Jane Marcus' afterword on the novel

"Not So Quiet", the novel written in the late 1930's is exciting, gripping, adventurously interesting... until about the second half of the book. It is an eye-catcher from the get-go: A premise about the ladies of the first World War, telling of their lives during and after the battle. It was set up to be hilarious, female-empowering and could possibly have some positive representation for the LGBT community. It dropped interest after the harsh judgment of the lesbians in the novel came to light, especially when analyzed within the last 30 years. These elements were quickly flushed down the drain of disappointment, as it only appealed to the straight, white British involved in the war. There was a tremendous build up that ended only in what can be called a queer-baiting mess. Helen Zenna Smith, or Evadne Price, was lesbian-phobic, a fact that can be examined through her treatment of her openly gay characters, who she’s set up to die in the novel, and even herself.

With so many female characters overrunning the novel itself, and it being set in a somewhat modern and more accepting time, one would figure that the book would have one or two decent lesbian representatives. While they are there, they’re not as “PC” as the 20th-century audience would like them to be. This “problematic’ representation, whether realized or not, somewhat comes from looking at the book in a much more accepting time. People want their lesbians in a particular way; Either have them as a nondescript, static in the background, or be passed off as ‘problematic’ or ‘not real representation’. It’s important to look at these issues through a historical lens, to analyze and form our own opinions on the matter of LGBT in popular media. In persistence of all this, the novel comes off as homophobic even for it’s time.

Many argued over this very idea, even into the late eighties, when Jane Marcus wrote a fundamental essay that is often bolded as inseparable from "Not So Quiet". When looking at the LGBT characters in the book, Marcus remarks, “Helen Zenna Smith is writing to clear the volunteers (our many female protagonists) of the charge of lesbianism. Tosh (the tomboy leader) ignores, insults and taunts Skinny (the resident lesbian), who has a hysterical fit. Skinny and [her lover] are sent home for ‘refusing to obey orders’, in an unspoken agreement between Tosh and the Commandant that allows Tosh to retain her ‘honor’ and makes clear to the reader that perversion has been routed and heterosexuality holds sway.” Obviously critical of the way Skinny is treated in the novel, Marcus has quite a few problems with that scene in it’s entirety. Her recounting of the novel is fairly accurate; Skinny is pushed out of the camp by Tosh, with her assailant claiming, “I was a fool to let Skinny know I knew in the first place. Personal dislike a queer thing. I’ve always loathed that girl, and I let out at her just because I loathed her. Her morals don’t affect me one way or the other.” Despite her claim about being indifferent to Skinny’s homosexuality, it obviously affects her decision-making in telling the Commandant, and she’s more than glad to see her go. One thing that Marcus fails to touch upon is the fact that Skinny is painted as annoying in every situation she’s in. The first time she was introduced she was ruining a going-away party, as she was disturbed by the homophobic things Tosh supposedly said to her. When she gets in trouble and is sent to the Commandants, she’s a sobbing mess that can’t answer anyone properly. Marcus did comment on the fact that Skinny was portrayed as ‘yellow skinned’ and ‘sickly’. This only adds to Skinny’s portrayal as an undesirable, and nothing more. She’s the only explicit lesbian with dialogue and attributes, even if they are one-dimensional. To have Skinny be the cover girl for what can be assumed all lesbian encounters in this novel is more than one way to offend countless members of the gay community. If it was that overt and realised to be bad representation in the late eighties, then it’s sure to be seen as only worse now.

Not only did Price have the only cannon lesbian be so useless in the novel, she also ‘killed’ her and countless other women who could be seen as gay in their respects. On top of the large amount of deaths that occur to women characters only, Roy, the only other male with speaking lines, never dies. This isn’t to say that we actively want him to die, it’s more along the lines of looking at it through a homosexual lens. If Price wanted so many tragic things to happen to her protagonist, which she does, then why shouldn’t Roy be added to the body count? Him staying alive is by some divine intervention on part of the novel; He was in the front lines of war, his mother writing, “He held a trench under machine-gun fire when three-quarters of his men were dead, although one of his legs got blown off”. He merely lost his leg; 10 females either died in horrific ways or were forced out. It’s an inequality that bares Helen from even stumbling upon the thought that maybe she isn’t as straight as she thought. With all the female interests out of the way, there’s supposedly only one sex to go to after the war.

Another reason why this book is homophobic is because of the way Helen smith i.e Evadne Price metaphorically treats herself. Tosh in the novel could easily be interpreted as a lesbian, what with her short hair and brutish manner, the many stereotypes that were being started during the first world war. To the modern and light reader’s eye, she and the main character, Helen, could be taken as in a relationship. After all, Helen does fawn over the introduction of Tosh for two+ pages right from the start, dictating, “I watch Tosh lazily. She is wandering around in the flickering candlelight dressed in a soiled woolen undervest and a voluminous pair of navy blue bloomers. There is something vaguely comforting in the Amazonian height and breadth of Tosh...Nevertheless, Tosh is the idol of the entire convoy, not only of this room” .The fact that she spends so much time describing this delight to her and every female in the convoy must be some inkling of sapphic desire in Helen. Now, it’s fair to assume that Evadne Price was invested in this book, or at least the character of Helen Smith. When writing "Not So Quiet", she “locked herself away with a copy of Winifred Constance Young’s diary, a military ambulance driver of whom she based Helen Smith. She wrote over 20,000 words within a single weekend, clearly pouring herself into her work. So, when Tosh dies at her own metaphorical hand, it’s almost as if she wants to bar herself from even thinking about the two in a relationship. To make matters worse, she immediately has Helen have sex with a man, and want to marry Paul, a young soldier at the front of the lines. It’s an odd bit of backtracking, as if to say, “no, I’m not gay, look at all the men I love”. Using Smith as an extension of herself in the novel can be problematic, because she as a straight middle-class woman of England more than likely wanted to see herself in the relationships that she was comfortable in. Her own homophobia due to the times she lived in leaked through to the point where extraneous homosexual characters were being brought in and made fun of just for the sake of laughing at them, not with them.

"Not So Quiet" is a wonderfully feminist novel for the time it was written, but falls completely short of acceptance. It’s blatant homophobia can be shown through Price’s treating of her stated gay characters, who she has die in the novel, and how she metaphorically treats herself. It’s a product of the time’s that’s interesting to look back at and learn from, to know what’s bad portrayal and good. Use only as a reference and never as a Bible.

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