I mentioned when I first started blogging that I wanted to write about other topics, not just about my quest to improve my fitness for the upcoming Race for Life and posting homemade vegetarian recipes. Alongside all of the lifestyle stuff, I am a full-time student studying a Masters in English Studies, and the time has come where I need to seriously consider my dissertation.
For my undergraduate dissertation I looked at how British female war poets represent the position and engagement of women during the First World War. So to me, it makes sense to move onto the Second World War. I really enjoyed studying war poetry last year for my dissertation, and I have a passion for history. I want to see how different female poetry is from World War II in comparison to World War I.
I don’t know how much the British education system has changed since I was at secondary school and college, but when studying war, only the great soldier poets of the First World War are considered. Ask any British person to name a World War One poet, and you’ll get Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and many more males who fought as soldiers. At a stretch, you might hear Jessie Pope and Charlotte Mew, but generally female poets of both wars are greatly underrepresented.
The reason for this underrepresentation is that both world wars are viewed as gendered experiences. Women were not allowed to become soldiers; they were forbidden from participating as combatants on the front line in the British forces. So war is seen as a male experience, hence some have used this to argue that women surely have nothing worth writing about, because they could not fight.
This is completely false. British women had experiences just as worthy of recognition as men did. In fact, the boundary between the Home Front and the Front Line was entirely diminished in the Second World War, as civilians in Britain experienced similar horrors to soldiers, such as the Blitz when Germany repeatedly bombed London and other UK cities.
In addition, the distinction between the sexes also became blurred during both world wars as women took on traditionally masculine roles, including munitions, agriculture and ambulance drivers.
Interesting fact: female conscription was introduced for the first time in British history through the National Service Act of 1941. Young unmarried women or childless widows were called up for war work, to help with the national effort.
Despite women working in masculine jobs, gender roles were greatly maintained, particularly by the British government and propaganda. Men serving as soldiers were constantly reminded that they were fighting to protect the women and children at home, and women’s magazines reminded women to upkeep their beauty and appearance, as well as the household, even while working in difficult and tiring jobs. Women, ideally, were expected to represent social stability by remaining at and maintaining their home, ready for the soldier’s return.
Of course women did venture abroad to serve as nurses and other non-combatant wartime roles, but even there they were expected to adhere to the ideals of femininity. Forbidding women from physical combat was the main method of retaining femininity, as male soldiers were associated with killing, while women were life-givers.
Catherine Reilly (1925-2005) conducted a lot of research into war poetry, and she was the first person to publish anthologies dedicated solely to British female war poets. I used Scars Upon My Heart (1981), an anthology of First World War female poetry for my undergraduate dissertation, and for my masters dissertation, I will be using the companion anthology Chaos of the Night (1984), which contains female poetry of the Second World War. I also recently discovered Anne Powell’s Shadows of War (1999), which contains additional women who wrote poetry. Both books are great reads, highlighting the fact that women were greatly involved in the war and had their own experiences worthy of recognition.
When I did my undergraduate dissertation, I found out that there is a gradual growing recognition for female war poets. Their poetry is representative of the experiences women went through during wartime Britain, including mourning, loss and working in gender reversed roles. If women had not been willing to work during both world wars, they would have been elongated, or possibly not won by Britain and its allies.
While there is more recognition for female war poets, anthologies still tend to veer towards the male gendered experience, only including a few poems by women. Some critics argue the reason for this is the genre of war poetry needs to be redefined, since the war experience of women is different to men’s.
The genre of war poetry was established by the soldier war poets of the First World War, representing the experiences of fighting in combat and trench warfare. World War One was the first war of modern technological warfare, which greatly influenced soldiers in writing their poetry. In fact, Second World War poetry is not as critically acclaimed as the First World War, most likely due to this.
I’m currently doing research at the moment, having read over twenty sources so far, a mixture of literary criticism and historical accounts. One of my favourite parts of writing essays and dissertations is research and reading. I learn something new each time I read a different source and, quite often, it helps to shape how I write my assignments.
The process of writing this dissertation is going to be very different compared to my experiences as an undergraduate. My undergraduate dissertation started in the summer before I started third year, when I did lots of reading and research, and writing up the project worked alongside all of my other assignments. This proved challenging for many students, but I coped with it rather well, making sure that I aimed to write a bit of my dissertation every week and meeting regularly with my supervisor. My hard work and effort meant that I achieved a first for my undergraduate dissertation!
I had to do a presentation recently in front of my course mates and some lecturers from the university. Overall it went really well; I received constructive feedback and was asked questions which will help me for my Masters dissertation.
My main research questions for this dissertation are:
- How do British female poets represent the position and engagement of women during the Second World War?
- What attitudes towards women are conveyed through female war poetry?
- Why is Second World War poetry not as critically acclaimed as the poetry of the First World War
- What ideals of ‘Britishness’ and opposition to Nazism/fascism conveyed through female war poetry?
- How is a sense of the war as a ‘people’s’ one, and a sense of a nation united, portrayed through female war poetry
- Is the divide between sex/gender maintained or blurred in female war poetry? What attitudes are held towards sex/gender by women poets?
So I have 15,000 words due on the 15th September 2015. Once I’ve handed in my dissertation, that’s it. I will have finished my masters! A scary prospect really, as I don’t know what my future holds. But as I wrote in a recent blog, I’m not worrying too much about my future, and just taking life and opportunities as they come.
Happy reading and blogging!