The Woman at the Front
I associate Lecia Cornwall’s name with historical romances, although I confess I haven’t read any of her work in that genre. The blurb for her latest book, The Woman at the Front, caught my eye because of its First World War setting; I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Northern France (pre-Covid) researching family history so it’s a period I’m particularly interested in – and the premise of a young female doctor wanting to make a useful contribution to the war effort but being thwarted at every turn promised an interesting read.
Eleanor Atherton, the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, has always longed to follow in her father’s footsteps. In 1917, she graduated from medical school in Edinburgh near the top of her class (and thus ahead of almost 130 of her male colleagues) and has been looking forward to using her hard-earned skills in a meaningful way – but she’s derided and looked down upon for her choices at every turn. Even her father doesn’t support her ambitions and has relegated her to menial tasks, such as doing paperwork or cleaning his surgery, while her mother constantly bemoans the fact that Eleanor will never be able to find a husband because no man wants a wife with an advanced education who refuses to stick to her ‘proper’ place in the order of things.
But Eleanor – who worked harder than anyone else so she’d be taken seriously, who put up with the constant bullying of the male students – refuses to be diverted from her chosen path. When we meet her, it’s January of 1918 and she’s in a meeting with Sir William Foxleigh at the War Office, asking to be allowed to offer her services to the army hospitals in France. Unfortunately, Sir William’s response is just the same as she’s received from just about every other man when informed she’s a doctor – distaste, disbelief and an instruction to “go home, sit down, and take up something more useful, such as knitting.” With the war raging into its fourth year, she knows doctors are desperately needed and tries to make her case, but Foxleigh dismisses her and suggests that she should instead find a position at one of the hospitals in England that care for women and children – or if she’s set on going to France, that she should become a nurse or a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as those are “much more ladylike pursuits.” Furious and frustrated, Eleanor responds:
“I am not a nurse, Sir William, or a volunteer. I am a doctor.”
Back at home a couple of weeks later, however, an unexpected opportunity presents itself when the Countess of Kirkswell informs Eleanor that her son Louis – a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and now the heir to the earldom following his older brother’s recent death – has been injured and is currently being treated at a Casualty Clearing Station near Arras – and then asks Eleanor to travel to France to act as Louis’ doctor and to bring him home.
Even though she knows her parents will disapprove, Eleanor jumps at the chance to do something useful, and is soon on her way to France. Even amidst the destruction and carnage all around, and the obvious need for people with her skills and medical training, she is still viewed with disdain and suspicion by most of the medical staff – even the nurses – and instructed that she is to attend no patients other than Louis on threat of being sent back to England. Eleanor tries to stick to this rule, but it’s hard for her to just stand by when there are people who need the help she can give – and with ever increasing numbers of wounded flooding into the CCS, it’s not long before she decides that some rules need to be broken and grabs the opportunity to finally prove herself, in spite of the inflexibility of the commanding officer and the matron. And she does it in spectacular fashion, working as quickly, skilfully and indefatigably as any of the other doctors.
The author does an absolutely incredible job with the setting in this book. The sights and smells, the mud, the despair, the exhaustion, the everyday heroics of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances (the bravery of the stretcher-bearers who have to venture onto the battlefields in order to retrieve the wounded while still under fire, for instance), the knowledge that no matter how many men are treated, there will be more tomorrow and the next day and the next… it’s all superbly captured and conveyed on the page and I was thoroughly immersed in the time and place.
The book is less successful as a romance, however. Ms. Cornwall sets up a number of potential love interests for Eleanor – Louis Chastaine (the countess’ son), Scottish stretcher-bearer Fraser MacLeod and doctor, David Blair – but although it’s fairly obvious who she’s going to end up with, the romance is pretty insta-love-y. I get that the circumstances (“there’s a war on”) don’t allow for a lot of on-page togetherness (and it makes perfect sense that way), so while The Woman at the Front does include a romance and an HEA, those are very much secondary to Eleanor’s struggle to make her way in the hostile, male-dominated environment of medicine in a world being torn apart by war, so I’d class the book as historical fiction with romantic elements, rather than as an historical romance.
On the negative side, the pacing is uneven and the story drags in places, and I found it hard to believe in the intense dislike displayed towards Eleanor by her family. It turns out that her father only allowed her to go to medical school as a way of shaming her twin brother Edward, who had no interest in medicine. Atherton expected Eleanor to fail and that failure would teach her some humility – and when she didn’t, he thought her medical training would mean she’d make a suitable doctor’s wife. As for her brother, well he’s a self-centred prick, but I still didn’t see why he so disliked her.
And finally, a word of warning. The way Eleanor is treated by so many around her, the prejudice she encounters, the way she’s dismissed, belittled, talked-down-to – even by other women – is rage-inducing. I have no doubt the attitudes presented are realistic, but I had to actually put the book down a time or two in order to calm down!
Despite that, however – and if you’re okay with the romance taking a back seat on occasion – The Woman at the Front is a fascinating read and one I’m recommending to anyone looking for a story featuring an engaging protagonist and a well-researched, well-realised setting.