Coming of age in the 1930s
The impact of two world wars on both author and protagonist
During this centenary year we will no doubt reflect on the many children, over half a million of them, who became fatherless in the Great War. The author Diana Raymond was one of those children. In fact, as she lived through most of the twentieth century, her life was inevitably affected by both the First and Second World Wars. The influence of these experiences can be felt in her most popular novel, Lily’s Daughter, which has just been reissued in a new ebook edition.
Lily’s Daughter is a bitter-sweet and often witty account of a young woman’s coming of age in 1930s England. Jessica Mayne, the Lily’s daughter of the title, faces a number of obstacles as she learns more about her family, herself and the consequences of falling in love with her fickle cousin Guy. Although this is historical fiction, we can find some parallels between the lives of Diana Raymond and Jessica Mayne.
Diana was born in 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme. Her father was killed the following year in the preliminary bombardment to the Third Battle of Ypres. Jessica Mayne lost her father to the fighting too, in her case before she was even born.
In Lily’s Daughter, Jessica comes across a bronze medallion “about six inches in diameter, and the figure in relief shows a Britannia of statuesque build, in long drapery, holding a laurel wreath above a lion.” This was The Memorial Plaque (also known as the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’), which was given to the next-of-kin of service people killed in the First World War. In her private memoir, Diana Raymond describes the medallion issued on the death of her own father, and so we can understand yet another link between the author and her protagonist.
Jessica’s father remains a mysterious figure to her – her mother did not talk about him and she has the sketchiest of details about him and his life. She only learns of his final resting place after the fateful meeting with her Aunt Imogen. Diana Raymond was an adult before she discovered the location of her father’s grave, in Belgium, with the help of her husband, the acclaimed novelist Ernest Raymond (This England, We, The Accused).
While there are echos of the Great War in Lily’s Daughter, its setting in the 1930s also hints at the changes to come. In the background to more domestic matters “newspaper … headlines spoke either of the siege of Madrid or, with more immediate force, the romantic interest of the new King: Grave Constitutional Crisis; the King and his Ministers; Baldwin at Fort Belvedere…”
Diana Raymond worked in Whitehall both before and during the Second World War. At the Committee of Imperial Defence she was personal assistant to General Ismay, who was to become Winston Churchill’s chief military assistant. In 1939, Diana leaned out of her office window on Whitehall to witness Chamberlain give his ‘Peace for our time’ speech. She knew then that war was inevitable.
In Lily’s Daughter, the character of Aaron, a Polish Jew who is about to return to Warsaw, embodies the acknowledgement and fear of the approaching storm in Europe:
He glanced over the water where the first fallen leaves drifted by, yellow with the dying summer. ‘So peaceful! But do you know what I hear as I sit beside you? What I see? A million marching men, bands, banners. Huge banners ‒’ he spread his arms wide ‒ ‘black and red, the swastika flying out like a flock of such birds as eat flesh. Called ‒?’
‘Yes, vultures. In a short while I have to return to Warsaw, and then I am afraid this picture of the river and the girl beside it will seem a great way off, like a dream.’
But despite reflecting the preoccupations of the era, Lily’s Daughter is essentially about the timeless challenges faced by us all: family relationships, bereavement, first love, the impact of falling in love with the wrong person – the themes of love and death are present throughout:
“I held him too, as close as I could. I was learning for the first time that death is the great fertilizer; that the impulses of love and desire are perversely strengthened by it.”
Lily’s Daughter by Diana Raymond is published by Corazon Books as an ebook priced £1.99
Posted by Richard Lee