By Jeremy Gordon-Smith
Beauty in the Shadows has come out of the copious literary output of Viola Bawtree, but it is a book about much more than just her. Viola was born in Sutton in the late-Victorian period and started keeping a diary from 1900. What follows charts her and her family’s experiences through the tumultuous period of two world wars.
Viola herself comes across as self-conscious but also selfless, always striving to help others and putting her faith in the power of religion and prayer. In her early diaries she comments on many of the issues of the day that have now gone down in history, such as the suffragettes and the sinking of the Titanic.
As the First World War broke out it naturally became the focus of her diary, with several family members serving, such as her brother who served in the RAMC and whose letters home provide a first-hand account of conditions at the front. The book also covers the war experiences of Viola’s wider family (her brother Ivan’s experiences are covered in detail in Jeremy Gordon-Smith’s first book, Photographing the Fallen).
Viola’s war experiences provide a lot of content for the book. She describes witnessing Zeppelin raids over Croydon, and her diary highlights the impact of the war on the home front, such as food prices and scarcity of some goods. Other diary entries cover Viola’s thoughts on subjects such as conscientious objectors and the introduction of daylight saving.
Post-war her writing turned more to religion and her love of nature, with lots of musings about her faith. With the benefit of hindsight her belief that religion could help as Europe slipped towards another war seems naïve but understandable due to the powerlessness she felt.
The war came early to the Bawtree family when, in July 1939, they took in a German Jewish refugee who had been incarcerated in Buchenwald before being deported, and stayed with the family until for much of the war and post-war period. Again Viola’s diary shows the impact of the war on families up and down the country, describing how they were impacted by blackout regulations and rationing. She provides a detailed account of being subject to bombing and the Blitz for six months and the impact and strain this had. Much time was spent sheltering in the cellar and amazingly the dates of air raids can still be seen penciled on the cellar wall of the family home
The book covers Viola’s life post-war, particularly how her love of nature and gardening were a constant source of enjoyment, seen in her prolific output of contributions to various magazines.
This book will no doubt be of interest to people familiar with the local area and who know the places being described, but as a social history of how individuals and families who lived through the world wars were impacted it is also a fascinating read.
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