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On the Side of the Angels by Betty Miller
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On the Side of the Angels (1945)

by Betty Miller

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essive. During the Second World War Betty Miller’s husband was commissioned as a Major in the RAMC – a war office posting which lead Betty to write On the Side of Angels in 1944 – although due to a paper shortage it wasn’t published until 1945. The novel looks at how the lives of men were changed with the coming of war, and how the women in their lives had to change and re-assess their roles. The balance between civilian and non-civilian is a delicate one in this story of the psychological effects of war on both men and women.

“Along the main road, where a row of telegraph-poles with white china florets looked like giant hyacinths, came a group of men in khaki. They walked at a leisurely pace, talking together, the smallest on the far side leading a bicycle by the handle-bars. “There they are, now,” Claudia said. ‘ And coming from the hospital too, like good boys…’ she grinned ‘it seems we misjudged them’ ‘Oh’ Honor said ‘but – look-look- look who’s –‘ Her voice seemed to retract in her throat: it was extinguished. Foolishly (for of course it was mere foolishness, Colin always said so), every sense in her body seemed to shrink. She looked about her, as if seeking a way of retreat, some cover that would mitigate the enormity of her presence on the bridge at that moment. Claudia too had seen. The gold braid, the tabs: more unmistakeable, the characteristic stooping gait. ‘The C.O’ she said in a startled voice.”

In Betty Miller’s novel the RAMC hospital in the village of Linfield occupies a unique position, much against the village’s wishes the hospital dictates everything that goes on. The war has changed people, by the mere donning of a bit of khaki personalities are altered. Honor Carmichael and her two young sons have been uprooted to Linfield, living in rented accommodation, while Honor’s husband Colin; a former small town doctor, is stationed at the RAMC hospital. “Don’t forget the Prisoners of Peace – the people who’ve had to live battened down, all their lives, pretending to conform, pretending to be what they aren’t. And that applies to most of us”

The hospital has become the focus of the whole village, uniformed officers to dance with and gossip over – the post office girl nicknamed Ginger Rogers (real name Ivy) a particular favourite with some. The hospital is also the scene for various power games and petty feuds, directed, in part at least by the C O Colonel Mayne – a manipulative man who barely tolerates the wives and children of his men. Colin is a little too enamoured of his C O putting his concerns above those of his family, desperate to impress. Along with many other men, Colin is able to almost live the life of a bachelor in this new uniformed society. At home Honor quietly submits to this way of life, running the house and caring for her little boys, while trying not to irritate Colin’s C O with her presence. A new favourite at the hospital is commando Captain Herriot who’s green beret turns the heads of both men and women. Honor Carmichael’s sister, Claudia, arrives to stay, as the school where she teaches has been relocated from London. Claudia is engaged to Andrew, a solicitor recently invalided out of the army. Andrew’s discharge threatens to rock the already delicate balance of their relationship, as a man out of uniform is invisible – and Claudia has engaged herself to the uniform as Andrew cynically reminds her. As I have already stated I think Betty Miller’s writing is superb, and although I really loved Farewell Leicester Square, I think I liked this one even more. I really need to locate more of Betty Miller's work, although I am not supposed to be buying books at the moment. Thank you Jane for sending me this as part of my Librarything Virago group secret santa parcel. ( )
2 vote Heaven-Ali | Jan 29, 2014 |
An odd little book. I found it compelling and easy to read, and yet wasn't very excited. The subject matter should have interested me, because it was a novel about a time period and a way of life that was all new to me, and therefore has merit in presenting a new facet of experience, but it still didn't interest me greatly. Yet the writing was good, and even rather poetic at times; very beautifully described, lots of character development. The book just didn't grab me.

The story is set in England, during war, but focuses on how women at home are affected, and on how their men are affected while still on the home front. Honor is a house wife, mother of two children and wife of Colin, who is a doctor in the army. Her sister, Claudia, is a teacher, and engaged to Andrew, who has been invalided out of the army. They live in a town that has been accorded the honor of housing a military hospital (much to its dismay), and their lives are dictated by the demands of that institution, on many different levels.

Colin is enamored with his Commanding Officer and finds enjoyment in the life of a pseudo-bachelor that the army provides. Andrew, Claudia's fiancee, has sunk into melancholy after being rejected from his troop. Of course, these particular situations have a deep impact on Honor and Claudia. Honor is a thoroughly committed wife and mother. She lives her life for her husband and two boys, and when she dislikes the actions her husband takes, she submissively follows his wishes despite her own desires. Colin, however, does not appreciate this devotion - he is a changed man since the war started. The CO is an autocratic man who expects total investment from his officers, which means that they put the army and himself above family and all other ties, and Colin has bought into this agenda. He acts like a bachelor when he is away from home, and is unhappy and constrained when he is forced to be a family man. I honestly disliked his character; I had no sympathy for his wish to be one of the men, and scorned him for the way he treated Honor. For her part, Honor takes refuge in silence and escaping within herself. As her husband neglects her she withdraws more and more from reality around her and confines herself in the domestic sphere of motherhood.

Then we have the relationship between Claudia and Andrew. Both are intellectual types, she a teacher and he a lawyer, yet they are drawn to the more visceral side of their natures that the war evokes. Andrew sought to gratify that desire by joining the army, only to be thwarted by a weak heart. Claudia does not mind his departure from the army so much as she is worried by the effect it has had on Andrew's personality. She wonders if it has altered their relationship irrevocably. When she is captivated by a visiting CO, Claudia decides to leave her fiancee for the soldier. Like Andrew, though, her attempts to evade her civilized nature are eventually defeated.

I found much to pity in all four of these characters, they bear so much sadness or narrowness in their lives, but the choices they make in the confines of those lives prevented me for having much sympathy. Colin is a cad, Andrew is too cynical and judgmental, and Claudia is willing to leave her fiance without a word and run off with a stranger. Even Honor, who, as a mother of two, I should have liked more, was inaccessible. Her withdrawn pauses and blank eyes keep the reader at a distance as much as the other characters in the novel. Since I couldn't embrace the characters, I couldn't embrace the story. It was a prettily written psychological exploration of the effects of war, particularly on women, but not entirely to my taste. ( )
  nmhale | Mar 26, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Betty Millerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Miller, SarahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
"The question is this : Is Man an ape or an angel?
I, my Lord, am on the side of the angels."
--DISRAELI

Speech at Oxford Diocesan Conference, 1864
Dedication
To
Henry William Spiro
Dear brother : incomparable friend

Missing, presumed killed, in
H.M.S. Firedrake
First words
At that hour of the afternoon the house, it seemed, was empty.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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From the back cover: "don't forget the Prisoners of Peace - the people who've had to live battened down, all their lives, pretending to conform, pretending to be what they aren't. And that applies to most of us."

Honor Carmichael and her two young children are uprooted to Lanfield, where her husband Colin, a dapper, small-town doctor, is stationed at the RAMC hospital. She is visited by her sister Claudia, whose friend, Andrew, waits to be invalided out of the Army. Whilst Andrew dismisses himsely as "damaged goods", Colin beomes absorbed by the petty feuds and power games of uniformed life - most particulary with the arrival of Captain Herriot, a commando and the C.O.'s current favourite. Apparantly peripheral to this "male pirouetting", Honor and Claudia are nevertheless deeply affected by this war. For its threat to notions of masculinity forces both women to reassess the roles they've always played.  First published in 1945, this exploration of the crushing psychological effects of war is 'a sensitively and beautifully told story - perfectly drawn" - Stevie Smith.
Betty Miller (1910-1965) novelist and biographer, was born in Cork and lived most of her life in London, where she married the psychiatrist Dr. Emanuel Miller (their son is Dr. Jonathan Miller).  Best known for her biography of Robert Browning, her friends included Stevie Smith, Isaiah Berlin and Rosamond Lehmann.
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