Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tuesday's Treasures - From My Library

In The Springtime, edited by Mrs. Herbert Strang, (London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, no date)

The cover illustration is for a story “Signal Number 52” by Brenda Girvin in which "the girl" in the Decoding Office at Hallam Naval Base, Rachel Forsyth, a member of the United Kingdom's Women’s Royal Naval Service, (known as Wrens 1),
saves a ship and its crew.

Alas, the author of this World War I era book, Mrs. Herbert Strang, was really two male English writers, George Herbert Ely and Charles James L'Estrange. They used the pseudonyms Herbert Strang for boys’ books, Mrs Herbert Strang for girls’. 2

As an adult, I had my doubts about the authenticity of Brenda Girvin too — but a copy of a book from her personal library collection was up for auction recently, so she must have been real. 3 She's mentioned in a couple of books about British women writers, Women Writers of the First World War by Sharon Ouditt and On her their lives depend: munitions workers in the Great War by Angela Woollacott. 4

As Angela Woollacott says, Girvin only strikes a "muffled blow for women's participation in the work force" in her stories, 5 but quite honestly, even in the 1950s, decades after this was written, I appreciated this story and the subtle messages.

And I expect it and other stories like it influenced my mother years earlier. Yes, Rachel was timid about taking charge in an emergency, but she did it none the less, didn't she!

I, of course, had the benefit of a mother who'd been in uniform during World War II. Mum was never shy about saying how vital women's war work was — and how little appreciated.

This book was likely new when my mum read it, but as a girl, I read mostly 'old' books. Some like this, had been my mum's; most came from church 'rummage' sales. I've always been a book collector, but it's really because I'm a voracious reader. I do have a few older books in good condition, but most are like this — clearly well read, well loved.

If a member of your family was a World War I Wren, you may want to look at some of these stories. And, you will want to look for records at the National Archives of the United Kingdom. In Women's Royal Naval Service - Profile, you'll see an example of the kind of information you may find from the service file of Evelyn Mary Mackintosh (1895-1918) who worked for at least a while decoding.


1. Strang, no date, no page numbers. "Signal Number 52", 13 pages, illustrated with colour plate and cover, also sketches. Colour plate signed C.E. Brock, 1919; sketches initialled CEB. (Charles Edmund Brock? See The Regency World of Author Lesley-Anne McLeod: http://lesleyannemcleod.homestead.com/brock.html

One of Brenda Girvin's books was called Jenny Wren and was about another Women’s Royal Naval Service decoder (London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1920)

2. "A Hundred Years of Oxford University Press Children’s Books" by Ron Heapy. Books for Keeps, Number 167, November 2007

3. Women and the Book, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association and the Women’s Library. A selling exhibition on women and the printed word. "Brenda Girvin was another pioneering female journalist, and we have her copy of Arnold Bennett’s 1898 work Journalism for Women (Ash Rare Books £250).": www.abasummer.com/pressrel.html

4. Women writers of the first World War: an annotated bibliography, Sharon Ouditt (Abingdon Oxfordshire, England: Routledge, 2000 ). Google preview: http://books.google.ca/books?id=GLlggUSVj_8C

On her their lives depend: munitions workers in the Great War, Angela Woollacott (Berkeley, California, USA: University of California Press, 1994 ) Google preview: http://books.google.ca/books?id=7AjaXYiBMb0C

5. Woollacott, 1994, p. 206

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