Monday, October 29, 2012

War Poems for Halloween

"A Jolly Hallow-e'en" Vintage Postcard, ca. 1910. © NY Public Library Picture Collection.
A fascinating find for Halloween week:

Winifred M. Letts's Hallow-e'en and Poems of the War is widely available online for those of you would like to delve a bit into Halloween and Great War history.

Letts, born in 1882, was of English and Irish heritage. She was also a versatile writer, penning novels, poems, plays, and children's fiction over her career.

The Halloween-themed poems in Letts's collection are touching, rather tragic, musings. They offer an older-world vision of Halloween as a holiday when the spirits of the dead might return to familiar places and people. "Hallow-e'en 1915," for example, is an emotional appeal to the war dead, hoping that they will be drawn by the welcoming lights of home. Hearth fires, stars, lanterns, and lamps are all described as beacons for the "well-beloved dead."

O men of the manor and moated hall and farm
Come back to-night; treading softly over the grass;
The dew of the autumn dusk will not betray where you pass;
The watchful dog may stir in his sleep but he'll raise no hoarse alarm.
--Winifred M. Letts, "Hallow-e'en 1915," (5-8)
Other pieces of note in this great collection are "The Deserter," a well-known piece that considers the plight of those too fearful to fight, and "A Sister in a Military Hospital," about nurses much like those whose uniforms might inspire a costume or two, as I have written previously.

Letts's book connects Halloween to the First World War in an unexpected way, offering a different perspective on the holiday than the one we might know today. In her poems, mingling with ghosts on "Hallow-e'en" is a longed-for reunion rather than a spooky thrill. Most importantly, however, Halloween is for Letts, as it remains today, a time of possibilities, a brief night when real and unreal can come together and a slightly different, more magical, world appears.

© Fiona Robinson

Monday, October 22, 2012

What to Wear to War: A Nurse's Halloween

Hello Dear Readers,
Today I'm celebrating the first birthday of Ghosts of 1914! I'm delighted to have kept the wheels turning on our journey into Great War history. Thank you for joining me along the way!

I'm also sitting here on a rainy Monday thinking about Halloween costumes. I love historical costumes of various kinds and I'm determined to put my sewing skills to work at making a flapper dress at some point. I made one a couple of years ago and loved it, but this next time around I'd like to make more of a Robe de Style, which was a transitional style somewhere between the lighter post-Victorian gowns of the late 1910s and the remarkably daring ones of the Jazz Age. Here are two lovely examples of the amazing Jeanne Lanvin's Robe de Style in the Met Museum's collection:
Jeanne Lanvin. Robe de Style, 1924-25. © Metropolitan Museum,  New York.
For those of us who love historical costume related to the Great War, furthermore, there are plenty of ideas. Last year, I wrote a bit about various uniforms, including that of the British (V.A.D. or Red Cross) nurse. In a pinch, a respectable replica could be whipped up from a long grey cotton dress or skirt with a collared shirt, a simple white apron (with optional red cross painted or sewn on), some white cuffs (for instance snipped from the sleeves of a worn-out t-shirt), and a deftly tied white headscarf. For example, from a nifty article on the UK Red Cross's blog, here is one of Britain's most famous WWI nurses, Vera Brittain, in uniform:
Vera Brittain, ca. 1915-18. 
Taking things to an even more intrepid level, the National Library of Scotland has some great images of two women who served directly on the front line as nurses and ambulance drivers:
Mairi Chisholm (?), Nurse, ca. 1914-18. © NLS, Acc 8006 (i).
Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker were, according to the National Library (NLS), the only two women permitted to serve on any Western Front battlefield. Explore the NLS's "Women in the First World War" learning site to find more details about these remarkable ladies and some of their peers. As for a Halloween costume, Mairi's trench coat and waders/high boots, as well as her messenger bag and helmet, could be replicated with modern finds and would make for a really exciting innovation on the standard nurse's uniform.

Well, I'll close for now, but there are a couple of ideas for Great War-inspired costumes that can easily be constructed out of items you may have in your own closet or that can be found at the local thrift store, army/navy supply, borrowed, or purchased inexpensively elsewhere. For more on First World War costumes, take a look at my earlier posts on this topic. And, I will be back to suggest even more ideas before the big holiday arrives! 

Till later,

© Fiona Robinson

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On a Professional Note...

Hello again readers,
Because yours truly just finished her dissertation, it is now time for me to look for a job!

For interested parties, my professional portfolio site, otherwise known as "The Bookish Writer," is now live at:

If you are in need of a writer, museum assistant, editor, researcher, teacher, or publishing associate, please let me know!


Hello again!

Hello dear readers,
I am back from the time warp that was submitting and shipping my dissertation! What a whirlwind the last month has been. And there's no rest for the weary. Between a short-term writing gig and some other projects and what-not these days, I am a busy little bee.

I just wanted to pop in here to let you know that, though I may have finished the biggest academic project I've yet done, a culmination of the ten or so years I've spent thinking about and working on the First World War since college, the Ghosts of 1914 are still with us--and me.

In the days after I turned in the dissertation, when everyone was saying, "you must be so relieved!" and "now it's time for a rest!" I'd nod, smile, and then think, "I sure wish I felt relieved and/or restful..." There are reasons for my lack of celebratory insouciance. Of course, handing in a dissertation is not the end of that particular process--there are numerous reviews that must take place before a degree is awarded. Waiting is the name of the game now. And, like many young academics in my position, I'm at a point between education and career when the next (professional) chapter is yet to be written and leaving the safe, structured, world of grad school (though it has its tribulations, of course) is thus a difficult prospect. Finally, the truth of having "finished" the last and most pivotal requirement of graduate school takes a long time to sink in.

Anyway, when one is at such a crossroads, it can be tempting to look, with a sudden flash of gleeful spite, at the books and papers that have set up shop in one's home and life--on desks, bookshelves, floors, bookbags, etc.--over the last several years and begin gathering, flinging, discarding, get the idea. I've known the pleasure of returning literally hundreds of library books and throwing out old drafts, and I've imposed mental quarantines forbidding certain authors or topics at such moments in the past.

However, I haven't really felt this urge this time around. Perhaps it's all still too new. But, I think there's another--better--reason. When I look at my bookshelves, I realize that my copies of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon, Helen Zenna Smith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so many others are old friends. Furthermore, I am still curious about so much of Great War history, culture, and arts. I still have so many questions and I can sense that there are so many stories that still need to be recovered from this moment in time.

While the climb was burdensome at times, I've gotten to the top of Dissertation Mountain and I can say that the view is dazzling. It's not entirely clear what all lies before me, but I do know that there is much more to explore. I've got WWI projects already up my sleeve, to be sure--more research I'd like to do, more writing (both academic and non-) I will do. And Ghosts of 1914 is definitely here to stay. This blog has been a delight and a source of support during the last year. Here, I've had the joy of pursuing detours and by-roads in WWI history and knowing that a community of readers joins me in my explorations.

Thank you for reading and do stay tuned. In the next weeks, I'll celebrate the first birthday of Ghosts of 1914 with plenty of new posts. It's good to be back.


© Fiona Robinson