Quite a few years ago, I picked up a copy of Phyllis Matthewman’s Timber Girl at a car boot sale. I had no idea it was a scarce book, I was just attracted to it by the subject matter and the New Forest setting. It’s about the Lumber Jills, as the women in the Timber Corps were called. They’re much less well known today than the Land Girls. I found that Matthewman had also written a Land Girl book, Jill on the Land, and have been searching for a reasonably priced copy ever since. One came up on ebay recently but went for much more than I was prepared to pay, so I was pleased when Abe offered me quite a cheap one.
Phyllis Matthewman (1896–1979) wrote school stories and romances. She was a close friend of Elinor Brent-Dyer. The two war-focused books mentioned above are a mixture of propaganda and romance; they aim to show what the women’s work was like and to emphasise its importance, then throw in a love story for light relief. In each case the girls take an immediate dislike to a man they meet early in the book, so if you know your Pride and Prejudice you guess straight away which way things will head.
Are these girls’ books or adult romances? At the back of Jill (1942) there are advertisements for two of Matthewman’s school stories and for one of Patience Gilmour’s Swans books about Rangers. Jill is a shorter book and the love story is dealt with more perfunctorily than in Timber Girl (1944). I think Timber Girl is the better of the two. There’s a much better sense of place; the New Forest is well described, whereas Jill’s farm could have been almost anywhere. It’s interesting that Jan, the Timber Girl, feels that the Forest has remained unchanged for centuries, as much of it is still just as Matthewman describes it. The work is explained in more detail (it’s almost too instructional in places) and the love story takes up far more of the book. So I think this one was intended for older girls.
I did enjoy reading both books (re-reading in the case of Timber Girl), but there are certain tics in Matthewman’s writing which can irritate. I lost count of the number of times the girls are described as looking ‘trim’ in their uniforms. Another annoyance is the bizarre universal accent she applies to any country person. She herself lived in Surrey, yet she has the Surrey farming folk in Jill speaking a strange version of Mummerset. The New Forest people speak in the same way and it doesn’t sound very Hampshire to me. Nevertheless the books do shed an interesting light on the wartime experiences of young women who gave up the comforts of home in order to do strenuous and sometimes dangerous work. In Timber Girl in particular, there’s a strong emphasis on the way educated girls like Jan get on very well with girls ‘from all walks of life’ i.e. from inferior backgrounds. There’s even a suggestion that the war is in some ways a good thing, because it will shake everything up and lead to a better world in which class differences will be less important. I find these books well worth reading.
Other wartime farming books for girls reviewed here.
It’s cheating to include this as I’m still reading it but it is the book I was saving up to read over Easter. In 2010 I had the great treat of re-reading all four books of The Cazalet Chronicles straight through. This last book, completed not that long before the author died, seems like a wonderful bonus. Reviewers have described it as ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘comfort reading’. So much the better, say I. The Cazalet story has reached 1956. There have been deaths, divorces, marriages, births but it’s surprisingly easy to pick up where book four ended and absorb yourself again in this long saga of family life. Lovely, but sad to think this really is the last Cazalet book.