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All The Nice Girls: Reviews


All the ~Nice Girls, 2009 Cover

The Guardian: 14th April 2009.
Nautical But Nice.
Rachel Hore enjoys Joan Bakewell's tale of sailors and schoolgirls.

All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell
352pp, Virago, 17.99

Rachel Hore

As the official Voice of Older People, journalist and broadcaster Joan Bakewell sets a shining example by publishing her first novel at the age of 74. It takes place in 1942, when the war was going badly for Britain, and in 2003, during demonstrations against the Iraq invasion. It's also about sexual mores, which should alert Bakewell-watchers who remember the fuss over the explicit content of her BBC2 series Taboo.

It has to be said, however, that the few scenes of intimacy here are remarkably tasteful. The modern narrative is frustratingly sketchy - necessarily so, it transpires, in order not to give away the wartime mystery - but it does serve a useful purpose in providing a framework for the historical account and the "relevance" that modern readers seem to require of the past.

Grandmother Millie, born during the war and still, at 60, resentful of her chilly upbringing, has received a box of memorabilia from her dead mother's estate. Within it she finds some school magazines. As she scans them in vain for her mother's name, she can't help being intrigued by accounts of the school's wartime involvement in the Ship Adoption Scheme, which aimed to educate the students while providing moral support for the crew of the adopted ship. Ashworth Grammar, it seems, was entrusted with a merchant navy vessel from the Atlantic convoys that braved German U-boats to fetch vital supplies from North America. It's the interaction between the crew of the SS Treverran with staff and girls of the school that provides the main drama. Bakewell delivers a warm, good humoured story of wartime relationships and a thrilling account of life and death on the convoys, but she's also keen to impart an impression of wartime England and its values. She writes with equal facility from male and female viewpoints, and it may come as no surprise that one of the relationships dealt with most sympathetically is adulterous. Crisply evoked headmistress Cynthia Maitland, at 42, determines to snatch her last opportunity for personal happiness with the married ship's master, Josh Pearson. War has damaged Josh's marriage to fun-loving Wren Jessica, whose new, dissipated pals disgust him, considering the dangers he and grown-up son Peter face on their behalf at sea. One desperately wants this affair to work out.

Contrasts between past and present attitudes are pointed. Back then, pregnancy outside marriage often meant rejection for the mother and adoption for the child. Today, Millie, her unmarried daughter Kate and grandchild Freya form a tight, loving family unit. Ashworth Grammar was staffed by spinsters whose chance of marriage was destroyed by the first world war. Two sixth-formers, Polly and Jen, form attachments to Treverran sailors, but though one girl suffers her teachers' tragedy, the opportunities for single women after 1945 will be far greater.

One aspect of authorial commentary is too forced. Miss Maitland's after-school discussion group gives an opportunity for speakers representing different sections of society to speak about politics. These thumbnail sketches of local newspaper journalist, bohemian female artist, councillor, trade unionist and bigoted school governor verge on the stereotypical. Fortunately this is a faint blight on an otherwise enjoyable read.


[ Rachel Hore's The Glass Painter's Daughter is published in April
by Simon & Schuster. ]

Chapter One

Virago Press

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