All aspects of British life were affected by World War II, from the front lines to the forests, from factories to farms. It disrupted lives, labor, choices, and opportunities, especially with regard to gender. One fascinating example of how the war ushered in different ways of living was the Women’s Land Army. The concept behind it was straightforward: with men in service, the country needed agricultural labor. Why not employ young women? Initially set up in WWI, the Women’s Land Army was disbanded and then re-created in 1939. Land Girls, first volunteers and then conscripts, worked on farms throughout the UK, doing what had been men’s work. More than 80,000 women took part. Britain had its women riveters; it also had women farm hands.
One of the Land Girls was Margaret Hazel Watson (1921-2016). Published in 1943 under the pseudonym Barbara Whitton, her novel Green Hands was about her wartime experience. It was recently reissued as an Imperial War Museum Wartime Classic. The book is fascinating, engaging and a surprisingly warm account of people working and living through challenges. As much memoir as novel, it has a candor and directness that pulled me in with its language and charm. It is a lovely read.
The book’s structure is very much like a diary without dates. As it opens the narrator is sent to a distant Scottish farm where she toils with two other young women. It’s cold, wet, extremely uncomfortable and they do very difficult work. Digging mangolds, a kind of beet, by hand is tough and unappealing. There’s little support. It’s simply backbreaking labor in bad conditions. The young women are discounted, distrusted, and never properly thanked. They persevere. The account of the day-to-day – what people wore, what they ate and drank, how they interacted with each other, what the actual work was like – is fascinating. World War II may not have been all that long ago but the working conditions on farms speak to a harsh and difficult life. Green Hands is a bracing corrective to romantic accounts for British farm life.
After one of the girls gives up – it was simply too unpleasant – the other two are sent to a dairy farm in the north of England. Their work was different, yet still very hard, and the pair bonded as deep friends. They connected more with the community, meeting families, more friends, fellow laborers and others in military service posted nearby. Bee, our narrator, recounts gains and challenges, from learning how to drive the milk cart to wrestling with the sexism of the other farmers. There’s a great sense of the young women growing, both in terms of skills and their own sense of self-worth. The book’s arc follows the form of many other coming of age stories.
Through it all, Bee simply has just the most charming way of looking at things. She never fails to see the humor, her descriptions are deft and not lacking bite, and more than once I thought of how a twentieth century Jane Austen might about what it was like to work for a dairy. Whitton-Watson is that smart and good a writer, with that kind of temperament. She is definitely the kind of person you would want on your island – or farm.
The book’s supporting material references that Watson and her two Land Girl co-workers remained friends and in touch for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to see why. With the right colleagues and partners, the most difficult of circumstances can forge lifetime bonds. Green Hands is much more than personal account. It is a lyrical record of resolution, charm, and the impact of shared labor in difficult circumstances in support of a very worthy cause.