The Flowers of War

The Carhullan Army coverNick Hubble’s essay about The Carhullan Army first appeared in Vector 258. Many thanks to him for allowing it to be reprinted here.

‘My name is Sister’

Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007) begins and ends with the same note of defiance: ‘My name is Sister’ (pp.5, 207). The combination of nameless heroine and resistance to patriarchal authority has inevitably led to comparisons with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), but the similarities are superficial. Where Atwood criticises radical feminism for its complicity with the sexual repression which underlies the Republic of Gilead and implies that separatism is not a challenge but merely a means of accommodation to traditional hierarchy, Hall deliberately reinstates both tendencies at the core of her novel in order to recover the utopian impulses within them as forces for active intervention in the twenty-first century. Neither is The Carhullan Army a “literary dystopia” in the manner of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) because unlike those works its driving force and moral intensity stem from an unwavering belief in human society, explicitly acknowledged by Sister towards the end of the novel: ‘ … we had a duty to liberate society, to recreate it’ (p.196). As such, the novel eschews the playful satire of Atwood and the easy narrative pleasures of McCarthy (who, in best Tolkien style, ensures every ordeal is followed by a reassuring meal) in favour of direct engagement with the horrors it reveals, which are thus demystified and rendered subject to human agency.

Central to this project is Jackie Nixon, the enigmatic leader at Carhullan, the community which Sister joins. It is Jackie who singlehandedly transforms the women of Carhullan into ‘inviolable creatures’ immune to the horrors of civilisation. Sister says of Jackie that

She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn. (p.187)

Although communicated in a different style and tone, the valedictory outlook expressed here is reminiscent of the death speech of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty: ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those … moments will be lost … in time’ [1]. Both passages acknowledge a strange beauty that is nothing to do with sanitising war and everything to do with getting beyond the limits of normal existence. Such desires appear psychopathic because they are not manifestations of the familiar death drive, but the product of a much rarer life force. It is a rejection of what Fredric Jameson identifies in Archaeologies of the Future as the ‘literary “reality principle”’ which triggers high-cultural ‘generic revulsion’ [2] and it clearly distinguishes Hall from those mainstream writers who deploy isolated genre tropes to spice up otherwise conventional narratives.

‘Powell’s got control of the party’

The Carhullan Army, therefore, is inherently science fictional and needs to be considered in relation to books written within the sf tradition. The two most significant contexts in this respect are the 1970s feminist sf of writers such as Marge Piercy, James Tiptree Jnr and Joanna Russ, which I will return to, and the postwar English disaster novels written by John Wyndham, John Christopher and many others. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these so-called ‘cosy catastrophes’ may be read as the expression of a progressive English opposition to the postwar British state [3]. A common feature of such works is the depiction of the circular mechanism by which deliberately created scarcity triggers a return of the wartime ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ to British society and the consequent passive acceptance of draconian social controls. The ‘Civil Reorganisation’ that we learn about from the opening page of The Carhullan Army is a prime example of exactly such a mechanism. Sister, like the misfit heroes of the postwar disaster novels, is one of those who can’t adjust to such a limited existence, much to her husband’s dismay: ‘Perhaps he’d thought I was depressed, like so many others, and that I wasn’t trying hard enough to find the spirit we were all being asked to conjure, like a replica of that war-time stoicism of which the previous century had proudly boasted’ (p.24). It is Hall’s awareness of the persistence of this tendency, which might be termed the British ideology, that guides her depiction of future authoritarian government.

Her account of life in Rith under ‘the Authority’ appears more like an identikit dictatorship from the Cold War Years than anything that might reasonably be expected to occur in the twenty-first century precisely because the responses of the British State to the challenges of the twenty-first century are unlikely to be reasonable. For example, the dominant British response to climate change is to view it as a social problem which can be addressed by restriction and rationing, rather than as a technological challenge to build a better future. The national imagination remains trapped in the black and white myth of the Blitz, confined within the bunkers of tabloid mentality and populist politics. History is waiting to repeat itself because it is never allowed to go forward. It is no coincidence that the same tropes of emergency military control, forced evacuation and multi-billeting of families in terraced houses that Hall employs so effectively in the opening section of The Carhullan Army also appear as a projected British future in a recent episode of Doctor Who, ‘Turn Left’ (2008).

The particular context for the current resurgence of the British ideology is the ‘War on Terror’ and the peculiar cultural and political climate this is creating, which is one of neither war nor peace but a liminal state between. The best fictional representation of this climate remains George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), where it is memorably encapsulated in the Party slogan ‘War is Peace’. Orwell showed how totalitarian regimes depend upon an infinite prolongation of this liminal state by the continual misdirection of their subjects. By the constant portrayal of the War as the actions of far-off enemies and hidden traitors within, public attention is prevented from focusing on the fact that the real war is being waged by the state against its own subjects. The anachronistic persistence of the monarchy in Britain tends to complement this misdirection because of the deep – in an anthropological sense – ties between monarch and people. It is only necessary to think briefly about the way in which the military training of the two British princes is publicly presented, and Prince Harry’s recent sojourn in Afghanistan in particular, to appreciate the genuine complexity of the situation described in The Carhullan Army, in which the people’s loyalties to the King, fighting at the head of his troops on far-off battlefields, are registered as an important component of their acceptance of life under the Authority.

‘Sorting the women out’

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a key influence on the postwar English disaster novel in general – indeed, in some ways, it could be seen as the first of them – and The Carhullan Army in particular. Hall’s technique of portraying life in Rith under the Authority with only a handful of scenes, told in flashback, is not dependent on her readers possessing sufficient experience of Britain and the British ideology to fill in the gaps; knowledge of Nineteen Eighty-Four provides a useful short cut to understanding. The pain of existence under the Authority is deadened by ketamine or silverflex rather than the beer or gin consumed by the subjects of Ingsoc, and the lottery is now ‘baby lotto’, but it is a similar kind of life lived in a similar kind of drafty cramped quarters under similar conditions of shortage and surveillance. Because we know Britain has been Airstrip One for over sixty years we have little difficulty accepting that it is ‘now little more than a dependent colony’ (p.36).

In both books, repression of women and the sex drive are key components of social control. However, Hall moves beyond Orwell in explicitly linking this to the ruling power’s use of enforced scarcity. In The Carhullan Army, women of all ages are compulsorily fitted with visible coils simultaneously removing their control over their own reproductive rights and rendering them subject to intrusive inspection on demand. The implied governmental logic behind this particularly unpleasant form of birth control is that population levels have to be controlled for reasons of sustainability. Yet the factory where Sister works, making turbines designed for offshore energy production, merely stockpiles its produce: ‘There were enough units to power the whole of the Northern Region if they had been installed in the estuaries’ (p.53). Scarcity is deliberately imposed in order to justify the repression of women, which in turn is a necessary precondition for men’s acceptance of a hierarchical power structure. War between the sexes is shown by Hall to be a necessary consequence of the war of the state against its own subjects.

Sister’s starkly matter-of-fact account of her own ‘fitting’ passes seamlessly into a description of the excitation her new state affords her husband, Andrew: ‘Sex was one of the few remaining pleasures, he said; it was nice to feel me without any barriers’ (p.31). Andrew is reconciled to his subservient role in society and able to move from an attitude of getting by to one of active support for the rebuilding of Britain, which is further reinforced by a minor promotion. Giving men control over women makes it easier for them to accept their own loss of control to the state than to resist it. The ‘two feisty students, full of the sense that things could be better’ (p.24), who had married to preserve what rights they could during the suspension of democracy, end up at each other’s throats over an agenda set entirely by the Authority’s political pronouncements. These structural tensions are first revealed in the book in the scene where Sister, running away from Rith to join the women of Carhullan, accepts a lift from a male van driver. Her mention of the word ‘Carhullan’ with its implication of separatism and thus the removal of the one perk men enjoy immediately brings full-scale conflict to the surface:

We had gone to war, it seemed, over one simple word. I had declared my proclivities, as he had his. I was no longer good company for him, no longer a person he might share his food supply with or try to fuck. All these months he had no doubt been hoping to see a return of residents to his lovely wilding valley, a sign that civilisation was being reinstated, with its old arrangements, its traditional preferences, and what he’d got instead was a deviant, a deserter. (p.18)

This passage is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that the book is contesting the gender relations of ‘normal’ twentieth-century civilisation as much as those of the authoritarian society it depicts. Second, as the narrative goes on to make clear, Sister, and indeed the women of Carhullan, are not separating themselves from men but from the war of the sexes that is a structural component of traditional and authoritarian societies. It is true that Sister flees from ‘an image of the man bent over me, his broad white thighs rocking, his hands holding down my arms, smothering my mouth, blind with what he craved and unstoppable’ (p.21), but she flees equally from the image of herself ‘standing over the man, heeling him in the face until it split and came apart like a marrow’ (ibid.). This line resonates powerfully with the famous sentence from Nineteen Eighty-Four in which O’Brien explains to Winston Smith how the intoxication of power will come to outweigh all competing pleasures: ‘If you want a picture of the future of humanity imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever’ [4]. The Carhullan Army both acknowledges the possibility of this future and rejects it utterly.

‘Thank God for Osterley, Dad’

So if Sister is not a soldier in the war of the sexes, why does she take up arms? In the opening pages of the book, describing her escape from Rith, she mentions carrying an old Second World War rifle in her rucksack and claims: ‘This was what I planned to bargain with at Carhullan’ (p.6). The implication is that she plans to hand over the rifle in exchange for her own acceptance into the community. Subsequently it transpires that this is not just any old weapon but one that had belonged to her father. This, of course, makes for very neat symbolism on one level: only by actually giving up her ‘father’s gun’ can Sister truly reject patriarchy and enter the feminist collective. However, the rifle’s history transcends any simple Freudian reading. Not only was it hidden underground for many years by Sister’s father in direct transgression of a national law against private firearms but it had formerly belonged to her great-granddad, a member of the Second World War ‘National Guard’, who had been ‘at Osterley’ (p.36).

This is a very specific historical reference. The Local Defence Volunteers, who soon came to be known as the Home Guard and not the National Guard (begging the question of whether this is a mistake by Hall or a marker that The Carhullan Army may be read as alternate history), were established in July 1940 and the Osterley Park training school was one of a number of schools set up on private initiative to deal with the problem of mass training. Unlike the others though, Osterley was set up by Tom Wintringham, the former commander of the British contingent in the International Brigade, and taught guerrilla tactics and street-fighting based on the experiences of those who had fought for Republican Spain during the Civil War. As such it was something of a radical alternative to official policy and, in consequence, was taken over by the Government in October 1940 and renamed ‘War Office No. 1 School’ [5]. Thus only five thousand of the Home Guard passed through Osterley making Sister’s great-grandfather the member of a relatively select band of men. One of Osterley’s most ardent supporters was Orwell, himself a Spanish Civil War veteran and sergeant in the Home Guard, who had called repeatedly for the people to be armed from early in the War and advocated developing the Home Guard into ‘a quasi-revolutionary People’s Army’ [6]. He even went so far as to argue in a centre-page article for the Evening Standard of 8 January 1941:

The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER’S COTTAGE IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY.

IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE THAT IT STAYS THERE. [7]

Here we are a long way from the image provided in the popular Dad’s Army television series. The point is not just that the Second World War was a serious business – as Sister’s father points out, in the event of a German invasion, the ‘National Guard’ wouldn’t have got very far with only broom handles – but that an important element of the ‘People’s War’ was the collective struggle for a different future, directed as much against the British ruling class as the Nazis. By invoking Osterley and all it stands for, Hall is attempting to escape from the obfuscating myth of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ and regain connection with an indigenous radical tradition that was missing in the postwar English disaster novels. The significance of Sister’s rifle, therefore, is that it confers an historical legitimacy on the armed uprising which will subsequently be led by the women of Carhullan.

‘In a female prison’

While the authors of the cosy catastrophes had been content with the fantasy overthrow of the postwar order – by a variety of factors ranging from giant wasps to a new ice age – writers of the 1970s who sought to replace that position with something more realistic were faced with the problem that attempts to portray overthrow of the state by armed resistance always seem to get bogged down in an abstract, irresolvable, freedom fighter vs terrorist debate. Christopher Priest managed to evade this dead end with the complex temporal structure and cut-up technique of Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) but only at the price of a marked gender imbalance. His A Dream of Wessex (1976) is largely written from a female viewpoint and generates what is still probably the most attractive future England in the genre but it is difficult to see how the two visions link together, other than as examples from different ends of the scale of a full range of alternate possibilities. On this model, achieving utopia is not a matter of conscious creative work but hunting blindfold for a needle in a haystack. Meanwhile other writers sought to challenge the freedom fighter/terrorist dichotomy by turning to the real life 1970s examples of figures like Ulrike Meinhoff and Patty Hearst and attempting to mobilise the cultural shock they generated – as a result of the apparent incongruity of women behaving in this way – into a questioning of the terms of the debate. This strategy can be seen underlying both genre and non-genre representations of female guerrillas from Michael Moorcock’s The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the Twentieth Century (1976) right up to the recent example of Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (2007). However, the net effect of such activity has been little more than the generation of enigmatic icons that are equally available for assimilation across the full range of competing meanings.

One book which combines all of these approaches in its own idiosyncratic manner is Keith Roberts’s Molly Zero (1980): an extraordinary book written in the face of obvious desperation as the dark unconsciousness of postwar Britain finally broke free from its remaining fetters. Here the ‘War is Peace’ world of postwar Britain is extrapolated 200 years into a future in which the characteristically stagnant social hierarchy is partially maintained by genetic engineering. One of the reasons the rebels of the future are aware of this history is because they have an old map of Cumbria from which they learn that the towns of their present have the names that used to be given to rivers: evidence of a division of the country into military districts [8]. In this respect, The Carhullan Army would fit pretty much perfectly into the prehistory of the Molly Zero universe. However, the parallels between the two books go further. Molly Zero ends with the collapse of a revolutionary/terrorist cell led by Anna, a charismatic urban guerrilla, who not only shoots people with equanimity but also exerts a sexual attraction over the narrator, Molly. The book seems to conclude that all the options offered by this society – participating, rejecting, ruling – are somehow traps and that the only real choice is ‘What sort of prison do you want then?’ [9]

One of the core arguments of The Carhullan Army is that the women’s commune at Carhullan is a form of prison. As Sister quickly comes to realise:

There were fewer victims at Carhullan than I had imagined. Often it was the women themselves who had committed a crime or were misfits: they had been violent, outspoken, socially inept, promiscuous, drug-addicted, and aware that they needed some sort of system to bring them into line. (p.130)

Carhullan, with its world of work groups, such as the peat-cutting group Sister joins, dorm inspections, kitchen duties and even conjugal visits, is marked out as a penal institution. And like all such institutions there is a rigid hierarchy with a top dog in place, Jackie Nixon: ‘The alpha’ (p.84). When a musical session is arranged after dinner to celebrate Sister’s first day of labour, it is Jackie who sings: ‘In a female prison, there are sixty-five women, and I wish it was among them that I did dwell’ (p.132). The song is ‘The Auld Triangle’ by Brendan Behan, which features in his play The Quare Fellow (1954). Behan’s lyrics specify seventy women, but we have already learnt earlier in the book (p.83) that there are sixty-four women in Carhullan not including Sister. Clearly Hall has altered the song to match the population of her fictional commune and therefore the analogy between Carhullan and a prison must be seen as intentional. As Jackie acknowledges to Sister, many of the women want to shut the outside world out for understandable reasons but this doesn’t stop her from savagely satirising their position:

‘… we’ve more or less cracked it, haven’t we? Everyone’s employed. No one’s made to kneel in a separate church. No one’s getting held down at bayonet point. We’re breeding. We’re free. Why would anyone want to risk this, Sister?’ I gave a small brief nod, but I don’t think Jackie noticed. ‘And the government down there now? Well it would be madness to interfere with it and draw attention to what we’ve got here. What possible kind of campaign could we run? Surely it’s better to just bolt the door. Hole the fuck up. And pray to be left alone.’ (p.116)

Jackie is not attacking the idea of utopia so much as openly advancing what Jameson describes as the ‘the secret message of all Utopias, present, past and future’ [10]: the need to break free of the prison mentality and, as expressed in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), ‘fight to exist, to remain in existence, to be the future that happens’ [11].

Of course, the great American works of feminist science fiction such as Piercy’s novel and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) take the alternate possibilities discussed above in relation to Christopher Priest and treat them as the very condition of their own possibility. On one level, this allowed them a strategic solution to the 1970s problem of writing resistance to the state: they were able to situate the armed struggle in one of the alternate worlds as a counterpart to the situation they describe on our earth. On another level, and this is particularly true of Russ, by representing virtually the whole range of alternate possibilities, they were able to deconstruct patriarchy with such thoroughness and wit that its symbolic power will always be destroyed for those who choose to follow their lead. Hall is one of those followers but she is writing in a time when most men and many women still haven’t realised that the rules of the game have changed. All the different sets of prison walls are still in place but only because they haven’t yet been knocked over.

‘The King is dead!’

The pivotal moment of The Carhullan Army occurs two thirds of the way into the novel, after both Sister’s prehistory and the life of the commune have been fully established:

As I was about to leave the farmhouse Jackie swaggered in and took one of the small russet apples from the counter. She threw it up in the air, caught it in her teeth and bit into it. Then she climbed up onto the table between two of the women, her boots cracking apart the empty plates as she walked the length of the oak. She was acting crazily ….

She spread her arms out, the bitten apple in one hand. ‘The King is dead!’ she announced. ‘Killed in active service – God bless his bloody bones. Long live the revolution.’ The mouths of the women fell open. It was rare to hear news of the outside world; rarer still for it to be of such magnitude. Jackie knelt and kissed the woman nearest her, almost pulling her out of her seat. I watched as she jumped down off the table and left the room, the brown apple fastened between her teeth. (pp.134-5)

The imagery here of Eve triumphant, with thrice mentioned apple, is hardly subtle; but then subtlety is not really called for when announcing the death of patriarchy. However, there is more to Jackie’s behaviour than that: Sister goes on to describe her laughter as ‘loose and wrong’ and comments on ‘the fumes of whisky in the passageway’ (p.135). Jackie’s whisky has already been discussed earlier in the novel and it is difficult, following the earlier Orwell comparisons, not to reference Animal Farm (1945) at this point.

However, there is nothing sinister going on in this passage, for what the King’s death also signifies is a release for Jackie from being the pseudo-king of Carhullan. Carhullan only works as an enclave in a hostile world because Jackie provides a point of identification for the women similar to that provided by the monarchy to the general population. It is precisely this ironical situation by which actually existing utopias have to mimic the world they oppose in order to survive that is satirised in Animal Farm. Because of the way that Orwell’s black humour is directed at the self-deception of both the pigs and the other animals, readers sometimes miss the central point that the pigs have no choice but to become indistinguishable from human farmers if they actually want to continue running a farm. Stalin was no more evil or psychopathic than anyone else; it was simply that the logic of maintaining the Soviet Union necessitated him assuming an inhuman cult of personality. However, while Jackie’s behaviour is similarly determined by the structural necessity of running her farm, she does not fall prey easily to Napoleonic self-delusions. When Sister tries to congratulate her on owning Carhullan, she is quick to point out that all land really belongs to the Crown. Likewise, her declaration that, ‘There are girls here in love with me … I only have to put my hand on them and they want to lick me out’ (p.98), is no idle boast but a weary recognition of an unavoidable state of affairs. Jackie is aware that in the long run she will inevitably end up, like the pigs in Animal Farm, indistinguishable from the men outside. That is why she is so deliriously happy when the King’s death presents the opportunity to break out of what she knows to be the unreal world of Carhullan: an unreality which imprisons her more than any of the other inmates. By the end of the novel that unreality is made plain for all to see as it is intensified by the winding-down of Carhullan: ‘Every meal felt as if it might be our last, but every mouthful of mutton and venison tasted better …. We were living at the edge, and everything was amplified; it was beautiful, and it was rancid’ (p.203).

‘Life forces’

When Jackie makes the above speech to Sister about only having to put her hand on one of the women, she has her hand on Sister’s shoulder. Sister is aware that Jackie wants something of her but is never clear what it is. It’s tempting to see the relationship as a complex seduction in which Jackie, as she does with many of the women, plays on Sister’s desire for her in order to redirect it into the military manoeuvres she runs. Jackie encourages Sister, by praising her for evading the patrol on the way back from the men’s farm, but keeps her waiting, by not letting her join her military unit. The game comes to a head at the meeting when Jackie proposes to march on Rith and rally the people to independence. When one of the other women, Chloe, claims that there is no one to rally down there because they’ve let themselves be walked over for years, it is to Sister whom Jackie turns: ‘Stand up, Sister … Tell them you have it in you, and that you’re not so different from women down there. Tell them you’re willing to fight’ (p.161). A whole range of thoughts and emotions flow through Sister’s mind at being put on the spot like this, including resentment at being used as a pawn, but she knows what she wants and she knows which side she is on and, of course, her contribution carries the meeting much as Jackie knew it would. Afterwards, Sister is finally allowed to enlist in the military unit and claims that Jackie ‘had made a soldier out of me without even giving me back my father’s gun’ (p.163). At one level, as previously discussed, this symbolises precisely the rejection of patriarchy that Jackie has engineered to forge her feminist soldiers. But this necessary step is as far as the engineering goes. When, near the end of the book, a distressed Chloe starts shrieking at Sister that Jackie has groomed her and got into her head and started pulling her strings, she is clearly raving. In any case, by subsequently returning the old gun to Sister, ‘scoured of rust and repaired’ (p.175), Jackie returns any agency she might have borrowed, as well as conferring the historical resonance discussed earlier in this article. Finally, the truth of the matter is that Sister is already a soldier from the moment she walks out of Rith. At every opportunity in the book, she gives her commitment to fight when the opportunity comes. It is no surprise that she ends the book ‘second in council to the Carhullan Army’ (p.207).

What Sister finally achieves through taking part in Jackie’s military manoeuvres is a new sense of being:

On the hills I was aware of every corporeal movement, every circle of light. I felt every fibre of myself conveying energy, and I understood that it was finite, that the chances I had in life would not come again. (p.184)

From being aware of ‘life forces’ (p.144), as she is in the scene where she lies in the grass evading the women’s patrol, she becomes aware of herself as what we might term a life force. In direct contradistinction to the Freudian model of ego defence, which depends on keeping external stimuli to a minimum, her self is now comprised of the sum of external stimuli acting upon her. The remaining protective impulses have been shed in favour of an overriding need to embrace as much experience as possible. Life, in this intense form, becomes the only arbiter of moral value in The Carhullan Army.

In what is potentially the novel’s most testing scene, in which Sister hears the gunshots denoting that Jackie has killed Chloe and Martin, we need to be aware that by the criteria of the life force they are already dead. From Jackie’s point of view, they are no different to the drowned Benna, whom she gets Megan to shoot in an earlier scene. Sister fully admits complicity and a lack of guilt at the killing because ‘it had needed doing’ (p.203). On one level this seems a ridiculous claim, because Jackie probably has the resources to incarcerate Chloe and Martin until the revolution is underway and they are no longer in a position to do any damage. However, the real danger is that they might survive to give a different account of Carhullan to posterity – a different account to Sister’s that is, which is why she is fully complicit with the need to eliminate them. Yes, she has nightmares in which the ‘mound of newly turned earth’ (p.203) contains all those she had ever loved, but this is just an unconscious recognition that all of that former way of life is dead because it revolved around the death drive. The parts of those loves and people that continue to live are the parts that live in her and her narration. Whether readers agree with this or not, they cannot argue that Sister and Jackie are not on the same side; or that Hall does not follow the idea of taking the side of life through to its logical conclusion.

Such an attitude to life is, of course, psychopathic when judged according to the prevailing societal norms. However, as J.G. Ballard has observed more than once, our future will be made up of competing psychopathologies. Indeed, this is always the case when judged from the standards of any present because if those standards remained entirely untransgressed, then the present would carry on unchanged and there would be no future. Hall is not asking us to judge Jackie and Sister by the standards of western society today but to find new criteria and, by doing so, help bring a better future about. To this end, she invokes history in precisely the paragraph in which Sister admits to having developed ‘the anatomy of a fanatic’:

It was the same body the rest of the unit had fashioned for themselves. They had seemed wild to me when I’d first seen them, Corky, Megan and the others, like creatures, both natural and rarefied, but now I was no different from them. If we had stood together on the shoreline two thousand years before, facing the invading ships with fire in our hands and screaming for them to come, they would have called us Furies, and they would have been afraid. (p.204)

Hall is telling us that how we judge these fighting women depends on the perspective we adopt, as well as inviting comparisons with the most famous fighting woman in British history, Boudicca. The fact that the publication of The Carhullan Army follows hard on the final volume of Manda Scott’s revisionist Boudicca quartet (2003-2006) suggests that perspectives may be changing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is not just that there are things worth fighting and dying for, but that the fighting, in the widest sense of the term, is itself valuable. Where Scott’s Britons find themselves within themselves by surviving the lone ordeal of the long nights, so Sister ultimately finds herself through repeated incarceration in Jackie’s dog box. These women cannot be broken because they have already broken and forged themselves inviolably anew. Comprised like the upland gorse of soft petals and ‘dark static spines’ (p.192), the women themselves are the flowers of war. It is this message which Sister is instructed by Jackie to communicate at all costs and it is the knowledge of its power which leads her to state, even though the women lose control of Rith after fifty-three days, that ‘this is just the beginning’ (p.207).

Endnotes

[1] Cited in Paul M. Sammon, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, London: Orion, 1996, p.195.

[2] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London: Verso, 2005, p.xiv n9.

[3]. See Nick Hubble, ‘Five English Disaster Novels, 1951-1972’, Foundation, 95, 2005, pp.89-103.

[4] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954, p.215.

[5] See Angus Calder, The People’s War, London: Pimlico, 1992, p.127.

[6] See Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982, pp.396-401.

[7] Cited in Crick, p.399.

[8] See Keith Roberts, Molly Zero, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985, p.227. This is part of a section deconstructing postwar Britain that is worth the price of the book on its own, pp. 223-229.

[9] Roberts, p.251.

[10] Jameson, p.233.

[11] Cited in Jameson, p.233.

One Response to “The Flowers of War”

  1. The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North – City vs. country in dystopia « Torque Control Says:

    […] and reading some of the reviews that Niall Harrison lists here, as well as Nick Hubble’s excellent piece from Vector […]


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