C. J. Carey, Quercus, £9.99, pbk, 435pp, ISBN 978-1-529-41200-0
In the autumn of 1937, the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII and his wife, Wallace Simpson, embarked on a tour of Germany, culminating in a meeting with Hitler at his vacation home near Berchtesgaden. The minutes of that meeting have been lost, but the Duke’s interpreter has recalled that the Duke insisted in his conversation with Hitler that the German and British peoples were, and would always be, one race. Just a few days earlier, the future Foreign Secretary, and member of the Germanophile ‘Cliveden Set’, Lord Halifax, had telephoned the Fuhrer, urging that there should be a ‘mutual understanding’ between Britain and Germany. These historical facts provide the basis for C.J. Carey’s alternative history novel, set in 1953, thirteen years after the two countries have formed an alliance, with Britain now a German Protectorate. Edward has been restored to the throne and George VI, his wife and two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, have disappeared from public view. Life under Nazi austerity is unremittingly grim, with goods and materials shipped over to the ‘mainland’ for purposes that are only hinted at. Able-bodied men are taken as well, creating an obvious societal imbalance and causing many young women to enter into relationships with older males, including German civil servants and officers.
One such is Rose Ransom, the central figure in Carey’s story, who represents the interesting twist to what would otherwise be standard alt-hist fare. All women in the Protectorate over the age of fourteen are required to be ‘classified’ according to a procedure established by Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s ‘Protector’, another ‘real life’ figure who was one of the Nazis’ principal ideologues and head of their bureau for cultural policy and surveillance.
At the top of the scale are those women, like Rose, who are deemed to have the ‘right’ Aryan looks, temperament and attitude. Nicknamed ‘Gelis’, after Hitler’s niece Geli Raubal, who became his housekeeper and over whom he exercised abusive control until her apparent suicide at the age of 23, this classification is effectively a ’golden ticket’ that entitles them to better rations and jobs. At the bottom are the ‘Friedas’, a shortened form of the nickname ‘Friedhofefrauen’, or ‘cemetery-women’ – these are the widows and spinsters over fifty who have no children and hence no reproductive purpose and who are consigned to sub-standard housing in what are effectively ghettoes.
As a ‘Geli’, working in the Cultural Ministry, operating from what used to be the Banqueting House in London, Rose has the job of ‘updating’ the classics of English literature to better reflect Nazi values. And so, in the revised version of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is ‘Aryanized’ and Catherine’s more outspoken assertions are toned down. However, things take a dramatic turn when, just a few weeks before Edward’s Coronation, with the ‘Leader’ due to attend, strange epigrams begin to appear as graffiti, written in red across Government buildings. ‘Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it and there will be an end to blind obedience’, reads one, attributed to a certain Mary Wollstonecraft, who Rose, of course, has never heard of. And so, she comes to be tasked, somewhat implausibly, with discovering the perpetrators of such disobedience, thought to reside in ‘Widowland’, one of the afore-mentioned ghettoes, situated on the edge of Oxford.
It is through meeting a group of these widows, who all share a house together, that Rose’s life veers from its planned trajectory. The very foundations of her world – her relationships with her German boss/lover, her family, her co-workers and friends, as well as her career and, of course, her attitude towards the regime – are all shaken and start to shift, culminating in a startling act of defiance, the outcome of which is left hanging, to be pursued in the sequel, Queen High.
This is an absorbing read and although it doesn’t quite bear the comparisons to Atwood and Orwell that are made in the book’s promotional blurbs, in terms of style and wordcraft at least, the oppressive atmosphere is powerfully conveyed. There are even grimmer hints of actions taking place beyond the narrow focus allowed by the authorities, who plan to adopt the same ‘approach’ to Jews and other minorities as has been pursued on the ‘mainland’ – although what that is remains obscure, with news so heavily censored of course. Rose’s gradual loss of naiveté and her awakening to what is really going on is nicely handled, although despite the intervention of the ‘widows’, it is a certain male protagonist who ultimately provides the crucial impetus to action. Nevertheless, it is heartening to have another women-centred alternative history on the bookshelves, even one that is, perhaps not surprisingly given the current climate, so very dystopic.
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