This is the story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, who would become Miss Lilly Ashford.
It begins in the summer of 1914.
Lilly had been brought up in the expectation that she would do what her sisters had done before: marry well, and raise families to do just the same. But she wanted more than that. She knew that she was privileged, but she also knew that her life was constrained, and she wanted to explore more of the possibilities that the world had to offer.
And she knew that the ‘suitable’ young men that her parents steered her towards didn’t interest her at all. But she was interested in one of her brother’s friend, Robbie Fraser; a young man who had climbed from humble beginnings in Glasgow to become a respected surgeon. She remembered that he had always taken an interest in her, encouraging her to think for herself and follow her dreams; but her parents thought that he was most unsuitable.
Lilly began to take tiny steps towards independence, but her parents were so rigid that her relationship with them fractured.
She moved to London and – with the help of her former governess – she became first a painter, the a clippie, and finally an ambulance driver with the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Lilly was determined to play her role in the Great War, and determined to follow her brother, Edward, and Robbie, to France.
Lilly and Robbie would meet again, but their situation was complicated. Lilly had kept her background secret, not wanted to be set apart from other by her background. And Robbie knew that the best thing he could do to keep her safe was to push her away.
A happy ending seemed unlikely ……
‘Somewhere in France’ is a romance set against a backdrop of war, rather than the story of one woman’s war. That’s a little disappointing, but, taken for what it is, it is a wonderfully readable book.
I was charmed by Lilly from the start. I loved her quiet determination to live her own life; her strong sense of right and wrong, and her willingness to act on those principles; her wish to be just one of the girls; her willingness to work hard, and to do whatever had to be done.
Jennifer Robson told her story in simple, readable prose, and with a wonderfully light touch that made it very easy to turn the pages quickly. Her style suited the romance well, and there were some lovely touches; but it suited the story of the war rather less well.
I can’t say that she did anything wrong. She wrote of Lilly and her colleagues collecting the wounded and dying amidst the shelling and bringing them back to the hospital, where some would be treated and others would at least not die alone. She wrote of Robbie and his struggle with the conditions, the never-ending stream of patients, the knowledge that there was so often little he could do. She wrote of Edward and his mixed emotions as he struggled to do his duty and lead the men he had to command. But she couldn’t quite convey the horror, and the strength of emotion that is caught in earlier accounts, written by women who were there.
What I did appreciate was the care that Jennifer Robson had so clearly taken over the setting and the plotting of the story she wanted to tell; and that in her afterword she gave great credit to writers who had gone before her.
I enjoyed ‘Somewhere in France’ as a romance with historical underpinning; no more and no less.