Book review by Robin Joyce
Publisher: Loke Press
Author: Katrina Kirkwood
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The back-cover blurb tells us:
It was the inscription that made the antique scalpels so tantalising: ‘Isabella Stenhouse’. A woman doctor? A woman doctor who was rumoured to have served in the First World War? Could Isabella have treated wounded men with these very implements? And had a grateful German prisoner of war really given her the strange string of beads that tangled round her stethoscope? Coaxing clues from archives across Europe, Katrina Kirkwood traces Isabella’s route from medical school to the Western Front, Malta and Egypt, discovering as she travels that Dr Stenhouse was not only one of the first women doctors who worked with the British Army – she was also a woman carrying a tragic secret, torn between ambition and loyalty to her family.
Katrina Kirkwood’s The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads: A Woman doctor in WW1 is an utter joy to read.
Kirkwood has written an intriguing, historically adept account stemming from investigation of her great grandmother’s beads. As historians, we are always trying to fill in the gaps: pages or even just a page missing from a diary can slant events; sometimes events are unrecorded – we do not know all the thoughts and every day occurrences that contribute to decisions and momentous events; there are multiple sources of evidence, some conflicting. Writers of historical fiction, if their work is well researched, come up with some plausible solutions to add to historical knowledge. Some historians speculate; others limit their work to that which can be ‘proven’. Indeed, the latter is what was called history before the 1970s expansion of history into social history. Then, recording facts ceased to be the only way in which history was written.
Katrina Kirkwood has established a historical form that takes the best of historical writing – she has facts which not only bear witness to events but stimulate this writer of imagination and creativity to valuable speculation. Then added to this is, most importantly, she uses her knowledge of events, social mores and creativity to produce a form of historical writing that breathes life into the facts she painstakingly assembles. She has taken the facts available to her from a range of sources and given them substance by creating around them a story, also based on facts associated with the period, understandings of the likelihood of attitudes and events and intelligent interpretation.
Kirkwood’s grandmother was a doctor in WW1, a monumental achievement. But Kirkwood also works to ‘square [her] perceptions of the First World War, with its trenches, explosions, mud and gore with [her] fun-loving and utterly affectionate Scottish granny’. The question she asks, ‘How does being a war doctor fit with jelly in a silver dish, cheese on a bright green platter and mince pies from Fortnum and Mason; her huge four- poster bed and its damask curtains, frilled pillows and thick silky bolsters?…fur coats…ornate silver hairbrushes’.
In achieving this ‘squaring’ Kirkwood makes the reader believe not only that her grandmother was an identity worth knowing in all her aspects but that our grandmothers might also have a story that bears being told. Kirkwood makes the unknowable, knowable through her account. She provides historical tools that provide historians with valuable methods of extracting the most from the small bundle of facts, possible a string of beads, that so many must work with.
A photo of Isabella, an Edwardian girl in all but her ‘…over-sized academic gown. Her fur- trimmed university hood… is juxtaposed with Kirwood’s recent experience of ‘gowned girls tottering in their newly purchased heels and elegantly tight skirts…jigging their slippery hoods and laughing with the boys’. This is a wonderful example of the ‘show don’t tell’ technique which gives this history a vibrancy which makes one want to keep reading. So, too is the search for why Isabella became a doctor. We see her old home, refurnished, and fashioned in Kirkwood’s imagination to investigate this question. So, too, is her school.
Chance finds, such as Creme de la Crème: Girls’ School of Edinburgh, provide clues to Isabella’s education. Imagination and historical investigation and knowledge of the period, mores and Isabella’s background provides information on the four years between finishing school and beginning her medical studies, answering the question: Why? What do her parents think? What happens when she determines upon her further education?
The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads is an excellent example of vibrant historical writing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and recommend it to others who would like their history not only factual but exciting.
Katrina Kirkwood is an independent researcher, writer and artist. She can be found on Twitter (Twitter: @kkstories)