Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies is a story based on true historical facts from 1902 to the end of World War I in 1918. The author, Jackie French, felt inspired to write this book after reading a letter she came across while doing research for another book — A Rose For The Anzac Boys. The letter was by a 16-year-old girl who wrote to her mother about how she and her friends left school to start a canteen for the soldiers.
The English and French armies did not have enough medical resources, nor did they know how to care for the troops. Transportation for them was a huge issue. Volunteers came to the soldier’s aid, women drove ambulances, and the French women cooked stew. In Australia, townships collected donations for their only nurse to travel overseas to aid the soldiers.
Jackie French is not only writing from a woman’s perspective, but she is writing true history that has not yet been told. “And it’s about the different way that we think about ourselves as women, the different ways that we exert power,” Jackie French said in an interview with Lou Heinrich for the Guardian newspaper.
Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies begins at Flanders on July 12, 1917, when a young lady named Sophie instructed her driver to stop for a wounded dog on the road while being surrounded by gunsmoke from a nearby battlefield.
The story is told from Sophie’s perspective, beginning on the battlefield, then weaving the storyline back to when Sophie was safely home in Australia. Her father is the proprietor of a corned beef factory and Sophie is his only child. Sophie wants to marry, but her father is uncertain about the relationship, so he sends her to England to experience the world a bit more before getting married.
At Schillings Hall in England, Miss Lily teaches Sophie to build her character with the charm and manners of high society, but also with special tact to benefit, to gain knowledge that could empower her. Sophie makes friends with other young ladies at Schillings Hall who are royalty and from elite families. The young ladies help each other learn the empowering skills taught by the mysterious Miss Lily. This occurred during a time period when women could not vote in England.
At the end of her season at Schillings Hall, Sophie becomes a bridesmaid to her best friend. Once the married couple returns from their honeymoon in France, they tell Sophie about all the refugees they had seen coming across from Belgium. World War I had begun between Germany and England, with Belgium very much involved. She combines her newfound skills as well as the knowledge she acquired from her father. Sophie assists by managing the wounded war veterans before the nurses arrive.
Sophie is not able to return to Australia, not just because of the fact that the enemy would bomb the ship, but also because she was much needed in England. Her vision, management skills, enthusiasm, charm, and beautiful smile were her attributes.
Germany’s new weapon is a type of gas that violated a person with screaming pain and death. The English army is warned, but there was nothing they could do to save the soldiers in time. Sophie tried to warn the soldiers by traveling to the war zone herself. She creates two hospitals from run-down buildings in France. The treatment for the soldiers at Sophie’s hospitals enables them to survive shell shock and gas poisoning, among other symptoms from fighting in the war.
There was a shortage of men, for most were at war. The majority of women in England and France, once the war arrived, allowed them to take on roles that were primarily for a man. Women began farming along with other jobs, including business management and labor roles. Once the war came to a halt, these facts were known only for a short period of time. Many women never returned to their past lives, with some continuing to attend the needs of the community, while demanding the right to vote.
Sophie began to tie up loose ends by saying goodbye to those who had become her friends and lovers. She booked a ship back to sunny Australia. A letter arrived from Germany that gave her a message not to return to Australia, as further assistance was required of her in Europe.
Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies is historical fiction full of romance and adventure; it is book 1 in this series. The storyline keeps you on edge, while wanting to know what is going to happen to Sophie. Where will she end up and with whom? I enjoyed being taken to a time in history that will never be forgotten. The characters are brought to life with their speech and actions. The meal scenes were entertaining, which made me hungry with their detailed descriptions. Sophie was given the nickname Soapy while she did volunteer work in serving poor people their meals. Jackie French showed how World War I changed and shaped women into “ladies of courage.” Women stepped up where needed and in return, they strengthened their hearts and stopped a war.
At the beginning of every chapter is a quote to give you another layer of wisdom and understanding of this era and its characters. My favorite part of this book is when Sophie is knitting with the Queen. It was well known that Queen Mary knitted items for the soldiers along with many other volunteers.
I highly recommend reading this book, and if you have a pot of tea beside you with a piece of cherry cake or some small macaroons, you may really feel that you are back in those glorious days!