Tag Archives: First World War

Sir Walter Scott and Christina Keith

1814 – 1914 – 2014. Another anniversary.

BOOK-GreatScott

When I started work on Christina’s wartime memoir, War Classics, I didn’t know that it would end up being published in 2014, amid all the tv programmes, books and events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. In some ways – as you’ll know if you’ve read the book – her story will be even more relevant in 2018, when the focus of commemorations should shift to the transition from war to peace. I love Christina’s own account of Dieppe on the day peace was declared – the music playing in the streets, the rowdy, joyful army huts, the hushed stillness of the cathedral, and finally her walk down by the shore, thinking of the naval base at home in Thurso.

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The shore at Dieppe

Recently, particularly here in Edinburgh, another anniversary has been marked, which also has relevance to Christina’s life and work. 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley. Christina’s final book was her study of Walter Scott, The Author of Waverley, which she finished shortly before she died and which Barrogill saw through publication.

Author of Waverley

The Author of Waverley: a study in the personality of Sir Walter Scott, by Christina Keith

Walk through Edinburgh’s Waverley station today – apparently the only railway station in the world to be named after a novel – and you’ll see quotes by Scott on the walls, windows and floor. These are part of a wider Great Scott! Campaign, organised to mark both the publication of Waverley and 10 years of Edinburgh’s status as the world’s first Unesco City of Literature.

There are a lot of ‘world firsts’ here, because Waverley is often said to be the world’s first historical novel.  Here I should maybe confess that I haven’t actually read it. Oops. I’m doing a lot of Covenanter-related research for a new book, so have recently read Old Mortality, but I will make sure I read Waverley before the end of 2014.

This whole train of thought (no pun intended – I blame my brother-in-law) was sparked in my mind when I received an email from someone who has read War Classics, and as a result is interested in Christina’s other writing, and is now reading The Author of Waverley. I’m so pleased to think that publishing her memoir has led someone to discover Christina’s other work. And the fact that all this takes place in the 200th anniversary of the publication of Waverley just seems to be yet another of those perpetual coincidences which make exploring history such fun!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

War Classics review in The Hindu

There’s an interesting article in The Hindu today. It groups War Classics with several books which approach the First World War from a different angle.

Witness to the truth – The Hindu.

1914 by Jean Echenoz

World War I spawned literature of various hues. One hundred years later, we still grope for meanings and explanations. Here are a few books that give us some indication of the pointless nature of the Great War, told by individuals who either experienced it firsthand or wrote about it later.

War Classics: The Remarkable Memoir of Scottish Scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front by Flora Johnston talks about a woman from upper class Scottish society, a lecturer in Classics, who went to live and struggle with common soldiers as a teacher with the army’s education scheme in France. The memoirs tell of the role played by thousands of men and women behind the lines to support the war and opens up a whole new world that lay just a few miles from the front. Keith also travelled across the devastated war zones after the Armistice and spoke of “a dream world, where everything happened… on a background of infinite horror”. She met the soldiers who had survived, saw tanks, clothing and weaponry lying littered across the battlefields of Europe and the war graves consisting of rough wooden crosses stuck in yellow mud and water.

I don’t think Christina was setting out to portray the war as pointless, but I do think her descriptions of the devastation it caused have real power – in part because they are written from a different viewpoint to most other commentators. The article concludes, We need books like these to approach the truth.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Publication

War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front is now available to purchase via The History Press, Amazon, Waterstones and other websites.

Christina cover

It tells the story of a young academic from Thurso who travelled to France towards the end of the First World War as a lecturer with the army’s education scheme. Christina was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which was most affected by the war. The two themes of education and war intertwine through the book.

Christina writes with warmth and affection of her encounters with the troops, while her account of travelling across devastated battlefields is both vivid and moving. The book also includes letters written by her brother, David Barrogill Keith, from the Front.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Women’s education and war

It’s two years now since I first became fascinated by the memoir of Christina Keith, my great-aunt from Thurso. My father – her nephew – has owned this manuscript for many years and I knew of its existence, but had never actually read it. Now it’s to be published. SKMBT_C28413080512270

Christina was an academic who spent much of her working life as a lecturer in Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Born in 1889, she was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which would be most affected by the First World War. These two themes, women’s education and war, intertwine in Christina’s story.

Towards the end of the First World War – although it’s worth remembering that when she signed up she didn’t know it was ‘towards the end’ – Christina travelled to France to take part in the army’s education scheme. She taught soldiers of all backgrounds, immersed herself in army life, and was one of the first women to travel across the devastated battlefields once the guns had fallen silent. She has left a fascinating memoir of her time in France which offers a truly fresh perspective on life on the Western Front as the conflict drew to a close.

I spent a wonderful few months in 2012 exploring Christina’s story from her early years as the eldest child in a large Caithness family, through her choice to pursue an academic career in male-dominated subjects, and on to her time in France.  The resulting book consists of my narrative of Christina’s story, her own memoir in full with explanatory notes, and some letters written by her brother Barrogill Keith from the front line. It will be published in March 2014 by The History Press, and you can preorder from Amazon or Waterstones.

Lots more on this to follow over the next few months!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.