‘Two women. One secret. Will they be able to keep it under wraps?’
Letters from Alice is a novel by Petrina Banfield. Published in August 2018 by Harper Element, it is based on comprehensive research into the archive material held at the London Metropolitan Archives. Described as ‘a gripping and deeply moving tale which brings the colourful world of 1920s London to life’ Letters from Alice is a tribute to a very brave and forward thinking people – the Hospital Almoners.
I was quite intrigued to read this novel as I knew absolutely nothing about the life of an almoner. Petrina Banfield has wrapped a vast amount of both historical and educational information around a story that brings the reality of this time to life.
Letters from Alice is more than just a fictional novel. It is a history lesson exploring the life of an Almoner in the 1920’s in the days before Social Services, as we all know it today, existed. Alice Hudson was a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) in a field hospital in Belgium during the First World War, one of a group of civilian volunteers who provided medical and nursing aid to the wounded soldiers of the British Army. Arriving at a casualty clearing station with no medical experience, but a will to help in any way she could, Alice was soon recognised as a grafter and went on to gain the respect of the qualified nurses (QAIMNS – Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service).
‘Like many of her contemporaries plunged into the aftermath of battle, she discovered that she possessed a natural ability to console. It wasn’t unheard of for Alice and the other VADs to lower themselves into the trenches to comfort dying soldiers, ignoring the roar of cannon fire and the smell of charred flesh. Mothers back in England found comfort in knowing that someone gentle had held their son as they passed away.’
Alice was to return to London carrying her own physical wounds from her time on the front but it didn’t prevent her from grabbing with both hands the opportunity to train as a hospital almoner. Under the guidance of the British Red Cross, Alice completed her training and got a position as an almoner at the Royal Free Hospital in London.
Alice Hudson’s story is loosely based upon letters that Petrina Banfield discovered as part of her research into the almoner’s history. Among those letters was the handwritten report about a young girl, a girl whose life was impacted greatly by the assistance of the almoner. Letters from Alice is their story.
Alice is faced with many complex situation where families are in obvious need of her assistance but she is not in a position to push her services on any family. It is for them to come to her for help unless intervention is a necessity. This is part of the almoner’s role that Alice is frustrated by. Oft days she sees women who are suffering from physical and mental abuse at the hands of their husbands but Alice is unable to directly intervene. She is there with a listening ear and a comforting word should they decide to open up to her. Alice Hudson is a young woman possessed with a determination to make things right. She is quite fearless and tough, recognising the horrors and despair of others, yet very sympathetic in her manner.
Letters from Alice makes references to many different cases that Alice is working on but it is the tale of one girl, Charlotte, that the book is mainly about. Charlotte is suffering in silence. She has a secret, one that she fears will ruin the lives of many should she reveal it.
Petrina Banfield uncovered Charlotte’s story when searching through the archives. Using her own imagination and combining it with historical fact, the reader is taken on a fascinating journey, one filled with sorrow yet also hope.
Alice Hudson is representative of a people who were willing to take risks, people who sacrificed much and were to be the forefront of the social welfare system that exists today.
Letters from Alice is in some ways quite an extraordinary story. At times I felt I was reading a school history book while at the same time been exposed to an intriguing work of fiction. Definitely a book that could be part of a school’s curriculum as it certainly brings history to life.
Enlightening. Inspirational. Interesting.
(c) Swirl and Thread
Order your copy online here.