7 June 2019

The Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

All of the flowerpots have been planted and the gardens, front and back, are pretty much sorted.  We've had quite a bit of rain lately so everything that's green is absolutely glowing so the hum of lawnmowers is almost constant today.  Here's to a long stretch of sunny days and reading on the patio and intermittent games of 'Throw My Spitty Ball' with Kip.  I digress. 

It doesn't sit well to 'enjoy' a Blitz memoir but I do find them incredibly inspiring and humbling.  They're also an interesting way to learn about the politics of this era through its citizens rather than its politicians or newsmakers.  A Chelsea Concerto is among the best I've read, right up there with Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges.

Frances Faviell was born in 1905.  After her studies at the Slade School, the end of her first marriage, and extensive travel while working as a nurse, Frances earned extra money painting portraits in her Chelsea flat.  She begins her memoir with a description of a 'silly' exercise in Civil Defence that has members of the community acting as casualties while appointees conduct a drill.  What these civilians don't realize is that after the calm of the Phoney War, Germany is preparing to drop bombs by the thousands from fighter planes bound for England.  The air raids will be relentless and Chelsea, located along the Thames, will be hit again and again.

It's impossible not to be impressed with Frances's willingness to volunteer wherever there was a need.  She registered as a Flemish translator when Whitehall sent out the call, and acted as an intermediary for a large refugee community.  A deep commitment to help meant Frances had any number of people pleading their cause.  Catherine, eighteen and pregnant, was desperate not to be sent back to Brussels where her baby would be listed as a 'bastarde' on the birth certificate.  Frances sought housing and support for Catherine and her baby, even taking the baby into her own home when Catherine needed special medical care.  An ongoing situation that was also deeply affecting was that of a German refugee whose anguish led to a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt.  But on a lighter note, Frances also takes in a billet from the Canadian army, offers up a constant supply of soup for anyone needing a light meal, and even puts out incendiary fires with her fianc√© for fun.

'Domestic servants, already on the decline before the war, were rapidly disappearing, and owners of large houses were closing them and moving to hotels.'

The lack of domestic servants would soon be the least of the worries of the wealthier set and the rationing of tea caused an outcry from everyone.  Out of curiousity I measured out the allotted two ounces a week per person with some Kusmi muslin tea bags and it came out to twenty.  A decision would have to be made as to more cups of weak tea or fewer strong ones.  Also, the sobering image of people wearing gas masks was made hilarious when one woman at a lecture said that her eyes didn't water if she wore the mask while peeling onions.  In response, the other women yelled 'where did you get the onions?'.  In fact, Frances wrote that the best gift she received at one point was two onions.

While Frances writes about her tireless service and camaraderie with the community there are also some very harrowing scenes.  Frances was tasked with collecting body parts after bombing raids to allow for as complete a burial as possible.  She also described being lowered, upside down, into a small opening to administer chloroform to a man so horribly wounded she vomits repeatedly when she is brought out.  In photographs the Underground looks like a safe haven during the night, but the stench was so awful it lead Frances to think of the shelter nurses as true heroines.

   'Richard and I were married during one of London's heaviest day-light raids.  Because of this none of our guests turned up for the ceremony - and, what was more important, neither of the witnesses did.  We went out into the deserted street and found two taxi-drivers....'

Frances was in her mid-thirties at this point and becoming pregnant for the first time...'a nebulous dream of the future...' did little to slow down her work for the community.  Then one night....

   'The raid became heavier and heavier after we reached home.  The wardens were all out - we had met Nonie Iredale-Smith and George Evans and several others hurrying on their bicycles.  And sitting in the road, oblivious to the noise of the guns, was the faithful Peer Gynt (a dog that loved Frances's little dachshund).  I tried unsuccessfully to send him home.  I was no longer on duty.  Betty Compton had said that the refugees took up enough of my time and as the raids were lessening I should do as our gynecologist wished and take things more easily.  It seemed strange not to rush to change into my uniform and report to the FAP or at the Control Centre.'

Heading for the lower level of their flat, Frances described the strange hush before they took a direct hit.  Shielding her unborn baby and small dog, she waited in terror as the house fell around her.  Frances, her husband and their dog eventually made it out of the rubble.  An eerie aspect is that, covered in plaster dust, no one recognized her and word had circulated that she must have been killed.  I read the last forty pages with an intense gaze and there wasn't much that would have stirred me.

Thank you to Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow, and Dean Street Press for reissuing this valuable memoir and piece of history.  And by the way, I did wonder about the cover art and why a cat would feature so prominently in a scene from the Blitz.  The image is from a painting by Frances and the cat is a statue she acquired in Peking in 1937.  She was told that the green cat, if treated with respect, would keep her home safe and prosperous.  Set on the sill of the front window the cat was admired by many walking past, even in defiance of German bombs.....for awhile.

Corporal J M Robins, MM, WAAF by Laura Knight


  1. I'm SO glad you liked this one. I couldn't have borne it if you hadn't. :)

    1. I've visited the Chelsea area twice during trips to London but reading this memoir makes me want to go back. It would be interesting to scan the neighbourhood for 'new builds' now that I realize how heavily they were bombed.
      I know what you mean, Audrey. If someone isn't moved by Frances's memoir they're probably not going to get on with us!

  2. I was so traumatised by Vere Hodgson's memoir that I don't think I would be able to cope with this one. Well done for reading to the end!

    1. Sorry to hear about that, Toffeeapple. Is it heartless to say that I can bear reading about the hardships of people but if animals are involved I'm devastated? Frances wrote about scores of people putting down their pets when war broke out. What about evacuation to the countryside for dogs?

  3. I thought this was the best war memoir I have read. All I could think was "No wonder England survived" with workers like Frances.