Although stories utilizing letters, journals and diaries are usually too disjointed for me, Ryan expertly blends this technique into a compelling novel of English country life during the early days of the Second World War. In The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, the power of women to carry on regardless transcends the march of history. From the tender missives of Mrs. Tilling, whose son David has just gone off to war, to the confessions of sisters Kitty and Venetia Winthrop, Chilbury’s lives are placed in turmoil in a landscape where death is a part of life and where more “making do” is a daily chore.
The cruel Brigadier Winthrop, Kitty and Venetia’s abusive father, is reeling from the recent death of Edward, his brutish and arrogant son, whom Kitty admits she doesn’t particularly miss. Edward’s death has plunged the family into turmoil because
the Chilbury Estate needs a male heir to keep the inheritance intact. In desperation, Winthrop decides to hatch a “a grubby nugget of a deal” with morally circumspect midwife, Edwina Paltry. Edwina writes to her sister, Clara, telling her that Winthrop
is “paying me to keep my mouth shut about his affairs.” Edwina agrees to partake in this “get rich quick scheme” as she
watches out for Mrs. Tilling, the “deplorable do-gooder” who suspects something fishy
is going on.
Similar in tone to PBS's Masterpiece Theater, Ryan’s novel addresses the challenges facing women in an age of war. Kitty writes as if the war is
merely a six-month inconvenience. “Life is insufferable: there’s no food, no
servants, no lights after dark, and no men around.” With only Silvia, a 10-year-old Jewish evacuee, for company, Kitty tries to stay away from Venetia and from her abusive father.
Though her mother is pregnant, death always seems at the forefront of Kitty’s mind. Venetia writes to her best friend, Angela Quail, who recently left Chilbury to work at the War Office in London. Pining that she has no one left with whom to share her conquests, the tough, headstrong Venetia tells Angela of her turmoil in falling in love with artist Mr. Slater. Recently arrived in Chilbury, Slater promises that he will paint Venetia. Meeting him for clandestine trysts at his home, Venetia is ultimately seduced by the older man’s sophisticated ways. In danger of yet another broken heart, Venetia worries about her father’s unleashed fury and at the utter disgrace that is certain to follow her around “like a shadow of death.”
In simple prose, Ryan relates Kitty, Venetia, and Mrs. Tilling’s emotional transitions, as well as a love that demonstrates the resilience of a village under siege from the powerful German forces amassing just across the Channel. Chilbury’s lovely choir is also collateral damage--that is, until a new “Ladies only” choir is announced. Prim, the magnificent new choir mistress, is determined to get the village singing again. At first it seems unthinkable that Chilbury have a “women’s only” choir.
When they win a local competition, the group soon become the ultimate example of perseverance, a tremendous gift that will get the village through this gruesome war.
In terms of plot, the big twist in Edwina’s efforts to swap babies (and Venetia’s love-torn dilemmas) turns out to be a bit predictable, almost a facsimile of the hit ITV series
Home Fires. Though different mediums, both are universal in their depiction of women left at home to shoulder the efforts of war. The novel is packed with melodrama.
Kitty panics at thinking she’s found a spy in their midst and longing for safety of marriage with Henry Brampton Boyd (who later courts desperate Venetia).
A dying gay soldier forces Mrs. Tilling to question her prejudices as she tries to unravel the dense mesh between morality and reality. Colonel Mallard, at first “a grumpy curmudgeon,”
is later drawn to Mrs. Tilling. Mrs. Tilling’s growing comfort and support for the Colonel is mirrored by a fleeting feeling of passion.
Mrs. Tilling’s decision to challenge sadistic Brigadier Winthrop in the living room of his Chilbury Manor House gives symbolic voice to plight of everyday women who dare to stand up for themselves and others in this time and this place. From the brutal bombing of a young mother
(this “dreadful finality of death”) to the sound of the women and their combined, all-encompassing voices “like a warm halo of protection,” this vocal unison of sorts stirs their longings, anxieties, and deepest fears while also making us aware of the preciousness of their lives and how long life itself may last.
Lushly written--although at times rather rose-tinted--Ryan's story is wrapped up in a wet towel of well-deserved sentiment. One character finds true love, another’s illegal act is exposed, and a night-time German bombing raid plunges the village into chaos. Yet it is the terrible cost of war that makes these gutsy, resilient women join together in unison, the passion and deliberation of song bringing them closer together and even liberating them from the endless field of battle, even in bucolic Chilbury.