A century ago, what was then known as the Great War was in full swing. Young men were dying by the hundreds and thousands in trenches dug into the poppy fields of Flanders, and the initial sense that the war would be over by Christmas had long since vanished in a fog of despair. Even by the standards of war, where overweening ambition too often clashes with unrealistic expectations, the First World War was a tragedy: a conflict that need never have happened, spurred on by contending imperialist powers that overestimated their own capacity to conduct diplomacy and blundered their way into a crisis.
Today the First World War is almost forgotten—in part because no one now alive fought in it, in part because the even more massive conflagration of the Second swept over it and obliterated it as it obliterated half of Europe and great swaths of Asia. Yet the Great War destroyed an entire generation of young men, rippling through the economy and society, opening doors for women, ushering in the almost manic euphoria of the 1920s. Its effects on the culture were every bit as far-reaching as the events of 1939–45—for which, of course, it laid the groundwork.
Perhaps because of the centennial—or perhaps by chance, in one of those coincidences that at times sweep the world of publishing in one direction or another—over the past year I have seen a renewal of fictional interest in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The last three months alone have brought to my attention no less than four novels set in this period: Laini Giles’ The Forgotten Flapper, Kathleen Tessaro’s Rare Objects, Hazel Gaynor’s The Girl from the Savoy, and, just yesterday, A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams. For more on the first two, click the links in their titles. Hazel Gaynor has graciously agreed to answer questions; with luck, her answers will appear this time next week. A Certain Age is not due for release until July, so I will write more about it then.
Two other recent titles—Cat Winters’ The Uninvited and Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl—also explore the after-effects of the war, especially the great influenza epidemic of 1918. In addition, several long-running series—most notably, Laurie R. King’s Russell and Holmes and Touchstone books—take place in the 1920s. There, too, the Great War and its aftermath appear in ways both overt and covert.
Is this the beginning of a trend, or just a blip on the fictional radar screen? There is no way to tell from this vantage point. But the Great War has been ignored for too long. It is past time we remembered it—if only so that we don’t find ourselves repeating its mistakes.