The time is March 1940. The place is Chilbury, a charming English village in Kent, near Dover. All the usual characters are assembled- village gossips, domineering ladies, widows, the owner of Chilbury Manor, racy young people.
But there are very few men. With memories of the Great War still fresh, the villagers are fearful as the war falls into a lull, then Hitler races across Europe.
With so many men gone, the Vicar declares the village choir is to close. He had not reckoned with the women of Chilbury who, with husbands, sons and brothers gone, find their voices, first in discussion and then in song.
The leading force for the formation of The Chillbury Ladies’ Choir, is Miss Primrose Trent, a recent arrival. Her gentle, yet firm ways, give more reticent women courage to stand up to those women who oppose change and believe they should be the ones to lead the social life of Chilbury.
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Some of the young women find work in Litchfield, where important war work is taking place.
The choir goes from strength to strength, finding comfort for the dark days from the old English hymns.
But this is not just a story about a choir. It is the personal stories of the women of the choir and of the village. The story is told from several viewpoints:
- Mrs Tilling, a nurse and midwife, long widowed, is fearful as her son goes off to war. She records her thoughts and relates the incidents of village life through her diary. As the war progresses she takes on more responsibility acting as an accommodation officer. We see her develop from the village mouse to a strong and independent woman.
- Kitty Winthrop, the thirteen-year-old daughter of Chilbury Manor, takes to writing a diary as was officially encouraged. Her voice is fresh and clear, and the author has her give important facts unwittingly to the reader. The war forces on her a maturity beyond her years.
- Silvie, a ten-year-old Jewish refugee, staying with the Winthrops, also keeps a diary. She has been smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and lives in hope of being reunited with her parents. She is a very perceptive little girl as she records this strange English life.
- Venetia Winthrop, Kitty’s elder sister writes letters to her friend Angela, the Vicar’s daughter. These two, with Hattie the local school teacher and the lads now off at war, had provided plenty of gossip for the village. Angela is now in London doing war work while Hattie is married and expecting her first child. Her husband is at sea. We see Venetia slowly getting herself deeper and deeper into trouble.
- Edwina Paltry writes to her sister Clara exposing a scandalous scheme she proposes to undertake. She too is a midwife, and not much liked by the villagers.
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There are the occasional letters from other characters to develop character and plot. Jennifer Ryan has created warmly engaging characters and some whom we disapprove of. But they are realistic people.
The setting – the Kent countryside and the village are beautifully described. We get a feeling for the times. The evacuation of Dunkirk and the bombing of civilians are there in all their fear and horror. The author used family stories as a starting point but then was able to access diaries, letters and journals from an organisation called Mass Observation that encouraged and collected women’s war writing. This authentic background is very evident.
This is a story of quiet courage, of great sadness, of human warmth as people work together for each other and their country. It is a story of love in its many different forms.
I loved it!
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan, is available in various formats from the publishers Harper Collins Publishers Australia.