Frances Faviell wrote A Chelsea Concerto some years after living through the Blitz. She was a privileged young woman, earning a living as an artist, and sufficiently well off to have a housekeeper, the splendid Mrs Freeth. Simply as a social document of a slightly Bohemian, but respectable middle-class way of life it would be fascinating, but the background of the Blitz makes it as gripping and as poignant as any novel. She played her part in the war effort, joining the V.A.D as a nurse, helping to look after Belgian refugees, being on Fire Duty. One of her jobs is piecing together bodies blown apart in air raids. What makes this an exceptional account is her absolute frankness. She holds nothing back in her description of the terrible things she witnessed and her own reactions (not always admirable). One November night as she walks home from visiting a desperately sick friend, she comes across a group of people gathered round a bomb crater. At the bottom here is a man crushed, but still conscious and in agony. They need someone slim enough to be lowered down and inject the man with morphine and they seize on Frances:
“‘Take off your coat,’ said the doctor. I took it off. ‘And your dress,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous – the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down . . . . It’ll have to be head first. Can you grip the torch with your teeth?’ Two wardens gripped me by the thighs and lowered me down over the hole.” The reader is spared no detail of what she finds as she goes down, not once, but twice and finally manages to administer merciful chloroform.
Of course we know that she herself survives the war, but when she marries and becomes pregnant, we fear for those she loves – her husband, her unborn baby, her friends and neighbours. And indeed something unspeakably horrible does happen . . .
I have never read anything quite like this book, and I could not put it down. I have made it sound grim, and some of it is, but it’s also a story of everyday heroism and the triumph of the human spirit. I loved it.