When I reviewed Diana Souhami’s biography of Edith Cavell last year, I commented that it was difficult to really know what Edith was like as a person. I enjoyed Souhami’s biography & she had obviously done extensive research but there are not many personal documents by Edith as she destroyed so much when she became aware that she was about to be arrested. Terri Arthur contacted me after reading my review & said that she was writing a novel about Edith Cavell to try & convey what she was really like. Recently,
Terri sent me a copy of her novel, Fatal Decision, so I’ve been able to decide whether she has been able to accomplish this.
I think Terri Arthur has definitely succeeded in presenting Edith Cavell as a woman rather than the saint of legend. Maybe only fiction would have allowed this as Arthur has been able to use her imagination to recreate the character of a woman whose terrible death has overshadowed everything else about her. The facts of her life are well-known. Edith Cavell was a nursing matron in charge of a training school for nurses in Brussels during WWI when Belgium was occupied by the German Army. She became involved in a resistance group that helped Allied soldiers who had become trapped in Belgium to escape to England, Holland or France. She was arrested, put on trial as a spy, convicted, sentenced to death & shot at dawn on October 12th 1915.
The novel begins with Edith applying to nurse at the London Hospital. Here she is influenced by Eva Luckes, the formidable matron & disciple of Florence Nightingale. Although Luckes is very hard on her students, Edith is determined to succeed. Edith makes friends although she is seen by some as stiff & humourless. She volunteers to help in a typhoid epidemic & in this episode she demonstrates her determination to overcome her weaknesses. Edith’s overwhelming concern for the care of her patients is paramount. All her work can’t impress Matron Luckes, however, who gives her a lacklustre assessment when she finishes her studies. Edith works in hospitals in a variety of roles until the opportunity to go to Brussels & start a school for nurses is offered to her by a former pupil from her time as a governess in Europe.
The nursing school has to overcome many hurdles, including the objections of the Catholic Church, whose nuns had been the willing but unschooled nurses up to this time. Edith & Dr Eugene Depage work to overcome prejudice against an English Protestant teaching nursing to women who had always seen it as a demeaning occupation. By the time WWI breaks out, the school & Edith have a reputation for excellence. Edith & her nurses begin work under the Red Cross, helping wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Their hospital & nursing home is in Ixelles, south of Brussels, & in the direct path of the German invasion. When the Germans occupy Belgium, a military administration is set up to govern the civilian population.
The fatal decision that Edith makes is to help wounded Allied soldiers trying to escape occupied Belgium & rejoin the Allies in France. With her strong religious & moral convictions, Edith was unlikely to refuse a plea for help. The first two soldiers who arrive at the clinic lead to many more. Edith admitted to helping 200 soldiers escape at her trial but the true number is probably closer to 1000. Edith became part of an underground movement that brought the men in from the surrounding forests where they were hiding, sent them to Edith for medical aid, then sent them on with guides to take them to the border complete with disguises & false identity papers. Edith was aware of the danger of the work she was doing & only involved a few trusted members of her staff. However, she never considered stopping her work, even when she was aware that the clinis was being watched & the authorities were closing in. While one Allied soldier needed her help, she would not refuse it.
The most important person in Edith’s life was Elizabeth Wilkins, a nurse who became her best friend & deputy in everything. The portrait of their close friendship is especially moving. The novel is bookended with scenes of Elizabeth in London & Norwich at remembrance services for Edith. The scenes with Elizabeth are a very effective way of humanising Edith as are the scenes of Edith with her beloved dog, Jack. Jack was a stray that Edith took in despite all objections & he proved loyal to the end.
The underground movement was eventually infiltrated & betrayed. Edith’s interrogation & trial were a disgrace. She did make some crucial admissions that prejudiced her case but her commitment to truth may have led her to make some naive mistakes. She was forced to sign a confession written in German, which she didn’t understand. The defence counsel assigned to her wasn’t permitted to visit her or know the charges against her. All her fellow accused were treated similarly but the occupying forces were determined to make an example of this English nurse who dared to defy their rule & Edith, along with several others, were condemned to death.
Edith’s family had heard of her arrest & tried to discover more information through the Foreign Office. The American Legation was their only source of news as the US was neutral & still had a diplomatic presence in Brussels. The American ambassador, Brand Whitlock, did what he could but he was effectively blocked by the military government & stricken with illness at a crucial time. The judges were Prussian military officers & they were determined to make an example of Edith. It was the worst decision the Germans made during WWI. The execution of an Englishwoman, a nurse, brought condemnation from around the world.
Fatal Decision is an absorbing novel. The large cast of characters, from the other nurses & staff at the clinic to the escaping soldiers to the German authorities, are all beautifully portrayed. The author is a nurse & the medical detail is obviously written with experience & knowledge. Arthur has a real empathy with Edith Cavell & she’s used what letters & documents survive to inform her portrait of a brave woman who lived & died for her convictions.