Edith and Emily

Two women are being commemorated in Britain today: Edith Cavell, the Norfolk nurse who was shot by Germans and Emily Wilding Davis, via the release of the film Suffragette – two women who lost their lives for their beliefs.

Thus my schedule is busy – already with my also Norfolk set novel campaign now over half way – and with trying to fit in attending commemorative events for both these women.

I shall be back when I’ve seen Suffragette, released today (why, on a Monday? I can’t find an anniversary to match). In the meantime, here is my painting about the suffragettes, who were seen as responsible for the occurrence below. Their pamphlets were found at the scene. It is another Norfolk connection:

bye bye Britannia - the burning of Yarmouth pier

Bye Bye Britannia: The burning of Yarmouth pier, by me.

I’ve also got a full week of Edith Cavell, but I have seen a new musical and dramatic piece about her in the place that she is buried – Norwich cathedral, which I review anon. I shall add other thoughts as I attend other events during the week.


I’m trying to understand who Edith is – or who she is said to be. At first, I thought her fame came through helping injured soldiers in the first world war, regardless of their uniform – an humanitarian act driven by her faith. Or was it that she harboured soldiers from her own side, sneaking them out through Belgian streets via her underground contacts to safety? The patriotic angle has seemed more prominent lately, and I note the phrasing of her gravestone: –

“To the pure and holy memory of Edith Cavell

who gave her life for England

12th October 1915

Her name liveth for evermore.”

-Classic military memorial mixed with virginal hagiography.

I’ve even heard her called a spy. What is she – plucky honourable Norfolk girl, exemplary nurse, brave British martyr, or compassionate Christian aid worker? Who wishes to claim her for what?

I would like to attend events with different perspectives on her. I thought that Saturday’s “Remember Edith Cavell” by Searchlight Theatre was going to represent the Christian angle on her. Her faith is integral to her deeds. Her final words were about believing that her soul was safe and that she feared not death; one of her final acts was taking communion. her reading material in her 10 week solitary stretch was “The Imitation of Christ”. I was most touched she told that the German pastor who took her to the shooting range that she hoped to welcome him into heaven. He had to bury her moments later.

However, those thoughts were not the one most propounded in Searchlight’s production. Its title is from contemporary recruitment propaganda. The piece began and ended with the same words – those of the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. His official statement about Edith’s death concluded with “She has died as she has lived – for her country”.

What is Edith’s most famous quote?!


Yet for this piece, patriotism seemed to be the not so subtle theme, odd to come from an overtly Christian theatre company, being shown in a place of Christian worship. It seems to me from this and another play I’ve seen (by Chris Joby) that Edith was first and foremost a nurse, and her duties to that profession guided her actions. Though one might argue how nursey it is to smuggle and hide people, how often finding counterfeit papers and liaising with secret networks is just another day on the wards.

Edith often spoke of her faith; it is naively given in the play as a reason to expect her not to lie at her inquisition. Edith’s not very savvy with her answers at that – I’d have enjoyed courageous, witty replies, but hers are almost Enid Blyton truthful. I understand the trial was quite different from this scene. But here, she is interrogated by only one man – the writer – who tries to steal the scene as a heavy guard.

I wonder what sort of person Edith was; both plays I’ve watched had her as formal, earnest, but quite flat. I don’t recall her laughing or smiling, or showing any emotion. The weeping here was done by her fellow nurse Elizabeth Wilkins, the only other woman on the stage.

There was much to improve upon, I think, in this piece. The orchestra was sometimes a little off key, yet it was the solo violinist (Fiona Hutchins) who alone got a picture in the programme, and was first to receive a bouquet at the end – not even the actress who played Edith (Rebecca Rogers) got a headshot or her image on the publicity. The writer (David Robinson), who played two roles including Sir Grey was named before Edith in the programme. The show felt like David and the violinist’s vehicle more than Edith’s, for whom of course the audience had come.

The musical pieces didn’t often fit with the dramatic scenes. Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending began the performance. That was a hint that this was going to be a “Edith realised that patriotism’s not enough – but we haven’t yet” show. We were invited to sing along to classic war song “It’s a long way to Tipperary” – is Edith from Norfolk or Eire?! and All Things Bright and Beautiful, which felt compiled on the same basis as the songs in Mama Mia. I was expecting “I vow to thee my county” – with the emphasis on the second verse, but we heard “Abide with me” twice – once from near death Edith, which was touching, and at her reconstructed state funeral with full choir, orchestra – and our own contribution. There was a hint of the use of the hymn in football – a side-making hero’s welcome anthem, not the final song of a woman facing death and asking her God to be near her. A woman who repeatedly said that she didn’t take sides – just dress wounds.

The shooting of Edith happened live, which was disconcerting, with big screens down the nave and uncomfortably overloud sound, but they missed an obvious and powerful reconstruction around Edith’s funeral service, actually held where we sat. The current cathedral Dean was asked to reprise her predecessor’s eulogy for Edith, but no coffin was carried in.

But unlike Edith’s actual funeral 100 years ago, the church wasn’t full. In fact, it was rather gappy, with the three seat prices meaning that some were alone or in pairs, preventing the effect of solidarity with the rest of the audience. Cathedrals weren’t built for concerts and I wish they’d not be used for them, for it feels like the public did when the monks occupied the quire stalls: that you can listen in, from a distance, but it’s not really for you.

The actors spoke in over egged theatrical tones, and I question Edith’s accent: being brought up in rural Norfolk as a parson’s daughter, might she not have sounded more native of that county? And wouldn’t the audience here be most acutely aware of her accent, which is often badly represented in film and theatre.

There seemed little real story or narrative here, little drama, little pathos – save for Edith’s shooting (or was that more loud and unpleasant) and of the tears of Sister Elizabeth. We never meet the mole in the clinic who gives Edith away. There’s no tension at her trial. We don’t see her for long in her cell – that’s the sole premise of another play on next weekend. Did Edith ever love? She’s called passionate and loving, but I didn’t see that in her.

I left feeling that the contribution I paid for my ticket and programme – which went into a charity bucket of something not previously explained – might have funded something not very akin to the No Glory In War campaign. In fact, I think I may have inadvertently supported its nemesis. I’d have rather given the money to The Community of The Cross of Nails, or to the many homeless people I met afterwards.

More anon after I’ve visited Edith’s death train, local exhibitions and other performances.

I’d be interested to hear what’s happening beyond Norfolk and how other people view her. How well known is she?

And why at this centenary of Norwich’s famous dead daughter is there roadworks around her memorial?

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