It continually boggles my mind that Berta Ruck’s books aren’t better known. She wrote before, during, and after WW1 and her novels give stunning glimpses into the social outlook of women during that period, particularly within the context of war. When she writes about ‘our boys in khaki!’ she writes it in 1914 with no knowledge of whether England will win the war or not. She captures the desperation of war and a suddenly changed society and she does it from the front lines.
Written in 1919, Sweethearts Unmet tells a sweet story about two sweethearts…who never meet. At least, not for the first 3/4ths of the book. The plot flips back and forth from ‘The Girl’s Story’ to ‘The Boy’s Story’ and so the reader gets a front row seat to how often they almost meet. They’re two adorable, sweet characters with old-fashion values and pure hearts. They’re perfect for one another. And they both manage to get engaged to perfectly wrong people.
Spoiler alert: sweethearts eventually meet.
In fact, by the end it is almost too sickeningly sweet. Not only do the characters harp on ‘what if we hadn’t met?’ (i.e. sweethearts unmet) but the author has an entire chapter at the end devoted to ‘what shall happen to all the nice young people who don’t meet? We must find ways to bring soulmates together!’
It that sounds vaguely over the top, I agree. But it is so much better when set within the historical context. Berta Ruck is not just telling some sugary little love story and declaring that young men and women should socialize more. She’s recognizing the change the war has wrought on traditional courtships.
Because pre-war: Boy sees Girl. Boy likes Girl. Boy has someone introduce them. Or, if no introduction can be found, has his family approach her family. In no way must Boy talk to Girl without an introduction. And for the Girl, not only would she not talk to Boy, but she would not give Boy the time of day if he did talk to her. A Nice Young Lady does not do such things.
But then came War.
And now Boy sees Girl. Boy likes Girl. But Boy’s family is dead. All Boy’s chums died fighting. Boy has no way to introduce himself. Girl sees Boy. Girl likes Boy. But when Boy tries to talk to her, Girl freezes up because a Nice Young Lady does not allow perfect strangers to talk to her. Even if she knows no one else in London.
The two young people would be perfectly happy if properly introduced. But they no longer live in a world where the old rules work. So they are left at a standstill. (Hence sweethearts…unmet!) And hence Berta Ruck’s strong push for breaking some of the social constraints around ‘young people finding happiness.’
Not my favorite Berta Ruck but one I think I will return to as it combines both the interesting historical context with some strong, female side-characters.