Judy Picture Library: #286
Artist: David Matysiak
In World War II, Jill Durrell has just completed training in the Land Army, which consists of girls who work on farms in the place of men who have gone to fight. Now it is time for the girls to be sent on their various farming assignments.
The girls are expected to go where they are sent, but the instructor does not want to give anyone the assignment from Mrs Budge: “Mrs Budge works single-handed on a smallholding with neither electricity nor running water, situated at the back of beyond. She’s a cantankerous, demanding, slave-driver, and no girl has ever stayed there more than a week!” He cannot believe his ears when Jill insists on volunteering for Mrs Budge’s assignment.
Jill arrives exhausted and hungry because Mrs Budge could not be there to meet her at the station at Geronwy Junction. Mrs Budge is not impressed to see the replacement for her farmhand Owen (who is in the catering corps) because Jill looks too small and not strong enough. Jill begs to be given a chance, so Mrs Budge has her prove it by preparing the stall for a newborn calf. Jill is tired and hungry, but completes the job because she is a stubborn girl. Later, she tells Mrs Budge that she won’t leave on the next train leaving Geronwy Junction.
And Jill doesn’t, despite how tough it is working for Mrs Budge. Mrs Budge is not only the cantankerous slave driver the instructor warned her about, but also insists on doing everything the hard, traditional, old-fashioned way: hand scythes and sickles, hand water pumps, doing laundry in copper boilers, oil lamps, candles etc. “They were good enough for my great grandfather when he bought this farm, and they’re good enough for me, now!” She won’t have a bar of modernisation, modern farming methods, or any other labour saving devices. She won’t even have electricity or running water. She throws a fit when she sees Jill borrowing a combine harvester from a neighbour, Mr Wheldon, and only agrees to let Jill keep her job on condition she complete the haying her way – the old-fashioned way. The same obstinacy also extends to medicine; she doles out her own homemade potions and she won’t call in doctors or vets. On Mr Wheldon’s farm, Mrs Budge has a reputation for running her farm in the “dark ages” because she is too mean and tight-fisted to modernise. Mr Wheldon has his own team of land girls, who call Jill “Ma Budge’s drudge” (hence the title of the story), but they are friendly with her.
Jill, however, is under the impression that Mrs Budge sticks to the old ways out of pride rather than miserliness – that and just plain stubbornness. Throughout the story, Jill is appalled and exasperated at how stubborn Mrs Budge is, and Jill is pig-headed herself. For example, when Mrs Budge sprains her ankle, she won’t listen to Jill’s urgings to call in a doctor: “Why waste money when a swollen ankle will heal in its own good time?” Nor does she take it easy because of her swollen ankle; she turns to jobs that she can do while sitting down. When fully able-bodied, Mrs Budge works even harder than Jill, and she works Jill far harder than necessary because of her insistence on old-fashioned ways. And Jill notes Mrs Budge never has a word of praise for her; she treats Jill in a grumpy fashion, especially when Jill doesn’t quite come up to the mark at times.
But Jill refuses to leave Mrs Budge, and nobody can understand why. The neighbouring farmer thinks she is a “rum ‘un” for declining his offer to leave the drudgery of Mrs Budge and join his own team. At times, Jill herself is tempted to walk out on Mrs Budge – except for… but she doesn’t reveal what. Even Mrs Budge asks why, and Jill replies: “Some day, I’ll tell you. I-I’m afraid the time hasn’t come yet, though.”
The time comes when two letters arrive. The first, for Mrs Budge, says her old farmhand Owen is being invalidated out of the catering corps. He will now be returning to the farm, so there is no further need for Jill. Jill is dismayed that she is leaving, but the second letter, for her, puts her mind at rest. It says that her father has been released from a Japanese POW camp. Jill then explains to Mrs Budge that when her father was captured, she made a bargain with herself to find the toughest job she could find as a land girl. She believed that if she did not quit, her father would keep fighting to survive as well. “Dad and I are two of a kind, you see. Not very big or very strong, but plenty pig-headed!”
Mrs Budge finds it a bit of a cheek that Jill used her farm for a substitute prison camp. But she decides to take it in good part because she realises she got the best of the bargain. They hold a celebratory toast together.
It is refreshing to see a World War II story tackle the subject of Land Girls, something that doesn’t get much attention in girls’ comics. More often, their WW2 stories deal with female soldiers, resistance fighters, fugitives, evacuees and war orphans.
The moment we see the cover, we expect to be geared up for a story where a cruel slave driver works a poor hapless Land Girl to the bone. So, along with everyone else, we are taken aback when Jill volunteers for the Budge assignment while already knowing what she is getting into (unlike a lot of unsuspecting heroines who discover too late that they have ended up with an abusive slave driver). And we also have to wonder why Jill won’t quit her job as she learns just how tough and gruelling it is. When we find out why – to parallel with her father’s suffering and struggle for survival in a Japanese prison camp – we have to applaud, but do we laugh or cry about it as well?
When we see Mrs Budge on the cover, we expect her to be a cruel, slave driving abuser, like countless other villains that have appeared in girls comics, such as Gert and Jed Barlow from Tammy’s “Bella”. So it is a surprise and delight to see that once we (and Jill) get to know Mrs Budge better, we find she is a more complex, layered character who is difficult but not totally unlikeable, and she is not a cardboard villain. There is no denying that she is cantankerous, demanding and slave driving, and she makes it all the harder by clinging to old-fashioned methods and eschewing modernisation. It is easy to see why no Land Girl had stayed with her more than a week until Jill volunteered. We also have to wonder why Owen the farmhand stayed on with her until the catering corps called him up. But she only demands of them the same thing that she does herself, and Jill admits that Mrs Budge works even harder than herself. Mrs Budge makes no allowances for herself either; when she sprains her ankle, she insists on carrying on. And when the accident happens, she insists that Jill do the milking than tend to her: “Leave me be! The milking’s more important than I am!”
The story is also a clash of wills between two people who are both pig-headed; Mrs Budge in her obstinacy about clinging to traditional ways and Jill in her obstinacy to stay, despite how tough it is. It is hard to say who was a match for the other in stubbornness, but we are all rooting for Jill’s stubbornness to win out against Mrs Budge. And it does, because Jill’s tenacity was motivated by love for her father while Mrs Budge’s stubbornness was motivated by pride and extreme conservatism (and perhaps fear of change and new technology).
There is a dash of eccentricity about Mrs Budge’s obstinacy and stick-in-the mud ways that gives her a touch of humour. For example, she always wears the same raincoat, regardless of the weather. And while she always seems to be a grouch, signs of her having a heart do slip through. One of the most touching is when Mrs Budge tends to Jill when she burns her arm on the steam thresher: “Girl, girl – I wouldn’t have had you hurt, not for all the world.” Jill is really astonished at this tender remark after having endured Mrs Budge’s grumpiness with never a single word of praise. And when Mrs Budge find out why Jill stuck out at her job, she really does show that she is a human being: “Fancy using my farm as a substitute prison camp. There’s cheek for you! Still, I reckon we ought to celebrate – because to my way of thinking, I was the one who got the best of the bargain!” We see that Mrs Budge has come a long way from first dismissing Jill as “a tiddler” and setting her extra-tough tests to drive her off to liking and respecting her, and appreciating Jill’s work on the farm after all. We get the impression that Mrs Budge is really going to miss Jill when she goes.