One might expect wartime fiction to provide comfort, escapism, even propaganda. Many no doubt did. However the four novels featured here written and set in Britain during the war also took the opportunity to reveal something new and different about the human condition and to record some of their bizarre and unusual experiences.
Setting novels on the Home Front of the Second World War
Setting novels in wartime brings the writer many opportunities. Unexpected locations, events, characters and relationships arise in wartime. Motives can be unclear. Characters, especially heroines and heroes, are often required to find resources within themselves that they did not know they had.
For me, the ultimate war novel will probably always be Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The protagonists face some dreadful and nonsensical situations, meet officers who are completely out of their depth, and try to survive however they can. Much of the novel points up the craziness of the war. It was set on a Mediterranean island in the Second World War, but not published until 1961.
In the Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
This novel is a thriller, set in war-time London, centred on the Regents Park area. Stella is approached by the mysterious and rather malevolent Harrison at an open air concert. He appears to know things about her lover Robert, questioning his commitment to the war effort. Allegiances to people and countries of birth are under suspicion. The description of an air raid is vivid and exciting. And this passage about the presence of the dead in London is moving.
Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence – not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living – felt through London. Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn-off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected – for death cannot be so sudden as all that. Absent from the routine which had been life, they stamped upon that routine their absence – not knowing who the dead were you could not know which might be the staircase somebody for the first time was not mounting this morning, or at which street corner the newsvendor missed a face, or which trains and buses in the homegoing rush were this evening lighter by one passenger. (p91-2)
Elizabeth Bowen wrote most of the novel during the war, but apparently found it hard to complete and it was not published until 1948.
In the Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948). You can find the full post here.
A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson
This novel considers a formerly wealthy landed family confronting the changes of the 20th century. The story includes their energetic efforts to resist the advancing demands of the war, for example, to take in evacuees. And is it possible that the peacock is signalling to enemy aircraft?
It is both a social commentary and a thriller set against the background of the first months of the war.
A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson (1940) reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books (2016). My comments on this novel on Bookword can be found here.
Night Shift by Inez Holden
Night Shift is a novella first published in 1941. The episodes are framed as six night shifts in a factory in East London during the Blitz. The workers, mostly women, make surveillance cameras for aircraft. There is little story, but the people who work, supervise, or relax in the canteen reveal their separate lives as they work together. Each person is given a name or nickname, and they interact in a way that demonstrates a sense of community, but they are not connected to their important work. They are strangely isolated on their night shifts. The novella strongly conveys the daily interactions of Londoners, the inconveniences of Blitz damage, the noise, the concerns about women’s wages and the sense of so many individuals being involved in these events.
Reading it one felt it was a record of a strange and unusual time. The novella has been republished with Inez Holden’s wartime diaries so in a sense that impression is justified.
Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), published by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her diaries. Thanks to Heavenali and JacquiWine’s Journal for drawing my attention to this volume.
Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther
It is a bit of a stretch to call this a wartime novel. To begin with although the characters are fictional it is more a collection of articles from The Times about everyday middle class life in pre-war Britain. And secondly it hardly features the war. But it has the reputation of a wartime novel largely because of the famous film which can be seen as propaganda. The character of Mrs Miniver was considered very successful and Churchill claimed it contributed to the entry of the USA into the war.
There is a comforting feeling about Mrs Miniver despite the looming violence. Perhaps the pieces were gathered together and published as war began to remind people of what could be lost.
Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther was published in 1939 and by Virago (1989). My thoughts about it on Bookword can be found here.
And you might be interested in The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel (2013), published by Bloomsbury. This book explores the varied effects of war upon the following writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel, Henry Yorke (Green) and Graham Greene.