Tag Archives: 1940

Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski

Elizabeth Bowen caught the essence of Table Two when she said in her review for the Tatler in 1942 that it was 

the most striking novel about women war workers that this war has, as far as I know, produced.

The location of the action is the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in central London, where translators sit at designated tables. It is early September 1940 and Londoners are convinced that the RAF will not allow the Luftwaffe through to bomb the city. 

While the plot is not very strong, there is plenty to engage the reader in this novel, the only one written by Marjorie Wilenski. It was clearly written from first-hand experience of the Blitz and of war work.

Table Two

The table of the title is the workstation for the women who feature in this novel.

The Translation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence made all the translations of the Ministry’s foreign documents and letters. Everyone on the staff of the Department knew some foreign languages and most of them knew several and knew them well. The Department worked in a large room on the first floor of the Ministry’s new building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The room had windows down both sides and it looked like a schoolroom because it had groups of flat-topped desks, set nine together on each side of a central gangway. Each group of desks was used by nine translators known as a Table, and what looked like the teacher’s desk at the top was used by the Language Supervisor. (11)

It is late summer in 1940 in London and Table Two is about to receive a new translator. Many of the women who work there, all women, had supported themselves in various jobs abroad. On their return to London they need the money. Some women are doing their bit for the war. Marjorie Wilenski is interested in how this group of women do and don’t get along.

There are a range of characters: Mrs Jolly who can’t stop talking; Mrs Doweson with aristocratic connections who likes fresh air; Mrs Just, the deputy who ensures order in the work despite Mrs Saltman the disorganised Supervisor. There are those who love disaster, a childish woman in dress and behaviour, a woman who can’t stop eating and so on.

Two women are the focus of the story. Elsie Pearne is much despised for her sour disposition, and she believes herself suited for better work, with some justification. 

Elsie was a tall gaunt woman of forty-eight. She carried her head forward and her shoulders were rounded because she was always stooping to talk to people less tall than herself. She walked with a long ungainly rather mannish stride and there was something mannish in her clothes – the plain black coat and skirt, white bouse with collar and tie, and round felt hat. She had a long thin face, long thin nose and a long thin mouth with lips set in a straight line that turned down at the corners, and her eyes under wide brows were small. […]

Elsie Pearne was not much loved at the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence. She was generally referred to as rude and difficult to get on with. Most people thought that her long mouth turned down simply from bad nature and ill-temper though there were some more kindly who guessed at disappointments and hard times, neither opinion being in fact quite right. (1-2)

In contrast, Anne Shepley-Rice, is the new translator, younger and prettier than the others, and with the prospect of dinners with young servicemen and even marriage ahead of her.

Although they are in contrast to each other, Elsie takes Anne under her wing, and then becomes possessive. Unfortunately, when she doesn’t get her way Elsie can be rather nasty and Anne does not wish to be controlled by her older colleague. This is not a happy friendship.

In the first days of Anne’s employment there are frequent air raid warnings which force the workers into idleness in the basement. The translators are very frustrated because they do not believe that the German bombers will penetrate central London. They are wrong and at the end of the first week in September the Blitz begins and does not let up until May the following summer. The author describes how the population adapts to the new situation.

For the next week the guns were rarely silent. Sometimes they seemed to go on without stopping for the whole twenty-four hours. Soon their sounds became the background to ordinary life – that ordinary life that was so extraordinary but which Londoners had to pretend was ordinary because only in that way was it possible to live at all. For the extraordinary had to be tamed as quickly as could be done; conditions were chaotic but chaos had to be conquered. The first thing everywhere and all the time was to get the small things straight. There was no time to stand and stare, there were too many practical problems to solve. True, a country cousin up for the day to look at London’s ruins might gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets; these immense fantastic holes only astonished Cockneys on Monday – by Friday they were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to the traffic, there were too many other things to think of – how to get to work, how to get hoe again, how to cook the breakfast on the faint glimmer of gas that was all most people could coax from their burners, how to make the tea, let alone how to wash or bath, when there was no water at all in the pipes. Scrambling over the broken houses, through the dust and the rubble, picking their way through the broken glass and the broken pavement stones, few people had time to look up at the battle that went on by day and by night. (108-9)

Meanwhile Anne is falling in love with Seb, an injured RAF pilot who is working in the ministry while he recovers. Their relationship is a source of anguish to Elsie.

Mrs Just plans to leave her position as deputy supervisor and every woman, except Anne, thinks they are the most suited to the post. The ability of the women to delude themselves is amusing. Elsie, who could do it, is given a trial and is hopeless as she has such a forbidding way with others. Anne is chosen for promotion. 

Everything seems to be going well for Anne: she has become engaged, she narrowly misses being badly hurt by a collapsing building, she is to be promoted to deputy supervisor. But then she is entrusted with a confidential Portuguese document, and it goes missing. She is suspended.

While the plot weaves its way to provide happiness to both Anne and Elsie, the other women get on with their chatter, stories about getting to work, knitting, raising money for the Spitfire fund, and supporting each other in their difficulties. 

I enjoyed the account of London in the Blitz and how it affected the women workers. The paragraph quoted above impressed me because I saw parallels with the current need in the face of a pandemic to adapt to an impossible situation. Great obstacles have become familiar and tiresome obstructions to how we would rather live.

Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski, first published in 1942. Reissued by Dean Street Press in 2019. 224pp

Other novels on Bookword from the Home Front

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

Mrs Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Other reviews of Table Two

Furrowed Middle Brow blog (August 2016)

Heavenali blog (August 2019)

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Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy

I have a long-standing interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. I guess it is because, being of the ‘boomer’ generation and born after the war, it influenced so much of my formative years. Yet we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had mothers who were silent about their experiences, which we sometimes later discovered had been rather racy; our fathers in the armed or reserved services were hard to imagine. My own father hid behind the Official Secrets Act if we asked him about his war years.

And there is the added interest of our current troubles, the pandemic, which has many parallels with the war. One overwhelming difference is that our ‘enemy’ is a microscopic virus, while in the Second World War it was Hitler and his followers and their malign beliefs. The reactions of the home population during the war have many similarities to our thoughts today, which I find comforting, not least the belief that we will get through it.

Margaret Kennedy’s memoir of the summer of 1940 is therefore a boon to people with my interests. It was published in America in 1941, and has been made available to us today, reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. (My thanks to Handheld Press for a copy of this book.)

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry

She writes about the people she meets, friends she corresponds with, the decisions she makes and how the war progresses over the next six months. The immediate fear was of invasion, but also bombardment of the kind seen in Guernica in Spain in April 1937. By September 1940, when the Blitz was well under way, it seemed unlikely that an invasion was imminent.

My story begins at six o’clock on an evening in May 1940 when the BBC announcer told the British people that the situation of our army in Flanders was one of ‘ever-increasing gravity’.

Those three words banished for ever the comfortable delusion that we were ‘certain to win’. And from that moment, the war took on a new character in our minds. (10)

During those months ‘we in this country were living through a supreme experience’, she wrote.

Many of us were more frightened than we ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be. We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most. […] The story of last summer is the story of forty million people, each one of them taking that journey. Each had to find his own path back to faith and sanity, each had his own unuttered fears, each found his own source of courage. (3-4)

In our own case, the pandemic brought similar experiences of fear, unsuspected bravery, passions and loyalties. And we have each needed to find our own resources to deal with what the pandemic has thrown at us.

Margaret Kennedy writes about the fall of Belgium that occurred soon after that BBC announcement. The situation was indeed increasingly grave. The British army became trapped at Dunkirk and was rescued, France was invaded and capitulated, and Paris was occupied. A German invasion was expected every day.

During that time she and her husband had to make decisions about where to live: she moved with the children from Surrey to ‘Porthmerryn’ – St Ives, Cornwall, where she had spent much of her childhood;  her husband stayed in London as an air raid warden. Later they decided not to send the children to Canada for the duration. This decision was partly motivated by egalitarian principles. Instead they helped with the hundreds of evacuee children who were sent west to Cornwall. 

The children went to Cornwall by train and saw another train full of soldiers rescued from Dunkirk.

While they were waiting on the platform a train full of soldiers came in. The men were filthy and ragged and unshaven, many of them wounded and hastily bandaged up, They were shouting and cheering wildly, and all the people on the platform were cheering and rushing forward with coffee and rolls and fruit and cigarettes. A huge, north-country giant jumped down on the platform and kissed Lucy; pressing a Belgian franc into her hand. (32)

Later as she followed them the writer met a train full of French soldiers, who were much less cheerful for they were going into exile.

Margaret Kennedy’s skill as a writer is in evidence throughout this memoir. I enjoyed her sketches of people, such as the woman who posts pro-German leaflets (like an antivaxxer on social media); the refugee couple from Vienna who have seen terrible things; her friend who denies that anything bad is happening.

For another example, she goes into the garden to find Cotter, the gardener, after that BBC news announcement.

He too had heard the six o’clock news and he looked perturbed but not flabbergasted. But it would take the last trump to dismay Cotter, and even then he would probably appoint himself an usher and marshal us to our places before the mercy seat. He runs the entire village, the British Legion, the Cricket Club, and the Parish Council. It’s my belief that he was born giving instructions to the midwife. (15)

She comments upon class issues, pouring scorn upon the ‘Gluebottoms’ who arrive seeking safety and expecting service they had enjoyed before. They do not muck in. The attitude to the evacuee children is not always generous. We read of the general suspicion of the French, the preparations for invasion and bombardment; rumours that spread and get distorted, and reactions to the first alert.

There are some interesting and amusing details. There are no boats in the Porthmerryn harbour when they arrive because they have not yet returned from Dunkirk. They go for a walk on the seemingly unprotected cliffs and are surprised by hidden soldiers. There is Lucy’s postcard to a school friend:

The waw is getting very bad and we are lerning to nit.

If you think of it as the waw it does not seem so frightening somehow. (32) 

She is exceptional for presenting, along with her own thoughts, the variety of attitudes, arguments, dogmatisms about Belgium, France, the US, bombing, evacuating children to Canada and so on.

By the end of the summer, like us, she and the British public have learned to live normally in an abnormal situation; to keep the children safe and educated, to keep in touch with friends. She repeats the general admiration for the RAF, reminding me of the admiration we feel for the staff of the NHS. She believes that the British will carry on, and even create a better world after it’s over, although the fight is likely to be long and bloody. It lasted for another four and a half years. Let us hope our ‘duration’ is nothing like as long.

Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy, Smithsonian Institute via WikiCommons

Born in 1896 Margaret Kennedy attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville, where she read history, with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. Her brother was killed in Palestine in 1918. She died in 1967.

The presentation of this memoir in this new edition is excellent. There is a useful and interesting introduction by Faye Hammill. 

The title comes from a poem, My Soul there is a Country, by Henry Vaughn.

My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry 
All skilful in the wars: (set to music by Parry, in Songs of Farewell, during the First World War)

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy first published in 1941 but only in the US, reissued by Handheld Press in March 2021. 201pp

Related posts on Bookword

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (1924) from April 2018

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith (1948) from January 2020

Themed review: novels from the Home Front in WW2 from November 2019

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