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Themed review: novels from the Home Front in WW2

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

1st Edition

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.

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A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

As a child born in 1948 my vocabulary included the word duringthewar. Adult conversation I overheard often included it. It was years before I realised what duringthewar referred to. By that time the adults had become largely silent about their war experiences, something my generation often remark upon. The silence was strange because their war experiences, like Frances Faviell’s, had often been intense and they influenced the post-war period.

And who knew? There is a form of writing called blitz-lit according to the foreword to A Chelsea Concerto. In my experience this is a unique book and worthy of its republication by Furrowed Middlebrow. First published in 1959 it is a vivid and authentic account of one young woman who was living in Chelsea during the Blitz.

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Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell could not keep silent about her experiences, as she noted in the Prologue:

And the ghosts will not recede or leave me in peace. Pushing, jostling, thrusting away their grey forms they blossom before my eyes from the muted cobwebby hues of memory to those of warm pulsating life. They will not recede; insistent and determined they force me to take up my pen and go back with them to the summer of 1939. (2)

So who was this writer who could not let her memories rest? Frances Faviell was her pen name and she had already written three novels: A House on the Rhine (1955), Thalia (1957) and The Fledgeling (1958) and a memoir. But she was also a painter, as the language of the quotation might suggest. She was known as Olivia Fabri and had studied with Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art, married a Hungarian painter and travelled with him discovering a talent for languages. Before the war and without her first husband she had settled in Chelsea to be among artists. Her facility for languages was put to use in her work supporting the ever-complaining Belgian refugees who arrived in Chelsea in the first months of the war.

I have sadly been unable to find any paintings by Olivia Fabri or Frances Faviell on the internet. But the lurid cover of the book is from a painting by her.

The Blitz in Chelsea

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As the events recede the collective memory of the Blitz is of a relentless bombing on London from the outbreak of the war in 1939 to its conclusion on VE Day in June 1945. But the truth is more particular. Other cities suffered badly from aerial bombardment, not least Plymouth (where Frances Faviell’s mother lived) and Bristol (home of her sister). I was born in Coventry, another city ravaged by bombs, and I later taught history in one of its secondary schools. Pre-war Coventry was somewhat hard to find.

Between November 1940 and the Spring of 1941, following the ‘Phoney War’, there were 71 major air raids on London, in which 40,000 civilians were killed. Raids took place most nights. Being on the River Thames, Chelsea was badly hit. It must have been an intense time of heightened emotions and sharp experiences. Raids reduced in the summer of 1941, but began again with the V1s (Doodlebugs) and V2s in the last months of the war.

A Chelsea Concerto covers just under the first two years of the war, from its outbreak in September 1939 to the raid that demolished Frances Faviell’s home in Cheyne Walk on 11th May 1941.

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

A Chelsea Concerto

Her account begins with the outbreak of war and proceeds to record how the impact of war grew steadily, culminating in two terrible nights in April 1941. Frances had signed up as a Red Cross nurse and trained to work in a First Aid Post (FAP). She also undertook volunteer work on the switchboard for civil defence communications and looking after the families of Belgian refugees who found themselves in London. Like all Londoners, there was also fire watching duty, to deal with the thousands of incendiary bombs.

In her area she had many friends. The children were evacuated, and returned as the dangers appeared exaggerated. They disappeared again when the bombs arrived. The young men joined the forces and disappeared, older men and women took on war work. In Chelsea there were also the working class families, who ran shops businesses. The old couple who slept with their horse is the stuff of myths, but really happened.

Frances Faviell kept open house until she was bombed out, and she supported her many friends. They became homeless, suffered breakdowns, needed support with their children, or came to to pet the dog or to exchange news.

She tells stories of real suffering and of heroism, including her own.

‘Take off your coat,’ said the doctor. I took it off. ‘And your dress,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous – the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down – better without it.’ I took off the dress. ‘Fine,’ he said shortly when I stood in the ‘black-outs’, as we called the closed black panties which most of us wore with uniform. ‘It’ll have to be head first. We’ll hold your thighs. Go down first with this torch and see if it’s possible to give a morphia injection or not – I doubt it. Ready?’ ‘Yes,’ I said faintly for I was terrified. ‘Better hold the torch in your mouth, and keep your arms tight by your sides,’ he said. ‘Can you grip the torch with your teeth?’ I nodded – it was as if I was having a nightmare from which I would soon waken. ‘Ready?’ Two wardens gripped me by the thighs, swung me up and lowered me down the hole. ‘Keep your body absolutely rigid,’ said the doctor. ‘Don’t be afraid – we’ll hold you safe,’ said the large woman. ‘I ought to be doing this – but I’m too big.’

The sound coming from the hole was unnerving me – it was like an animal in a trap. I had once heard a long screaming like rabbits in traps from children with meningitis in India, but this was worse – almost inhuman in its agony. (130)

Fear came late to Frances Faviell as the end of 1940 approached.

Up to that time I had not minded the Blitz at all. I had just married, and we were very happy, although the occasions when we were both together were increasingly rare. Richard was frequently away on a tour for the Ministry, and I was often on night duty, but the bombs only seemed a macabre background to our personal life, and the fact that either of us could be a victim of the Blitz seemed a remote thought. … (166)

Fear seems like a rational response. Here’s her description of the raid in April that brought down her house, killing three of its occupants.

We had never experienced such a night – bombs seemed to rain down – and in the intervals of their explosions which tonight were the loudest and longest we could remember we could hear the guns in the planes as the fighters chased them. The sky was alight with flares, searchlights, and exploding shells – it was a magnificent but appalling sight. The fires which we could see were terrifying – the largest in the direction of Victoria, was enormous and appeared to be increasing. Behind us, much nearer, there was a terrible blaze in the direction of Burton Court. (212)

Moments later the house was hit and Frances, Richard and the Dachshund barely escaped.

She retells her experiences of the time in everyday detail, with much humour and sharp observations about the way in which the Blitz affected Londoners. And she is mindful of the damage being inflicted in turn upon German cities by the RAF and the Allies.

Such experiences have not been confined to history. Sadly, such an account reveals something of what it must be to live in Aleppo at this time. War is ever with us.

Thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press for the review copy.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016 235 pp

Related Posts and Books

Scott, who writes the Furrowed Middlebrow blog explored A Chelsea Concerto in some detail in 2013.

Heavenali reviewed this book enthusiastically in October on her blog.

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Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (2011) published by Penguin. Virginia Nicholson wrote the Foreword to the new edition of A Chelsea Concerto.

I also reviewed a novel from this new imprint in October. A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

 

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A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

It’s great to find that a book blog can have influence. Dean Street Press have collaborated with Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow blog to republish lesser known British women novelists and memoirists of the Twentieth Century. Dean Street Press says

The Years 1910 – 1960 were an unprecedented and prolific era for female authors, documenting – eloquently, humorously, poignantly (or frequently all of the above) – the social change, upheaval and evolving gender roles of a volatile era.

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I have been sent two of the series to review by the publisher. Here are my thoughts on A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

The author

Rachel Ferguson (1892-1957) was a suffragette and after the First World War published 12 novels among other works. Furrowed Middlebrow is republishing three: Evenfield (1942) and A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and A Footman for the Peacock (1940). She wrote for Punch magazine.

291-fergusonGiven it is published under the middlebrow banner one should not expect great literary experiences from this novel. One might expect, indeed, that given the time of its publication, this novel would be intended as a diversion from the significant national events. But what you get is not that either. The author reveals the attitudes of the fading landed classes and their circumstances in the 1930s. Barely recovered from the Great War they appear to be sleep walking into the next. Of course, readers today have the benefit of hindsight, not least into the social upheavals accelerated by the conflict. These upheavals included the demise of the large country house such as Delaye, the centre of this story.

The story

At one level, it is a mystery or even a ghost story concerning the footman and the peacock. This aspect of the novel rather takes over towards the final pages as the local vicar and the youngest daughter of Delaye inquire into past events. This mystery rather distracts from the reactions to war that has just been declared.

The Roundelay family is a large one and they live in a very large house, Delaye, but they and the house have all seen better times. The house is in a poor state of repair and the gardens neglected. The peacock is the only survivor of a more glamorous past. The family has very little money, no car for example. Yet they maintain the superior attitudes of their class. For example, they have to make complicated arrangements with tradesmen so that orders can be delivered, passing from bike to bus to cart to van. They are energetic in resisting the consequences of the declaration of war. The bother of attending to the blackout of their many windows is superseded by the threat of evacuees billeted upon them.

The characters

For a short book there are rather a lot of characters. The family include Edmund, his wife Evelyn and their three children: Angela who is frequently sent to live with relatives, Margaret down to earth and running the guides and their brother Stacey who studies land maintenance. In addition three of Edmund’s five sisters and a cousin are also resident. In such a household the servants are worked hard since members of the family cannot even make themselves a cup of tea: cook, housemaid and the dependable Musgrave the butler. The ancient family nurse no longer has all her marbles and still occupies an uneasy place between family and servants.

The characters provide plenty of entertainment. Nursie throws her dinner tray out of the window, angry that she has not been served enough meat. She unwittingly protects the family from the billeting officer. Two of the sisters do not talk to each other. They enact a pantomime of ignoring each other every evening as they descend to dinner.

The self-absorption of the Roundelay family, their efforts to maintain their past social position and their ignoble response to the worsening situation in Europe and to the outbreak of war are robustly held up to criticism here.

One can’t help wondering how typical their reactions were, however. Few people would have welcomed evacuees, despite the fears of bombardment. People do leave necessary arrangements to the last minute, causing shortages of blackout material, and this seems to be human nature. People are unrealistic and draw on their experience, I this case of the previous hostilities, when the Home Front was spared the horror of the trenches.

The dreadful fate of the running footman, (a servant who ran in front of the coach to clear its way of obstacles and people) sits awkwardly beside all this realism. He died in 1792 and is reincarnated in the peacock. A rather arcane and sinister running song has been learned by Evelyn, the lady of Delaye, who appears not to notice that the quarry is not animal, but human.

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

The character of the bird is rather unpleasant and malign. He has a dreadful shriek. He is not afraid to peck and wound people who do things he doesn’t like. And Angela observes him in the moonlight, perhaps in communication with the enemy.

Round the corner from the shrubbery the peacock swept, taking the stage as she watched: Slowly, deliberately – or were peacocks always leisured in the process? – he displayed himself and paraded the lawn, sometimes pausing to look at up at the sky.

Waiting? Listening? The exact word elided her until it came with an impact of incredulity and a dismay that was not lessened by her own self-ridicule.

Guiding. No. Signalling. (139)

The peacock’s only friend is the servant girl, one of a long line from the same village family.

Her writing

I experienced Rachel Ferguson’s writing much as I might have been struck by a 6th former, bright, clever, sparkling wit, but not yet polished. This novel has so many irrelevant byways that I was irritated at times because they blunted the criticism of the unpatriotic attitudes. We get the BBC, the tabloid press, a mysterious village called Rohan, the history of the Roudelay family, people’s reactions to the last war. It’s all very merry, but also tiresome.

Yet there is charm and the novel captures that time when uncertainty descended upon the rural population. War was an unknown quantity and social mores could be expected to change, but no one knew in what way.

291-brontesDespite my reservations about this novel it’s a grand project to reissue women’s writing from the past. We note that both Persephone Books and Virago Modern Classics have republished Rachel Ferguson’s novels.

 

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson; first published in 1940 and reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books in 2016. 206pp

Related Posts

Furrowed Middlebrow is the blog of Scott in California, who reviewed this book back in September 2013, when the new imprint was just a distant ambition. Here is that review.

Alas Poor Lady has been reissued by Persephone Press, and is described on their website here.

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Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor

The most awful thing in Mossy Trotter’s life is the prospect of being a page boy at Miss Silkin’s wedding. Mossy is seven years old. This should not happen to him. He will have to wear velvet trousers and a frilled blouse. His reputation is at stake.183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter was Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children. It was first published in 1967 when childhoods were less supervised. Her other twelve novels were all written for adults. You can find the reviews of them by clicking on the category Novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

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The Story

The short novel takes the reader through some adventures and some changes in Mossy’s life. He has his tonsils removed, becomes lost with his sister, gets into scrapes, nearly sacrifices his birthday party, has a new baby brother and attends Miss Silkin’s wedding – yes as a pageboy.

This is life as a boy of seven would live in the outskirts of London in the late 60s. The characters are authentic. Here is a description of Mossy’s mother.

Like many mothers, Mossy’s was rather changeable. He could not always be sure where he stood with her. Although she tried very hard never to break promises, she broke threats, which in a way are a kind of black promise. She would send Mossy to his bedroom for having misbehaved, and then in a minute or two, tell him he could come down; or he would be told that if he were naughty he could not have chocolate cake for tea, and be given it for supper instead. It was a shocking way to bring up children, he once heard his father say. (12)

But we know that Mossy is being well brought up. He is miserable to think he had worried his mother when he gets lost with his three-year-old sister Emma. And his mother brings him exactly the right present when he is in hospital after having his tonsils out.

Mossy has to deal with some difficult dilemmas, again reflecting the reality of children’s lives: what to do about the threatened birthday party; telling lies that help out his grandfather; telling lies that multiply and result in humiliation and so on.

Mossy the boy

Mossy’s real name was Robert Mossman Trotter. The middle name was after his Grandfather Mossman Trotter, and he was called Mossy to avoid muddling him with his father, who had the same name. (42-3)

During the story Mossy develops his understanding of his world and especially of the adults in his life. We see Mossy more clearly because he is set against his mother’s friend Miss Silkin, an adult who understands little of children. Indeed the novel begins with her comment that the Common must be paradise for children. Mossy is bemused for he knows that ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken’. (1) Readers of all ages would know that Miss Silkin’s and Mossy’s ideas of paradise are at odds.

Indeed Miss Silkin and Mossy are at odds about yet more important things: he hates the furs she wears. This is what he sees:

… two long, thin dead animals with yellow glass eyes in their heads. Mossy wondered if they had once upon a time been rats. One head peeped over Miss Silkin’s shoulder, and little paws hung limply down her back. (2-3)

Not only does she wear rat-like furs, but her favourite cake is seedy cake, and she is going to get married and wants Mossy to be the page boy. He learns to tolerate her presence.

Mossy’s relationship with his parents is happier. His father is rather distant but sometimes his accomplice; his mother is in consistent but the most comfortable adult in his life; and with his grandfather he shares excitement and pleasure in fast cars.

Mossy does things wrong, gets lost with his little sister, tells lies, gets messy with newly laid tar. When he’s punished for one bit of bad behaviour he takes revenge by drawing he draws a picture of his teacher and his father on the side of a drawer, believing it will never be found.

… he drew the nastiest face he could for Miss Blackett, with crooked teeth and spots all over her, and hair like a mop, and his father with a long nose and crossed eyes, and fleas the size of bumble-bees swarming out of his fuzzy hair. Then he slid the drawer back and felt better. (115-6)

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Children in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing

Elizabeth Taylor knows children and she writes well both for and about them. The extracts demonstrate that she writes simply but does not simplify Mossy’s complex emotions and responses. Here is Mossy’s experience as he lay in bed with a fever one summer’s evening.

A delicious smell of wet garden came into the bedroom, and then Mossy heard the swish-swish of water against the wall below his window. Father was hosing the hot bricks which had stored up the day’s sun, and a coolness began to come off them. There was the sound of dripping leaves, as the water spattered on the climbing rose. (78)

And here is Mossy as he realises he is lost with his little sister on the Common.

In some ways, having Emma with him made him braver. But in different ways it made him feel more fearful.

‘Listen,’ he said comfortingly to her. ‘This is a very exciting adventure. It’s like Babes in the Wood.’

‘I don’t like being Babes in the Wood.’

It was certainly the wrong thing to have said, for at once she began to boo-hoo more loudly. ‘There might be wolfs.’

‘”Wolves”,’ he said, to correct her. But she thought he was just agreeing with her, and shrieked louder than ever. (63)

As several extracts show, there is affectionate humour in the telling of this story.

In her other books we might remember the children are interesting characters in their own right. In At Mrs Lippincotes, A View of the Harbour, Angel (as a child), the children are real people.

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And as if to prove this, her son, in his introduction tells us that recently

I was moving some furniture that had been handed down by my parents and I happened to open a chest of drawers. Inside I found a pencil drawing of a man’s head, with lots of dots hovering over it. Beneath in childish writing were the words ‘John Taylor has fleas’. (iv)

I recommend you get this book to share with a child and/or to enjoy yourself.

The lively illustrations by Tony Ross exactly capture the spirit of Mossy Trotter.

 

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1967, republished in 2015 by Virago Modern Classics 144 pp

Related link: review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Furrowed Middlebrow reviewed Mossy Trotter earlier this year, with some of the original illustrations.

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