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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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Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple is one of those twentieth century writers, often female, whose work was at risk of disappearing into the place where neglected writers’ books go: library stacks, second-hand shops, recycling bins? But she has been rescued and restored by Persephone Books and gained justified popularity through word of mouth and bloggers’ admiration.

Young Anne was her first novel and some of it may have been based on her early life. But it is all her own writing with its strong storyline pulling you forward from the infant Anne to the moment when she resolves a dilemma about her future. How has she gained this maturity? Who were her guides?

Young Anne

Young Anne was born in a northern town at the end of the nineteenth century. She lives with her two parents and two brothers. Anne is the youngest. Two things determine her early life: her gender and the comparative lack of money in the family. Her father’s strictness and insistence that things are done right and her mother’s casual lack of interest in her children mean that Anne lives a restricted life with little encouragement. She is bright, independent and her only support at home is the housemaid Emily. 

The first school she attends is closed suddenly when one of the teachers dies of starvation. Anne is then sent to a convent to have discipline instilled in her. She comes to enjoy the comforts and security of the nuns and her friends but rejects Catholicism.

Soon after she leaves school her father dies and her mother moves away to become a permanent guest in other people’s homes. Anne becomes dependent upon Great Aunt Orchard, a fearsome figure who regards Anne as fortunate to be living under her roof, although she pays for this by having to darn her combinations (already 50 years old) and seek her permission for everything. Fortunately Emily transfers to the household as well. 

Anne had a youthful love affair with George Yates, but abruptly ended it when a poisonous cousin suggested her parents had to marry. This produces a crisis in Anne for she now believes her father to have been a hypocrite. Moreover intimate physical relations revolt and horrify her.

When the first world war comes George enlists and Anne gets a job in a Medical Office during the war and marries the chief administrator. He is much older. When peace comes she has nothing much to occupy herself and becomes very bored, despite Richard’s gift of a fancy new fiat car. A crisis comes when George returns and she is torn between her old feelings for him, the excitement of a passionate affair, and what she has with Richard. The turning point is her treatment of Emily, faithful but unable to help her. When Anne sees she could have lost her lifelong friend she pays attention to her sense of what is right.

Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple

Born in Blackburn, Lancashire in 1893, Dorothy Whipple wrote 8 novels and several collections of short stories. She was popular between the wars. Two of her novels were made into films in the 1940s. But she gradually fell out of favour until Persephone Books restored her reputation and recommended her to new readers. She died in 1966

The new edition has an excellent preface by Lucy Mangan. She points out how Dorothy Whipple’s prose is easy to read, yet how she has depth to her novels, always pointing to the difference between the lives of men and women in her writing. HeavenAli, in her review, notes how all characters are well-rounded. In this novel there are several horrors, Great Aunt Orchard, the poisonous cousin and Muriel Yates a childhood friend. The father is dire as well. We are under no illusion that it is Emily who provides the greatest support for young Anne and the strong moral sense of Anne herself that allows her to develop into a mature young woman.

Summer Flowers by Sundown, silk and linen furnishing fabric. Endpaper

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple, first published in 1927. I used the edition published in 2018 by Persephone. 292 pp

Other posts about Dorothy Whipple’s Novels

They were Sisters  (May 2017)

Greenbanks  (October 2013)

Young Anne  on HeavenAli’s blog

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Greetings, Novel Reader

Greetings fellow novel readers. As I will be away in Poland when this post appears I have decided to bring together a small number of books with a simple link. They all have a salutation or greeting in their titles. These titles step outside the norm for novels. Perhaps the authors wanted to make a direct engagement with their reader. But don’t take the connection between these five novels too seriously. It’s my way of presenting some recommendations.

  1. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

Sophie Jansen is in Paris in the late ‘30s, having a break from her awful life. She is an exiled Englishwoman alone, out of place in London, and on the way to being out of place in respectable Paris. She has a very small amount of money. The story follows her as she struggles to survive and as she recalls her past when she was a young wife and previous times when she has been in Paris.

Told by Sophie in headlong first person narrative, shifting swiftly between the periods of her life she makes one first realise how often one averts one’s eyes from such people and then how close one’s own life could be to that desperation that makes her declare she is an inefficient human being, unemployable, unreliable and unable to hold herself steady in the world. Sophie has gradually crossed the line to become a woman without even her sex to sell.

Some of the writing is surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful. AL Kennedy describes ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. I reviewed this novel on Bookword here.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (1939) Penguin.

  1. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

This novel is set in the 1950s during the summer on the Cote d’Azure. Cecile has been living for 2 years with her widower father Raymond in Paris, leading life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They spend two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Then Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Elsa moves on and Cecile becomes determined to come between her father and Anne because they plan to marry.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity and gradually the balance tips in her favour and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, soon they pick up their old lives. This novel was reviewed recently on this blog, and many readers commented on their affection for it. You can read it here.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. Translated from the French by Irene Ash.

  1. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

The narrator is an old man exploring what he might have done differently in his life, in particular in relation to a friendship during his school days.

The narrator’s mother died when he was a young child and he is agonised by the loss. His father never engages him about what it means. A kind stepmother is acquired after the necessary 3 years. At school he is bullied and continues to suffer. Playing on the building site of his new house, he meets Cletus Smith, whose parents have separated, and whose mother’s lover has been shot by his father. The boys do not reveal their private agonies to each other. And then Cletus disappears. A couple of years later, when the narrator has moved to a high school in Chicago, he and Cletus pass in the corridor, but neither boy acknowledges the other. The narrator wonders what if …?

Recommended by Heavenali on her blog, which you can find here.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1980) Vintage.

  1. My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

This novel is an elaborate murder mystery, a historical fiction, a love story and an exploration of the cross-cultural influences of the late 16th century between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It’s like a very richly coloured and embroidered cloth.

A gilder is murdered, and the trail of enquiry involves the elaborate exploration of the workshops, religious outcasts, female roles and the Sultan’s treasury in 1590s Istanbul. The narrative is passed from one person to another, to a colour, to Satan, to at least two people as they die. The richness of the text is its main attraction: in the end the identity of the murderer is not so significant as his reasons for the killing.

My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (2001) Faber & Faber. Translated from the Turkish by Erdağ Göknar.

  1. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016

Lucy is remembering being ill in New York with complications after appendicitis, missing her husband and young girls, looking at the Chrysler building through her window. Her mother, not seen for ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and the relationship of the two is revealed by their conversation and by the gaps in it we see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, especially with her parents, in poverty (cultural as well as financial), and with the city of New York.

My appreciation of this novel appeared on Bookword last year; you can read it here.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin.

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To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read To the Lighthouse very slowly over the New Year, taking nearly a week to get through its 237 pages. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. In a slow read I could think about not what happened but how Virginia Woolf created this masterpiece. I wanted to think about the writing, how she achieved her effects. I wanted to think about the process of reading. I also wanted to engage with #Woolfalong on the Heavenali blog.

209 To_the_Lighthouse

The Story of To the Lighthouse

The Window: Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party.

Time Passes: ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe.

The Lighthouse: Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse.

Themes include family relationships, grief and loss, creativity, internal impressions, the effects of time.

Writing To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse was begun in 1925 and published in 1927. In the extracts from her diaries, edited by her husband Leonard after her death and published in 1953, Virginia Woolf recorded the three-part structure of the novel very early on (July 1925) with a sense of doing something new and challenging.

…and then this impersonal thing, which I am dared to do by my friends, the flight of time and the consequent break of unity in my design. That passage (I conceive the book in 3 parts. 1. at the drawing room window; 2. seven years passed; 3. the voyage) interests me very much. A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind; prevents the regular ruts. (20 July 1923. 80-1)

Her diaries record writing ‘with speed and certainty’ and this pace became a reference point for her later writing. She records some of her challenges.

Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out – here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to; well I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words and apparently free to do exactly what I like? When I read a bit it seems spirited too; needs compression, but not much else. Compare this dashing fluency with Mrs Dalloway (save the end). This is not made up; it is the literal fact. (30 April 1926. p88-9)

By September she was trying to find a satisfactory completion of the narratives of Lily Pascoe and Mr Ramsay at the novel’s conclusion. As she finished her redrafting she reflected on her feelings.

I feel – what? A little stale this last week or two from steady writing. But also a little triumphant. If my feeling is correct, this is the greatest stretch I’ve put my method to, and I think it holds. By this I mean that I have been dredging up more feelings and characters, I imagine. But Lord knows, until I look at my haul. This is only my own feeling in process. (101)

She goes on to worry about criticisms, of technique without substance, and the persistent fear of being perceived as sentimental. (I go in dread of “sentimentality”. p101) She can’t relax until Leonard says it is her best work yet, and describes it as ‘a psychological poem’.

And a few weeks later on 21st March 1927 she notes

Dear me, how lovely some parts of Lighthouse are! Soft and pliable, and I think deep, and never a word wrong for a page at a time. This I feel about the dinner party and the children in the boat; but not of Lily on the lawn. That I do not much like. But I like the end. (106)

The book was published in May 1927 and it was so well received that the Woolfs were able to buy a car.

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Reflections from the slow read

The novel was considered a pioneer in the technique called ‘stream of consciousness’. She captures the interior experiences of her characters, multi-layered, profound and everyday thoughts, repetition, responses to worries and surrounding people. But the phrase is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading. I remember my first reading, and my fear that I would find a stream of consciousness novel hard. I remember reflecting that actually it was easy to read, not always to understand or follow, but to read because it represented the way in which everyone experiences the world – at many levels, simultaneously, repetitively and interruptedly.

Another feature of the writing is its lyrical qualities. I considered her use of poetry, especially in the dinner party scene, in a recent post about poetry in fiction.

Mrs Ramsay dominates the novel and her perceptions carry much of the first section. She knits, sits and reads to her youngest son, argues with the gardener, goes on errands to the village, checks on her children and presides at the dinner table. She is beautiful, in her deportment and in her perceptivenes and interactions with people. Here is an example, as she concludes the book she reads to James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

A few pages later, James having gone off, Mr Ramsay passes, and wants her to assuage his discomfort – as he so often did from women. The next few lines reveal much about their marriage.

And again he would have passed her without a word had she not, at that very moment, given him of her own free will what she knew he would never ask, and called to him and taken the green shawl off the picture frame, and gone to him. For he wished, she knew, to protect her. (76)

The flow of the sentences in those two passages makes reading a pleasure. In contrast Mrs Ramsay, having permeated the first section, is dispatched in parenthesis in a section that jars.

[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.] (146-7)

227 To Light cover

To the Lighthouse is a delight. Its techniques, challenges, solutions make one wonder, how did she do that? In an essay on how to read, in The Second Common Reader Virginia Woolf wrote

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a writer is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words. (Brain Pickings blog)

It’s also worth noting that Virginia Woolf was writing from her experiences: of annual holidays (at St Ives not Skye), of a dominating father and beautiful mother, and of the challenges of creativity. Virginia Woolf was close to her sister Vanessa Bell, a painter as was Lily Briscoe. The parental stuff was therapeutic as she wrote later

I used to think of him [father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back, but differently. (I believe this to be true – that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act) (November 1928. P138)

Other stuff

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

Not everyone finds her as inspiring. I was rather shocked to read Hilary Mantel saying,

I’ve never read my way through a Virginia Woolf book. (Paris Review: Art of Fiction #226)

My copy is falling to bits.

I had included Mrs Ramsay in my list of older women in fiction. But since her youngest son was only 5, albeit she had eight children, I think she must have been in her early 50s. She does, however, have the poise and wisdom of many older women.

Did Virginia Woolf really use so many semi-colons in her diary, or is this Leonard’s editing?

For the next phase of the #Woolfalong in March/April I will be probably reread The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first novel.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) by the Hogarth Press. Pages numbers refer to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1964 237pp

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. The edition used in this post was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Related posts

Heavenali’s post on To The Lighthouse, part of the #Woolfalong project on her blog, for which many thanks.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

In Step with Virginia Woolf about the ballet WoolfWorks

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