Tag Archives: Second World War

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

As some of my friends know, I am writing a story – very slowly – that begins with a young boy leaving his mother in war time because there is not enough food for both of them. He joins the navy. This opening impressed my friend Barbara and to encourage me she lent me her copy of Mother’s Boy.

My story and the narrative of this novel have almost nothing in common beyond the separation of mother from son by war. Nevertheless I am grateful to Barbara for the loan of this novel as I have very much enjoyed reading it.

Mother’s Boy

This is a fictional account of the poet Charles Causley’s early life. Born and brought up in Launceston in Cornwall Charles was known to be close to his mother. Laura Causley was widowed when Charles was young, her husband died as a result of being wounded in WW1. While her husband was away at war, she had earned her keep by assisting her mother who did laundry. And when she died, Laura took on her mother’s business herself, and supported her son as he grew up. 

There is not much money in the family, or in the town. Charles, although he does well at school, goes into a boring local office job. He enjoys playing piano in a band and putting on amateur dramatics. As war approaches again in 1939, Charles signs up for the Navy. He becomes a coder, a new naval role which requires quick and methodical thinking, but not great eyesight.

He is not especially suited to naval life, and he suffers unrelentingly from sea sickness. The novel opens with a violent episode, and nothing else quite lives up to the drama of that scene in this novel. Some of his war is spent on naval bases, in Gibraltar and Malta and in the Far East. He finds love and sexual experience (gay), loses friends, and acquitted himself well.

Laura, at home in Launceston, notes the changes brought by the war to the town: Plymouth is bombed, evacuees are taken in, soldiers from the US are based locally and the colour bar brought by the US troops results in violence in the town. After D Day Launceston hosts some POWs. Finally Charles returns to teach at the local school and Laura keeps house for him.

The themes explored in this novel relate to the lives of British people in the early twentieth century: separation by war, expectations based on gender and class, learning tolerance of others. Evacuees bring the values of the city to rural Cornwall; other nationalities and ethnic groups must mix in too; Charles is gay and this is also something to be understood and accommodated. 

One theme, indicated by the title, which runs through this novel is the affection and regard between mother and son. After his return, Laura kept house for Charles until her death. Their regard, tested and perhaps strained during the war years, was resilient enough for them to spend her final years together. Charles Causley remained in Cornwall, a generous and popular poet until his death in 2003.

I enjoyed reading this novel as the central relationship is tenderly depicted. In addition, both characters are made vivid by the details of their lives: the routines, practices and equipment of a laundress, and the naval regime for Charles. The details of the local communities are very attractive. Some of the novel is set in Teignmouth, not far from my home. While this is a story based on the poet’s life, Mother’s Boy is definitely a novel, imagined and explored by a respectful writer. 

Thank you, Barbara, for the loan of this novel, but it rather held me up than encouraged my own story-writing!

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale, published in 2023 by Tinder Press. 406pp 

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Army without Banners by Ann Stafford

Until recently, in written history, war has been a male occupation: the political approach to it, the armies and combat, and reluctance to include women in the services on the same basis as men. In the British Army, for example, they have served only since 2018 on the same basis as men. Auxiliary service has been open to women for much longer.

Of course women have always been affected by war, and sometimes involved with the events of war, even if written history has not put them in the foreground. They kept families and homes together in the absence of the men, they took over the running of estates, of jobs, of responsibilities; they cared for the men who were wounded, buried and mourned the dead, followed armies in baggage trains as cooks, nurses and prostitutes. One or two we know of disguised themselves as men to join the forces, such as James Barry (1789-1865). Identified as a female at birth, Barry lived his/her adult life as a man in the medical corps of the army, becoming Inspector General of the military hospitals. 

In the First World War (1914-18) the impact of the mass armies, and mass deaths, meant that huge numbers of men were required to volunteer for armed service, and later were conscripted into the armed services, not least for the trench warfare on the Western Front. Women were required to fill many of their jobs. We read of women bus conductors, posties, munitions workers, radio operators and mechanics.

The Second World War (1939-45) saw the destructive action of war visited upon Britain’s cities through aerial bombardment – the Blitz – especially London. Women were mobilised, and by 1944 a third of the civilian population were engaged in war work including 7 million women. In London and other cities, the emergency services and air raid responders played a vital role in rescuing, caring for, rehousing and protecting the populations. Army without Banners is a novel that celebrates the role so many women played in supporting the community in the face of the destruction. Ann Stafford foregrounded the role of the ambulance service, but she also celebrates 

a full range of civil defence and women’s voluntary service personnel, post-raid and welfare services, caterers in tea cars and British restaurants, salvage collectors and a hospital librarian. (From the introduction pxii)

The experience was recognised as significant both for individual women and for their shared attitudes. Towards the end of the Blitz (and of the novel) some of the female ambulance crew (with male nicknames) are outside watching the dawn

‘I guess earning good money and getting on and having swell friends and a good time – that sort of stuff don’t seem real any more. But having good pals does. And sticking by each other and having a job of work you mind more than you mind about yourself.’
Mark said, ‘Yes we’ve come to feel that way in the blitz.’
‘If only,’ Penny said anxiously, ‘we can remember …’
‘We will,’ I said. The sound of my own voice surprised me but I couldn’t stop. ‘We will; there are so many of us, all in this together, all feeling the same way. Mark’s right; we’ve grown real. We – we know the things that matter now, I think. Kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other. I’m pretty sure those are everlasting things.’ (183-4)

Army without Banners

The narrator, Mildred, is a middle-aged woman who lives at the start of the novel in a village, and whose husband and son are both away in the war. Like many women in September 1940 she was busy with local voluntary activities to support the war effort: ‘the First Aid Post in the village, the knitting groups and the committees and all the local nonsense’ (6). Her friend Daphne writes from London, telling her that she has been a driver in the ambulance service for six months, but now the Blitz has begun they need drivers. After some equivocation Mildred joins her friend and begins work as a driver. 

We learn about the training, the preparation, waiting and going out on call and the terror of being nearly hit. We get dramatic descriptions of driving out in the ambulances, the coordination with other services, and the dangers that they work in. They love it, that and the camaraderie in the Ambulance Centre. They hate the down time, and from time to time when action is less brisk Mildred looks at other services and wonders if she would have more interesting occupations in these: mobile canteen, hospital librarian, East End Settlement worker, Thames River ambulance, and in administrative jobs that coordinate it all. By this device we get a view of the many volunteer opportunities, as well as the details of the shifts, uniform, tasks and so forth available to women during the war. For this enthusiastic historian it’s a real treat.

Ann Stafford valued ‘kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other’ brought by the shared experience of volunteering. While it was openly calling for women’s solidarity after the war, and praising the work that women did in the war, this novel is also a good read. There are also some charming line drawings by the author, which capture the tone of the writing. The action concludes in April 1941.

Ann Stafford

Ann Stafford was a most prolific writer. Her first publication was Business as Usual with Jane Oliver. She wrote four novels with Jane Oliver, 36 romance novels under another pseudonym with her and 25 novels on her own. She was awarded a PhD in Russian History and also studied art and rose to a high rank in the Red Cross. If you want something done …

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford published in 1933, a post on Bookword blog from April 2020.

Army without Banners by Ann Stafford, first published in 1942 and re-issued by Handheld Press (2024) 194pp with an introduction by Jessica Hammett.

Thanks to the publisher, Handheld Press, for the advance review copy. Publication date: 16th January 2024. 

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House-Bound by Winifred Peck

I am intrigued by the changes in this country, brought by the Second World War, especially in the lives of women. House-Bound is the second of three books, published by Persephone that I recently bought, and I chose it because it looked at the disappearance of domestic servants and the effects on the households they had previous served. In addition, the Persephone catalogue suggested that Winifred Peck wrote with a lightness of touch that made this an interesting and diverting novel. 

House-Bound

It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairlaw suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was. Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a busy and useful member of society. (1)

Rose lives in Edinburgh (called Castleburgh in the novel) during the Second World War. She is middle-aged and in need of maids and a cook to help her run her house. But it is 1941 and there are none to be had at the registry office. They have been called up or gone to better paid situations. Like many well-off women Rose faces having to manage the domestic duties of her house herself. She is struck by the comment of Mrs Loman.

‘Millions of women do just that.’

She announces her intentions to her friend Laura, and to her husband Stuart.

‘But – but –‘ Stuart plunged among a host of objections striding up and down the room. ‘I can’t have you opening the door to tradespeople.’ (52)

Rose has not had any experience of housework or cooking, and protests at the ‘uselessness of people like me’.

‘But you’re not useless,’ protested Stuart. ‘Women like you uphold the standards of civilisation.’ (53)

Rose immediately becomes quite overwhelmed and exhausted by her new responsibilities for the house is old, and although there is only Rose and her husband, he makes no changes to his routines. The registry office sends her Mrs Childe who instructs Rose on how to clean and comes in ‘to do’ in the mornings. Rose is also assisted in her housework by the advice and practical example of Major Posner, a psychiatrist with the American army. He is full of practical suggestions, and occasionally comes by and fixes a meal.

The courage of Rose in taking on the housework is one theme of the novel. It represents a profound social change, for Rose does indeed feel useless, and unproductive at a time when everyone seems busy with war work. The novel’s title, House-Bound, comes to have a literal meaning.

Everything in a house reminds you of something else you’ve got to do. You start up from the hall, and remember you must carry the laundry up, and when you are halfway you see you didn’t dust the chest on the half-landing. And two steps higher up you remember you left the apples stewing and must run down to take them off. And that reminds you that you must telephone to the greengrocer, and while you are doing that you remember that you ought to fill up the salt-cellars, and when you take them to the dining-room you see the flowers are dead, or you didn’t finish polishing the floor that morning. …And of course … none of these things are of any sort of use to the world at all, and yet I suppose they’ve got to be done!

Not only is the work never done, but it is not of use to the war effort. Rose’s predicament throws up questions about the work and conditions for house servants, and how their employment supported women such as Rose in idleness. There is an appalling old relative, Mrs Carr-Berwick, who appears late in the novel when she cannot manage without help and believes herself entitled to it.

A second, and less successful theme of the novel concerns Flora, Rose’s grown-up daughter. She comes across as a dreadful character: moaning, perpetually jealous, and yet with moments of great heroism when she left home to work on ambulances. It transpires that Major Posner, the US army psychiatrist, knew Flora previously and wishes to help her and the family deal with her, for she is indeed a selfish horror. This theme concentrates on accounting for Flora’s attitude and behaviour, providing psychological explanations.

The war brings untold grief to the family, and the house also suffers. Rose has done much soul searching, about war, sacrifice, the work of women, and how useless her class has been. But through her own suffering and courage she finds her way to first adapt and then make a good contribution to the war.

The tone of the book is light, and there is much humour to be found, especially in the relationships between the various characters, all of whom are well drawn, and in the slow realisation of social change that the war brought to such households. 

While reading this I wondered why the housework consisted of so much dusting. And then I remembered that the rooms were heated by coal fires. Someone has to fetch the coal, remove the cinders and re-lay the fire again. I saw it in my own childhood home. Coal fires create dust, which then gets moved from room to room, surface to surface by the activity called dusting. Housework binds you to its routines and requirements. 

Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck

Born in 1882, Winifred came from a distinguished family of writers and thinkers. She began writing with a biography of St Louis, and went on to write 26 books altogether, and House-Bound was the 15th of these. Among her novels were several crime mysteries. She is relatively unread today, but Persephone has republished this one. 

House-Bound by Winifred Peck, first published in 1942. Reissued by Persephone Books in 2007, with an afterword by Penelope Fitzgerald. 304pp

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School for Love by Olivia Manning

This short novel has been on the Older Women in Fiction list for some time, years. On holiday in Sussex recently I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookshop, supporting the Roman Archaeology at Fishbourne. And, because I associate Olivia Manning with the rather fearful idea of double trilogies, I was surprised and pleased at how accessible it was. It cost me all of £2.

This is the 59th novel in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

School for Love

At one level School for Love is a coming-of-age novel, as the central character is a 14- or 15-year-old boy. We are never told his exact age. His family was living in Iraq, but his father was killed in fighting there in the war, and soon after his mother died of dysentery. Felix has to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem in the early days of 1945, where it has been arranged for him to stay with Miss Bohun until he can get a passage from Palestine (as it then was) to England. Miss Bohun is loosely related to his father by adoption.

The pension where he is accommodated has a very varied set of people living there. This reflects the movement of people through the Middle East during the war years. Frau Leszno and her handsome son Nikky are from Poland. They had been running the pension but got into financial difficulties. Miss Bohun arranged for them to stay on as servants, while she took over. There is old Mr Jewel in the attic, and later Mrs Ellis, a pregnant young widow, who take rooms. One room in the house is always kept empty, but ready.

Very much on his own in this adult household, Felix grieves for his mother and learns to think about a life without her. He observes the behaviour of the adults and is inclined at first to credit them with good motives. Gradually he learns that they mostly have mixed motives. He develops a kind of puppy love for Mrs Ellis, which at first she indulges, but then tires of. And he learns about how sex is viewed. And he learns to love the Siamese cat, Faro, who seems to be the only creature who pays any attention to him in all the world. 

It is thanks to the scheming and comings and goings at Miss Bohun’s house that Felix gradually learns something that is encapsulated in the title of the novel: School for Love. Mrs Ellis quotes Blake to him:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love … (166)

Felix asks her what the lines mean.

‘I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love.’ (166)

Another major theme of the novel is that of the time and place: Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War. The hostilities end in Europe in the summer months that Felix spends in the city. People are on the move. And the young Palestinians are waiting to regain their country from the British Protectorate. Israel does not yet exist. The novel captures the sense of a year of change, and a year after which things will become very different in Jerusalem. There is a quiet theme of the destructiveness of British colonial power, and the uncaring behaviour of the administrators. 

Miss Bohun

My interest was in the characterisation of Miss Bohun. She is almost a comedy villain, but not quite. For she does hurt people. As we see her through the eyes of Felix, we are at first inclined to treat her as slightly eccentric, but basically kind, as she has provided a home for him when no one else would. But a conversation about the rent and her treatment of Frau Leszno are early warnings for the reader. 

When Felix first meets her he is struck by how tiny this woman is. He has arrived just after a snowfall and expresses his pleasure at the snow.

‘You wouldn’t think so if you had to do the housework.’ Miss Bohun moved ahead with irritable quickness so Felix could not keep up with her. She paused on the stairs. Her face – featureless, like a long egg, in the gloom: her hair the same colour as her skin – was turned towards him but Felix was sure she was not looking at him.
‘I’m so busy,’ she said. (10)

And she leaves him abruptly. 

It emerges that Miss Bohun has many schemes for apparently doing kindnesses to people, but then exploiting them and kicking them out. She appears to be something of a miser, but generous when there is an advantage to her. 

She teaches English to adults, while getting them to do jobs for her, like harvesting the mulberries. These scenes are among the most comedic in the book.

Among her most arcane occupations are the ‘Ever-Readies’. This is something of a cult that flourished in the Middle East, a cult that expected the second coming any day. It is for this purpose that Miss Bohun keeps her empty room. She holds some kind of office and is often just off to preach to the group she calls ‘my Ever-Readies.’

Gradually the reader, and then Felix, come to see that Miss Bohun is not a nice character. But as Felix gets ready to leave, she is prepared to let him take the cat and she is about to take in Mr Jewel again. Felix has managed to track down the old man’s inheritance, but Miss Bohun is taking the credit for this. Miss Bohun’s behaviour towards the very young Mrs Ellis, pregnant and alone, is quite terrible. 

One explanation for Miss Bohun’s monstrous character is provided by Mr Jewel: no-one has ever loved her.

Olivia Manning

Born in 1908, Olivia Manning spent her childhood in Portsmouth and Ireland. In 1939 she was introduced to her husband, and they married and immediately left for Romania where he worked in the British Council. She spent the war years moving from Romania to Greece, on to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem where she spent three years. Their itinerant life was determined by the advances of the German and the Axis armies in the area. She fictionalised her experiences in the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.

She and her husband returned to London after the war where she continued to be a very prolific writer. She was always rather a diffident person and envied the recognition given to other writers. She died in 1980.

School for Love by Olivia Manning, first published in 1951. I used the Penguin edition from 1982. 192pp

A new edition was published by NYRB in 2009 which has a very lovely and fitting cover.

Related posts

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

JacquiWine’s blog review can be read here. She describes Miss Bohun as ‘a manipulative monster’.

HeavenAli’s review refers to Miss Bohun’s behaviour as ‘monstrous’. You can find that review here.

Stuck In a Book blog also reviews this novel, here.

These three bloggers were contributing to the 1951 Club, featuring books published that year.

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There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

Are some people not interesting enough to write about? Perhaps in the 1940s working people were not thought to have interesting lives. Certainly many of the best known wartime novels concern people of the middle class: Mrs Minever and Mollie Panter-Downes for example. Inez Holden took a more democratic view, and her short novels, Night Shift (1941) and There’s No Story There (1944), are a direct challenge to that attitude. There’s No Story There is set in a huge munitions factory, somewhere in the north. It focuses on the people, the 30,000 people who work in Statevale. 

The focus is not so much on a story but on the individuals who live and work in Statevale. There is a murder and an industrial accident, a visit by a famous person, a snowstorm, a short reunion of a couple divided by the war and there is the relentless and very dangerous work. 

There’s No Story There was first published in 1944 and has been reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. My thanks to Handheld Press for my copy. 

There’s No Story There

The novel begins with a new shift arriving at the factory. Some workers live or are billeted locally, most live in the hostels provided. They arrive in buses and must prepare thoroughly for work by going through a series of checks and clothing changes.

The cloud of humanity approached the first factory gates and broke up into individuals. (3)

We start then with individuals. And to make the point that we are not looking at an amorphous crowd, Inez Holden, continues

They walked in single file. People from the Potteries, volunteers of the first war year; new conscripts, old and young; housewives from the villages; women from the towns; from Scotland and Ireland; men just discharged from the Army and invalids of long-time unemployment; ex-miners, greengrocers, builders, bakers, men from the south, from the north, middle-aged men wounded in the last war, young men soon to be called up and old casual labourers. The sons of preachers; the daughters of dockers, the children of crofters. (3) 

And she begins to name some of them: Old Charlie, Gluckstein, Jameson, Julian, Linnet, Geoffrey Doran and so on.

They move through the inspection gate, leave their possessions in the contraband hut, change their clothes in the shifting house, and emerge wearing a white suit with a white conical hat and white soft sneaker shoes. After a cup of tea in the canteen they apply protective white cream and powder to their faces. They emerge like figures in a sci-fi movie into the Danger Area, set out like a town, with street signs, a train and bus service and very few people visible, for the workshops are submerged.

Having left the ordinary trappings of human appearance behind them, the reader enters this alien world alongside the workers as they begin their shifts. For example Julian began the war in a ship, but it was torpedoed and he now suffers from mutism. But his inner voice is never quiet, ‘speaking in silence’, as he carefully moves materials between the sheds. Linnet is thinking about her husband Willie, who is due some leave. Others are planning for the King’s visit. At the end of the shift some workers go to the pub, others return to their quarters and entertain themselves, play chess or cards, or write letters.

One night it begins to snow and the shift up at the factory is snowed in. People take on new roles, providing tea, shifting snow from the railway, organising entertainment. Being snowed in provided one of the few moments when the workers openly talk about what the factory is producing.

‘It was funny to-night in the canteen when Maggie and Miss Robinson were serving tea together.  […] Funny wasn’t it , all those people singing and working together – the Blue shift and the White, Labour Officers, operatives, canteen workers and all. They were all laughing and seemed happy. Funny when you think what we are all here for, and how we’re only making things to kill people. It don’t seem right do it?’ (139)

More stories are told: we learn how the boiler man lost his hand; of the paranoia Gluckstein has of discrimination against Jews; of the disappointing visit by Linnet’s husband, a stranger for the war has taken the couple in such different directions; of the secret held close by the self-important security chief, which is known by everyone; the abuse of power by the gate policeman and the accident that kills one of the workers.

Holden is challenging the idea that the working people have nothing interesting about them. On the contrary they are individuals, willing, resourceful and exploited. The title appears on the final page. A former journalist is asked why she doesn’t write about Statevale. ‘There’s no story there,’ she replies. We, who have read thirteen chapters, know otherwise.

What makes this novel so successful is Inez Holden’s powers of observation, her ability to write believable dialogue and her ability to use all the senses in describing Statevale. 

I really enjoyed this volume. Although there is no strong narrative, there is plenty to consider, and there is a bonus of three short stories included in this volume. The longest, Musical Chairman, makes the point that real life can be more absorbing than the movies. 

The introduction by Lucy Scholes is very helpful in placing Inez Holden in the context of the literary world of 1920-50. More detail, especially of Inez Holden’s life and milieu can be found in a Paris Review article, also written by Lucy Scholes. 

Night Shift was reviewed on this blog along with two other books about the Second World War, in November 2019.

There’s No Story There: wartime writing, 1944-45 by Inez Holden, first published in 1944 and reissued byHandheld Press in March 2021. 231pp

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The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

In a recent post, Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry, I remarked about my interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. Growing up after the war we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had parents who were silent about their experiences. In addition, there are parallels between our situation in the Coronavirus pandemic and the war. I noted that 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.

Here’s another novel of the Second World War, again featuring the Blitz and published in 1943 before the outcome of the war was clear. It has been republished by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. This novel was suggested to me by Susan Kavanagh when I said that was going to read more C20th fiction. Thank you for the recommendation.

The House Opposite

The title reflects the urban setting, a suburb of London, fictional Saffron Park. The story follows the two families who live in houses that face each other on the same street. Elizabeth Simpson lives with her parents, she is a young woman who works as a secretary to the boss of an import business based in Soho Square in central London. Her father is a solicitor who also volunteers as an air raid warden. 

Opposite them is the family of Owen Cathcart. He has just left school and is hoping to be called up to the RAF. His father does something dodgy with timber and furniture and his mother looks out for everyone in the street.

Everyone has a secret, and not revealing stuff to others was an important consideration in their small society. Elizabeth has been conducting an affair with her boss for three years. Her mother has taken to drink for she is very afraid of the bombing raids. Because of something he heard Elizabeth say, Owen is afraid he is gay. He hero-worships his cousin who is already in the RAF. His father is arrested and tried for profiteering and his mother is deeply ashamed when this gets into the newspapers. And everyone has to work together when the sirens go off. Owen and Elizabeth find themselves sharing the fire watch duty in the street, which brings them closer. 

The story follows the everyday lives of these people while destruction is all about them: shops, restaurants, cafés, and some homes disappear overnight. People go to work, to the cinema, visit friends and relations in the country and endure. Elizabeth’s lover turns out to be a weak man. When her mother gets drunk on rum they send her off to stay in the country with her sister. Owen grows up by noticing that other people have difficulties in their lives, for example, he sees that Elizabeth is not happy. He finds his own way passed the hero worship of his cousin. 

The bombing acts as an intensifier of their situations. People show small acts of kindness or courage or generosity to each other. They are loyal to their families and look out for them. They show courage against the background of danger. And they confront some truths about themselves and reflect on their experiences to learn from them. These are ordinary people who find ways to be their best selves. 

Barbara Noble

Born in 19017 in North London, Barbara Noble wrote six novels, of which this is the fourth. The next novel she wrote Doreen is about an evacuee torn between her mother and the family she stays is sent to live with. It has been republished by Persephone Books. As well as writing fiction Barbara Noble worked for twenty years for Twentieth Century Fox before taking over as editor for Doubleday publishing in 1953. She died in 2001.

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble was first published in 1943 and republished in the Furrowed Middlebrow series by Dean Street Press in 2019. 222 pp

Related Posts:

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (also published in the Furrowed Middlebrow series). A war memoir from 1939-41.

HeavenAli liked The House Opposite very much. She reviewed it on her blog in June last year. 

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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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Abigail by Magda Szabo

It’s 1943, the Second World War is underway and Hungary has had an uneasy relationship with Germany since entering the war in June 1941 to assist the Axis powers. In 1944 Germany decides to occupy Hungary because independent attempts have been made to negotiate an armistice with the UK and the USA. From the occupation Jewish people are in danger, and soon after the Hungarian army is defeated by the Red Army.

It is against this backdrop that Abigail takes place. Georgina is a spoiled young daughter of an army general, and has no idea about the danger she is in, nor about the decisions that are made to keep her safe. She is sent to a prison-like strict boarding school for girls. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is for her protection. What I liked about this book is that the story began about the girl, but gradually widened to consider the individual in the war in Hungary.

Abigail

This is a long book, almost 450 pages, and it begins with Georgina and takes its time to unfold the full implications of her situation. At first it is about her separation in 1943 from her beloved father in Budapest as she goes to boarding school, Matula, a long way away. How will she survive the separation? And will she fit in with the other girls? The girls in her class have very strong bonds of loyalty and two of them explain the rules and the restrictions. They also introduce her to the story of Abigail, a statue which is reputed to provide answers to difficult questions that are placed in the pitcher she holds.

Soon after her arrival Georgina betrays one of the secrets of her class that provide respite from the very strict regime of the school. From this point the girls refuse to speak to her. The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: she has personal possessions, for example, and then she tries to escape. She manages to make it up with the other girls and the story moves into its last phase. 

Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. Georgina’s father, the General, heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. He has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if the plot is discovered. It turns out that the Gina’s guardian angel is Abigail and that the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with a network of local people Gina is saved when her father is arrested. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

The story is told in great detail, the uniform, the rules, the teachers, the rituals etc. Each part of the story is built gradually. Occasionally plot details are trailed. ‘She had no idea that she would never see him again’ (269). It was Bánki’s present that led to the unravelling of Gina’s hiding place. 

A great number of things happened on that late November morning but it was only much later that she saw the connection between them. Every episode or image associated with that Wednesday fused in her mind – the gaping mouths of the dead fish, the filing cabinet standing open, the glazier’s assistant with his huge moustache, and the General. (257)

For some time we believe the mystery is to uncover the identity of Abigail, the person behind the statue. And like Gina, it is only later that readers can connect her to the smashed aquarium, the missing files and the other events of that morning.

Gina changes from being a spoiled little rich girl to a resourceful and determined (yet  opinionated) daughter of a General. While she is unwise, young, selfish, the reader still has sympathy for her in her various predicaments. One can admire her pride, her loyalty and her ingenuity. And in the end she has joined the network of people protecting what they can of Hungary. It is a long book but a gripping story.

Magda Szabo

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Later she published several novels which won her great acclaim, the first was Katalin Street in 1969. It was The Door that brought her international success. 

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987), translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in English in 2005. This was the 22nd in the OLDER WOMEN in fiction series, and you can read about it here.

Abigail by Magda Szabó first published in 1970 and in English translation by Macelhose Press in 2020. 442pp

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Some recent blog reviews:

A Life in Books included her review on 10th January this year.

HeavenAli published a review on 31st January.

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All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

This is a novel of accumulating tension, yet the tension is set alongside the everyday concerns of people, even when they are afraid, or needing to flee.

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea. (Opening paragraph 1)

From the outset, the reader sees a bigger picture: this estate is quiet and sheltered, largely passed by, muffled in winter. But it is January 1945 and history is about to intrude. Europe is in the final stages of war. The Russians are coming. The Red Army will soon arrive.

The Story

The residents of the Georgenhof estate have not been much troubled by the war. The family had already disposed of most of the land they once owned, relying on foreign investments to support them.

Eberhard von Globig, the estate’s owner, is away at an army desk job in Italy. His wife Katherina remains on the estate, with their son Peter, an old retainer called Auntie and several foreign workers who manage the farm and the kitchen. Katherina has several admirers, and many family members come to Georgenhof for supplies. Dr Wagner comes to tutor Peter from the nearby town. Across the road there is a new estate of houses, controlled by the local Nazi puffed up self-important Drygalski.

Despite being somewhat cut off more and more people come to the Georgenhof, for a night or two or because they are billeted there. Gradually it becomes obvious that everyone is leaving, a great westward trek is in progress. Katherina is persuaded to hide a man on the run, at the request of the local pastor. She is imprisoned. Everyone leaves and she joins the trek under guard. The second half of the novel recounts Auntie and Peter’s trek West and the gradual disintegration of their group, Auntie’s death by an enemy bomber and Peter’s transformation into a near-feral child. We see what happens to the visitors to Georgenhof. Each person in turn abandons something very precious that they brought with them.

There is a tension between the large and growing trek west with the casual deaths, abandonment, dead ends, thefts and so forth and the occasional highly organised rest centres.

Some reflections

I have never read anything by Walter Kempowski before, there is not a great deal that has been published in English. What struck me immediately was the number of characters he introduces very quickly, and how more and more people arrive on the page, gathered in to this great exodus. The details of their lives remind the reader that people have to be concerned with their own safety, hunger and chances before everything. And that humans may in retrospect think that the wrong priorities were chosen. The von Globig family, for example, take forever to decide to leave, wondering about their silver plate and crockery, and which pictures and what else will be left behind.

Peter’s journey is an example of how humans can be neglected: his mother is a prisoner, the Polish man who has been helping them abandoned Peter and Auntie, when Auntie is killed a pastor takes Peter in, but is himself about to leave. The child is alone. It seems as if there is no future for him but it is Drygalski, the local Nazi, who in an act of self-sacrifice gives up his place on the last crowded boat to leave.

Each person is a rounded character. Their motives are often nugatory, venal, self-serving, but they come across as human. The people who visit or who are billeted at Georgenhof are passing through, but one has a sense of their experiences up to this point, and that their lives will continue elsewhere. This accords with Kempowski’s work, chronicling the experiences of people during the war. He was a major figure in German literature after the war.

The novel considers what happens when a very controlled society begins to act in an anarchic way, but not all at the same time. The question implicit in the title remains over the entire story. With its insistence upon the significance of each individual the novel asserts the importance of humanity over ideology.

Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s work (1929-2007) is not well known in English. Born in Rostock, in the war he was unhappily enrolled into the Hitler Youth and then the Flakhelfer, the youth auxiliary of the Luftwaffe. His father was killed in the last months of the war. Walter Kempowski was imprisoned in East Germany for 8 years. He was accused of spying for the US.

He was a prolific writer. His work included 10 volumes of Das Escholot, a collage of German voices and their experiences of the Second World War. He was a writer who helped Germany come to terms with its Nazi past. This was his last book.

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, published in English by Granta in 2015, first appeared in 2006 with the title Alles Umsont. 343pp

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

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The Yanks are Coming! The Yanks are Coming!

The United States joined the war effort in Europe, sending troops to Britain in 1942. Britain had been at war since September 1939 and taken a pounding in the Blitz in 1940-41. The blackout was in force and rationing was strict. The Allies’ experiences of the war were different, and both sides were keen to avoid exploitation of differences.

More than the difference experiences of war, most US servicemen had not been to Britain, and US war department issued seven pages of guidance to the men making the Atlantic crossing called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain 1942. Differences between the countries were acknowledged, but the claim was made that values and principles were the same, the differences lay in some daily aspects of life.

The most evident truth of all is that in their major ways of life the British and American people are much alike. They speak the same language. They both believe in representative government, in freedom of worship, in freedom of speech. But each country has minor national characteristics which differ. It is by causing misunderstanding over these minor differences that Hitler hopes to make his propaganda effective. (4)

Instructions for American Servicemen

The Instructions is an interesting historical document. It tells us a great deal about Britain and its peoples by presenting them to Americans with little knowledge or experience of Britain. It also tells us some things about how Britain has changed since 1942.

It was written to provide guidance on unfamiliar aspects of British life. Some of these were longstanding, like the coinage (pounds shillings and pence in those days) and use of certain words. But US servicemen were also warned about changes brought about by the war, such as rationing and the blackout.

And as a historical document to study today, we can see how much change has occurred in the 75 years since it was issued. Perhaps the most significant difference is that it is not necessary for US citizens to be informed about Britain these days. American dominates our popular culture (film, social media, music, coffee shops etc). And a curious visitor can find out much through the internet.

I obtained my copy of Instructions as background reading for a short story I am writing, but also as part of my interest in the history of the 1940s and 1950s.

Warnings to US servicemen

As well as underlining the similarities and common purpose of the two countries the booklet warns the reader how not to offend the British, or how to understand them. Chief among these was the description of the British character as reserved.

So if Britons sit on trains or buses without striking up a conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty or unfriendly. Probably they are paying more attention to you than you think. But they don’t speak to you because they don’t want to appear intrusive or rude. (5)

Foreigners on London’s tube today might perceive the same behaviour. Country buses, by the way, are a different matter.

More importantly Britain was a country involved in total war and may look ‘a little shop worn and grimy to you’.

The houses haven’t been painted because factories are not making paint – they’re making planes. The famous English parks and gardens are either unkempt because there are no men to take care of them, or they are being used to grow needed vegetables. British taxi cabs look antique because Britain makes tanks for herself and Russia and hasn’t time to make new cars. British trains are cold because power is needed for industry, not for heating. There are no luxury dining cars on trains because total war effort has no place for such frills. The trains are unwashed and grimy because men and women are needed for more important tasks than car-washing. The British people are anxious for you to know that in normal times Britain looks much prettier, cleaner, neater. (11)

Locals and United States troops meet at the Dove Inn, Burton Bradstock, Dorset in 1942. Imperial War Museum (D20142). via WikiCommons

And they are reminded that Britain is a small country, ‘hardly bigger than Minnesota’, and has weather that is almost continuously damp. They are warned of different refreshments: warm beer and ubiquitous tea rather than coffee. Pubs will welcome you so long as you remember that the pub ‘is “the poor man’s club,” the neighbourhood or village gathering place’.

As a historical source revealing attitudes of the time, the Instructions are mostly about the behaviour and customs of the men of Britain. You might have noticed that there were ‘no men’ to take care of the parks and gardens. Actually there was a huge land army of women working on the farms.

Turnip Singling in 1943 by Evelyn Dunbar

On gender issues there is a section that reveals more about American attitudes than about Britain’s women. I cringe when I read the warning to the Americans

A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can – and often does – give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. (25)

And to reinforce the respect of British servicemen for their female counterparts the leaflet explains:

For British women have proven themselves in this way. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.”

And as if this information about the ‘girls’ is not enough the writer reassures the Americans,

There is not a single record in this war of any British women in uniformed service quitting her post or failing her duty under fire.

Not quite finished with this subject, the writer cannot pass up an opportunity for this comment:

… and if she has a bit of ribbon on her tunic – remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.

Another difference that the Americans were advised to keep quiet about was the differentials in pay between a US private soldier and the British Tommy.

Over Here

The D-Day Landings were more than two years ahead and there were still three more years of the European War and four of the war in the Far East. The arrival of the US forces added more changes to those that the bleak first years of the war had brought to British society.

The booklet says nothing about attitudes in Britain to ‘coloured’ people. The segregationist activities of some US servicemen, especially from the South, were very alien to the British and offended them greatly. (See the film Welcome to Britain where it was dealt with).

No doubt from time to time Americans forgot to drive on the left, broke the rules on the blackout, complained about warm beer and lack of decent coffee, and their hosts’ lack of soap, and were confused about British coins. From this point, however, the course of the war began to change.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Original version issued by War Department, Washington DC in 1942. Reproduced by the Bodleian Library University of Oxford in 2004. Available from the Bodleian Library and from the Imperial War Museum, London.

Welcome to Britain was a film for newly arrived US servicemen made by the Strand Film Company for the Ministry of Information. You can find it on You Tube.

Related post

In April 1944 a rehearsal for D-Day went badly wrong and 946 US servicemen were killed by ‘friendly fire’ on Slapton Sands in Devon. I wrote about it as part of a walk I did last year: 26 Steps: Walking and Writing

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