Elizabeth Bowen caught the essence of Table Two when she said in her review for the Tatler in 1942 that it was
the most striking novel about women war workers that this war has, as far as I know, produced.
The location of the action is the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in central London, where translators sit at designated tables. It is early September 1940 and Londoners are convinced that the RAF will not allow the Luftwaffe through to bomb the city.
While the plot is not very strong, there is plenty to engage the reader in this novel, the only one written by Marjorie Wilenski. It was clearly written from first-hand experience of the Blitz and of war work.
The table of the title is the workstation for the women who feature in this novel.
The Translation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence made all the translations of the Ministry’s foreign documents and letters. Everyone on the staff of the Department knew some foreign languages and most of them knew several and knew them well. The Department worked in a large room on the first floor of the Ministry’s new building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The room had windows down both sides and it looked like a schoolroom because it had groups of flat-topped desks, set nine together on each side of a central gangway. Each group of desks was used by nine translators known as a Table, and what looked like the teacher’s desk at the top was used by the Language Supervisor. (11)
It is late summer in 1940 in London and Table Two is about to receive a new translator. Many of the women who work there, all women, had supported themselves in various jobs abroad. On their return to London they need the money. Some women are doing their bit for the war. Marjorie Wilenski is interested in how this group of women do and don’t get along.
There are a range of characters: Mrs Jolly who can’t stop talking; Mrs Doweson with aristocratic connections who likes fresh air; Mrs Just, the deputy who ensures order in the work despite Mrs Saltman the disorganised Supervisor. There are those who love disaster, a childish woman in dress and behaviour, a woman who can’t stop eating and so on.
Two women are the focus of the story. Elsie Pearne is much despised for her sour disposition, and she believes herself suited for better work, with some justification.
Elsie was a tall gaunt woman of forty-eight. She carried her head forward and her shoulders were rounded because she was always stooping to talk to people less tall than herself. She walked with a long ungainly rather mannish stride and there was something mannish in her clothes – the plain black coat and skirt, white bouse with collar and tie, and round felt hat. She had a long thin face, long thin nose and a long thin mouth with lips set in a straight line that turned down at the corners, and her eyes under wide brows were small. […]
Elsie Pearne was not much loved at the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence. She was generally referred to as rude and difficult to get on with. Most people thought that her long mouth turned down simply from bad nature and ill-temper though there were some more kindly who guessed at disappointments and hard times, neither opinion being in fact quite right. (1-2)
In contrast, Anne Shepley-Rice, is the new translator, younger and prettier than the others, and with the prospect of dinners with young servicemen and even marriage ahead of her.
Although they are in contrast to each other, Elsie takes Anne under her wing, and then becomes possessive. Unfortunately, when she doesn’t get her way Elsie can be rather nasty and Anne does not wish to be controlled by her older colleague. This is not a happy friendship.
In the first days of Anne’s employment there are frequent air raid warnings which force the workers into idleness in the basement. The translators are very frustrated because they do not believe that the German bombers will penetrate central London. They are wrong and at the end of the first week in September the Blitz begins and does not let up until May the following summer. The author describes how the population adapts to the new situation.
For the next week the guns were rarely silent. Sometimes they seemed to go on without stopping for the whole twenty-four hours. Soon their sounds became the background to ordinary life – that ordinary life that was so extraordinary but which Londoners had to pretend was ordinary because only in that way was it possible to live at all. For the extraordinary had to be tamed as quickly as could be done; conditions were chaotic but chaos had to be conquered. The first thing everywhere and all the time was to get the small things straight. There was no time to stand and stare, there were too many practical problems to solve. True, a country cousin up for the day to look at London’s ruins might gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets; these immense fantastic holes only astonished Cockneys on Monday – by Friday they were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to the traffic, there were too many other things to think of – how to get to work, how to get hoe again, how to cook the breakfast on the faint glimmer of gas that was all most people could coax from their burners, how to make the tea, let alone how to wash or bath, when there was no water at all in the pipes. Scrambling over the broken houses, through the dust and the rubble, picking their way through the broken glass and the broken pavement stones, few people had time to look up at the battle that went on by day and by night. (108-9)
Meanwhile Anne is falling in love with Seb, an injured RAF pilot who is working in the ministry while he recovers. Their relationship is a source of anguish to Elsie.
Mrs Just plans to leave her position as deputy supervisor and every woman, except Anne, thinks they are the most suited to the post. The ability of the women to delude themselves is amusing. Elsie, who could do it, is given a trial and is hopeless as she has such a forbidding way with others. Anne is chosen for promotion.
Everything seems to be going well for Anne: she has become engaged, she narrowly misses being badly hurt by a collapsing building, she is to be promoted to deputy supervisor. But then she is entrusted with a confidential Portuguese document, and it goes missing. She is suspended.
While the plot weaves its way to provide happiness to both Anne and Elsie, the other women get on with their chatter, stories about getting to work, knitting, raising money for the Spitfire fund, and supporting each other in their difficulties.
I enjoyed the account of London in the Blitz and how it affected the women workers. The paragraph quoted above impressed me because I saw parallels with the current need in the face of a pandemic to adapt to an impossible situation. Great obstacles have become familiar and tiresome obstructions to how we would rather live.
Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski, first published in 1942. Reissued by Dean Street Press in 2019. 224pp
Other novels on Bookword from the Home Front
The House Opposite by Barbara Noble
There’s No Story There by Inez Holden
A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson
Mrs Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
Other reviews of Table Two
Furrowed Middle Brow blog (August 2016)
Heavenali blog (August 2019)