Tag Archives: The Love-charm of Bombs

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.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

I read this thriller twelve months ago and I noted that I expected to reread it and soon. It turns out that rereading is very rewarding, and nothing is spoiled by knowing the plot, indeed the other features of the novel become more evident.

53 Heat cover

It’s set during the Second World War and the tension comes from the suggestion that one of the main characters, Robert, is involved in treason. The novel opens as the creepy Harrison prepares to meet Stella. Stella has already rejected Harrison, ‘asked him to go away and stay away’. We have been warned that ‘he was not, however, through.’ Harrison visits Stella in her flat and reveals his plan to blackmail her: his silence about Robert can be bought if she becomes his mistress and does not see Robert again. The scene in which Harrison reveals his hand, is carefully drawn out in Chapter 2 and is a powerful example of an effective scene in fiction. Stella’s feelings alter from irritation of being bothered by a man she does not want to see to shock and disbelief at what Harrison tells her and finally confusion about what she should do. Can she believe Harrison? What should she do to protect the man she loves? If Harrison is right should she protect Robert? How can she know? The story is set up, the tension holds, as the interactions between Harrison, Stella and Robert run their course.

53 roped off road

One of the most impressive aspect of this novel is the depiction of living in London during the Blitz.

They had met one another, at first not very often, throughout the heady autumn of the first London air raids. Never had a season been more felt; one bought the poetic sense of it with the sense of death. Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils; and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt more and more called upon to observe daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear. All through London the ropings-off of dangerous tracts of streets made islands of exalted if stricken silence, and people crowded against the ropes to admire the sunny emptiness on the other side. The diversion of traffic out of blocked main thoroughfares into byways, the unstopping phatasmagoric streaming of lorries, buses, vans, drays, taxis past modest windows and quiet doorways set up an overpowering sense of London’s organic power – somewhere there was a source from which heavy motion boiled, surged and, not to be damned up, force itself into new channels. (p90-91)

Elizabeth Bowen does not forget the dead, and she provides a strong image of them, present through their absences.

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)

This passage illustrates her rather difficult style and its density has the effect of slowing the reader, so you have to engage with the direction of the sentence, its meaning, its surprise. In the example above, the sentence that begins ‘Absent from the routine’ by its end has conjured up the non-presence of the dead, and has a very pleasing rhythm.

53 Pauls

The novel is claimed as a London novel, and it is indeed very clearly located around the Regent’s Park area, although, echoing Stella’s confusion, the blackout means that sometimes she does not know where Harrison has taken her. An interesting article about its London-ness, by Jane Miller (author of Crazy Age), can be found on the London Fictions website. The London location and the heightened sensibilities of living there are contrasted with Stella’s visit to the rural calm of Ireland. Ireland remained neutral during the war, although not unaffected by it (Stella uses months’ supply of house candles, unknowingly). A second contrast is to Holme Dene, where Robert’s mother lives, in the Home Counties. Holme Dene is permanently for sale and rigidly in thrall to Muttikins. Elizabeth Bowen’s description reveals a great deal about Robert’s family:

…upstairs life since the war, had up there condensed itself into very few rooms – swastika-arms of passage leading to nothing, stripped of carpet, bulbs gone from the light-sockets, were flanked by doors with keys turned. Extinct, at this night hour Stygian as an abandoned mine-working, those reaches of passages would show in daylight ghost-pale faded patches no shadow crossed, and, from end to end, an even conquest of dust. (p258)

One important theme of the novel concerns allegiances, what individuals owe to other people. In war it is an unquestioned assumption that one will have allegiance to one’s country and abhorrence of fraternization or spying for the enemy. The central questions of the novel are about Robert’s treachery or not, and Stella’s duty to him or her country.

Stella’s visit to Mount Morris in Ireland raises questions about place in allegiance, of one nation to another, and the bequest to Roderick brings up questions of who owes what to whom in the next generation. To whom, Elizabeth Bowen appears to ask, when the chips are down, do we owe our loyalty? Her answer, I think, is to the integrity of the self and one’s love for others.

It is also a novel about appearances and what is concealed and whether you should trust what you see, what you feel, what you want to trust. At the centre of this theme is Harrison, a shady character, about whom we never know much, not his work, his past, or where he goes or what he does when he is not with Stella. And like Stella we do not know whether to believe what he implies. We do not want to believe that Stella’s lover is a traitor.

Stella has the reputation of a woman who shamefully abandoned her husband. Her son Roderick learns the truth from a woman who has been feigning madness for years. But the truth is not that simple, for Stella has preferred people to believe what they thought was the truth rather than acknowledge to the world that her husband did not want to stay with her. Even Stella’s affair with Robert is presented to the reader as not of the real world.

The lovers had for two years possessed a hermetic world, which, like the ideal book about nothing, stayed itself on itself by its inner force. (p90)

Appearances of the characters reflect something about their role in the plot and their characteristics as well as Elizabeth Bowen’s confidence in handling them. Harrison comes and goes in a shady way. Stella is not directly introduced until Chapter 2. Robert does not appear until Chapter 5. Many of the minor characters appear and disappear as acquaintances did in London’s reduced social world.

53 EB

Despite being a published writer for 25 years Elizabeth Bowen found it difficult to finish the novel. She wrote the early sections during the war but it was not published until 1948. She had fallen in love with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat, to whom the book is dedicated and considered the physical model for Robert. Their affair continued, despite his return to Canada, his marriage and frequent separations, until she died in 1973. (For more details of this and other writers’ lives during the war see Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs).

I love this novel. I expect I will read it again and again. I hope I can encourage you to read (or even reread) it.

For another enthusiastic blog review see Book Snob’s here. My reviews of earlier Elizabeth Bowen novels are here: The Hotel, and The Last September.

 

Reminder: the next general Readalong will be in December. If you want to make a reading suggestion please do so. I will announce the choice in the next few weeks.

If you want to be notified of further posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the head of the column on the right.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews