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. 


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

6 Responses to The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

  1. Carole Jones

    Thanks for this post! I knew the author’s name, but have not – yet – read anything by her. I will try to remedy that asap! The account you give of the details and description in the novel really makes me want to buy it straight away. Plus (as I have probably said before) it is all wonderful background for my current writing project.
    I will also be keen on comparing the details in this to the accounts of similar situations in Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’. I’m rereading it, after a long gap, and am just working my way through the various cycles and re-cycles of the main protagonist’s life in London during the blitz. So, all sorts of varied input welcome (obviously I’m reading actual histories along side).

    • Caroline

      Hi Carole,
      Glad that this post has made you want to read the novel. I want to read Doreen one day soon, also by Barbara Noble. I too am interested in this period.
      Hope your novel project is going well. I sometimes think that the research is the best part of writing, especially when it involves reading other novels.

  2. Books about living through the Blitz are fascinating – and when they’re novels they somehow seem to bring things into a more vivid focus. Will keep my eye out for this one.

  3. Susan Kavanagh

    I would really like to read the author’s other war-based novel, Doreen. It was mentioned on the Back Listed blog in the What are you reading section. Also, I liked that Noble presented the characters as they likely were, unlike so many historical fiction novels that make everyone so cheery and plucky. I would wager that the mother was not the only person during the Blitz who turned to drink to quell the terror of nightly bombing.

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much for your recommendation of The House Opposite. I realy like it when readers engage to make other readers aware of books they have enjoyed. It’s why I write this blog, after all.
      I agree. I too want to read Doreen, but I have rather a lot of books in my queue at the moment.
      And thank you for the observation about the realism of the characters, including the poor woman who drinks rum to deal with her fears.

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