What can we learn from the experiences of women in the past? How can their reflections help us think about the occurrences of our own lives? The so-called Blitz spirit has been evoked since the Coivid-19 pandemic began to take hold earlier this year. We even celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May at a distance with scones and little union flags.
In Wave Me Goodbye there are 28 stories, all written in English and from the experience of women from the UK or the ‘colonies’. All the stories were written at the time of the second world war (except one). This is a special and important collection. This is a special and important addition to the posts of the Decades Project 2020 (see below)
Wave Me Goodbye
The first thing to say about them is that these stories reflect the very wide range of women’s experiences of the war. They were not all staying at home and making do and mending, or fire watching, or working in war jobs. And the experiences here range from the so-called Phoney War, while everyone waited for the war to start, through to the first post-war visits to war-ravaged Europe.
There are stories about
Working in a field hospital
partners leaving for active duty, and home on leave
adventures abroad in the Balkans
losing treasured things, such as letters from a lover
living with other women
the war in Africa
In writing their stories they drew upon their experiences and reflected what was happening and how it affected their different lives. Some are about the acute experiences of departure and loss, others provide insights into the arrangements made by women in the absence of so many men.
Quality of writing
The second thing to note is the quality of the writing, almost every mid-century writer of note wrote a short story that was included in the collection.
Sylvia Townsend Warner …
It reads like a combined Virago and Persephone catalogue!
In the introduction Anne Boston quotes Elizabeth Bowen:
All war-time writing is… resistance writing. (xxi)
In a sense the resistance is oblique: it is to the distortions that war brings with it; distortions in relationships, time, clothes, food, careers, homes, life itself. And that is one of the parallels with the pandemic: that too is distorting our lives as well as killing thousands of people.
Some stories of resistance are triumphant. I loved Sweethearts and Wives by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which concerned a household of women managing their domestic arrangements, largely without men, in a haphazard and cheerful manner.
Short stories and the war
And thirdly the short story was the genre of those days. Many of the writers were established novelists, but turned their attention to short stories during the war. The fragmentary nature of short prose captured the disconnected experiences that war handed out, rapid and catastrophic change. An example is Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay, in which Miss Anstruther frantically tries to find her dead lover’s letters after she has been bombed out. This was Rose Macaulay’s experience, and it reflects the fragility of material belongings. With the quality of writing, it is easy to find insights, description, experiences narrated with great skill.
The depth of damage resulting from six years of war is beautifully captured in Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a couple visiting France and trying to reconnect after their different experiences of the war. It is called Gravement Endommagé and considers damage at many levels.
I can’t review individual stories here, but refer you to JacquieWine’s blog (see below) where she looked at many individual stories in two posts when she explored this collection earlier this year.
So what can we learn from the Second World War that might help us with Covid-19? We need to be resourceful and resilient. We need to adapt our lives to the profoundly anti-social aspects of the response to Covid-19. We can expect experiences as different as people are. We can expect great responses and more feeble ones. Humans, women have done it in the past. We can do it again. The values that underpin the good life must be held onto in difficult times: community, care for others, decency and integrity.
On HeavenAli’s blog she recommends this quite marvellous collection in her review in June.
Another enthusiastic reader is JacquiWine who provided two posts on her blog to do justice to the collection.
Novels from the Home Front (on Bookword in November 2019)
The War-Time Stories and Letters of Molly Panter-Downes. (January 2019)
Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (November 2018)
Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston, first published in 1988 by Virago and republished in 2019. 360pp
The Decades Project 2020
In 2020 I explored ten novels by women, one a month, framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. For November I have added this important collection. In December I will review the year’s blogs and consider a theme for 2021.
The post war choices for the project have been:
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)
Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)
In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)