I was one of the lucky winners – along with my book group – of a competition Bloomsbury ran just before Christmas, giving 8 copies of a title of one of the Bloomsbury Group reprints, along with a set of bookmarks and postcards – to six book groups. Our prize was Henrietta’s War, and as I’ve heard such good things about it in various places, such as at Random Jottings, Stuck in a Book, Savidge Reads and Nonsuch Books, I was excited to read it. I decided last week, after my third Yates book, I needed a bit of a comfort read… reading about the essential meaninglessness of your life and the hopelessness of your dreams can get to be a bit of a downer without some light relief!
Henrietta, the eponymous heroine, is a middle class, country village dwelling lady of a certain age, with a doctor husband, two grown children, a house to run, and several quirky friends who manage to create a variety of hilarious conservations and situations. The war has not affected anybody massively in their small Devon coastal village; there is barbed wire on the beaches and the muffled sounds of distant gun fire, but other than that, life carries on much as usual. Henrietta documents her life and those of her neighbours in regular letters to her childhood friend Robert, who is on the front line in France, and never appears to write back.
I found this book absolutely delightful from start to finish, and very Provincial Lady in its tone, which is always a good thing. Henrietta is a lovely heroine to cheer for; she is humorous, self deprecating, generous and enthusiastic, and she documents the happenings in her small life with an ironic wit that gives everything, even moments of sadness and disappointment, a positive slant. In Henrietta’s world, amongst many others, there is the huge Lady B, a larger than life character who rarely says a bad word about anyone, and comes out with frequent innocently shocking comments; Faith, the local femme fatale, a tart with a heart who has a string of adoring male followers; Mrs Savernack, the prickly but well meaning know it all, and Charles, Henrietta’s husband, whose sweet, efficient nature and kindness and love for Henrietta are revealed in his all too brief appearances. These characters light up the book, giving it a lovely fuzzy feeling. Everyone comes together for the excitement of practice bomb raids, sewing circles, and impromptu concerts, and I loved the wartime ‘can do’ spirit that echoed throughout the pages. I felt like I had been drawn into this lovely, tight knit community of average people, some a little more eccentric than others, just doing their best to go about their everyday lives, and do their bit to support the war effort, to boot.
However, I did find it a little frivolous in places; the Cockney evacuees are simply depicted as mockers of the Devonian locals and their lack of ‘real’ bombs rather than people who have seen their homes and communities destroyed and have been forced to leave everything they know behind; there are no mentions of sons, husbands, friends, etc, being killed, no real privations, no real worries, no sense of upset that there is a war going on at all. In fact, most of the inhabitants of Henrietta’s village appear untouched by it all, and even find it rather fun; the only real differences are that food is harder to get hold of – marmalade making becomes impossible – and there are more committees for the ladies to get involved in. It was rather like the Provincial Lady in Wartime in that respect – the realities of war are kept out of daily life, and the chipper ‘we’re alright, guv’ attitude put on to give everything a rosy, Keep Calm and Carry On edge to it. The only moment of pathos – when Lady B is cleaning out a drawer to find a doll belonging to her daughter who was killed in the previous war- was quickly brushed over. I know that both Provincial Lady and Henrietta’s War were written to distract people, keep them laughing, keep their spirits up, remind them that though there was a war on, life could and should still go on as normal – and also, Henrietta’s letters are supposed to cheer her friend Robert up – but, still. I couldn’t help thinking at times that it was all a bit trivial, as well as being very middle class. Life for fellow country dwellers like Jack and Rose in Terence Frisby’s lovely memoir of his time as an evacuee in Cornwall – Kisses on a Postcard – certainly wasn’t all Home Front drills and arguments with the cook over how many eggs to use in a cake, to quote just one example.
Though perhaps I am expecting too much, and I have had my perception of the wartime experience of the average Joe coloured by the rather overegged stereotype of mothers waiting anxiously for the telegram boy every second of the day and people queuing for hours just to buy some bread. Is it fair of me, accurate, even, to assume that everyone’s lives were a mess of worries and deprivations during the war years? I’ll have to ask my Nan and Granddad, I suppose, but thinking about it realistically, I presume that for most people, apart from the constant nagging worry of someone they loved being in danger, life did roll along much as usual. Just as I read this to cheer me up, I’m sure people during the war wanted a bit of light relief from all the doom and gloom too and didn’t want to read about people dying and being bombed. Is Henrietta’s War a realistic portrayal of life in wartime? I don’t think it can be – too much is not said. However, does it claim to be? No, not necessarily. So, my reservations about its frivolity don’t need to negatively effect my reading experience. I still thoroughly enjoyed this, and the illustrations were a delightful addition to the text. I very much encourage those in need of a winter pick-me-up to give it a go! I’m looking forward to Bloomsbury’s publication of the next volume, Henrietta Sees it Through, which hopefully won’t be too long a wait!
Also, mentioning book groups, I just remembered I never reported back on the V&A book group’s thoughts on They Knew Mr Knight. In summary, everyone loved it, bar one, who thought it was slow and uninteresting compared to the modern novels she normally reads. This reaction is probably a good indication of why Dorothy Whipple’s novels went out of print; the average reader wants something pacier. However, those who did love it, were effusive in their praise and everyone wanted to read more. They loved how Whipple draws such realistic characters whose thoughts and feelings are so beautifully and sympathetically described; they loved how Whipple placed such importance on the domestic sphere and the sacred nature of family and home in the grand scheme of all of our lives; no matter what, our relationships are ultimately what define us, what gives us meaning, and what gives us security, in an ever increasingly insecure world. What greater stories can be told than the ones about human relationships, when so much can be said between people in a glance, a turn of the head? There were conflicting feelings over where loyalties lay; some found Celia too passive; others found Thomas infuriatingly stupid; everyone hated Mr Knight, and we all pitied Mrs Knight. We all noticed the marvellous period details; as museum workers, we love history! We also had some interesting discussions about the nature of the children in the novel, and sibling relationships; Thomas and Freda are very alike, and they are both somewhat estranged from their siblings due to their differing views on life and about themselves. It is so fascinating how children can grow up with the same parents, in the same house, with the same things around them, but grow to be so different. Nature, or nurture? We couldn’t decide – but we found Freda quite repulsive compared to her sweet and engaging siblings. All in all, Dorothy was a great success with the Book Group, as was Persephone Books in general. I think we have some new Persephone devotees!