Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys

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!

33 comments

  1. I am soooo, soooo, soooo pleased that you loved Henrietta’s War. It was the most delightful suprise read for me last year and I really couldnt cope when I knew that the end was looming and so I am most pleased that you enjoyed it as much I wanted you too! I also cannot wait for Hennrietta See’s It Through. Mind you I have to stop thinking about it as I get overexcited and start to hype it up too much.

    1. You are so funny! I did love it, and it was over too soon – I could have read on for hours! Yes, keep calm – you don’t want to over anticipate! I’ve done that before and been disappointed, though I don’t see how more Henrietta can ever disappoint!

  2. Henrietta’s War is sat on my bookshelf as a ‘read very soon’ book – and was really interesting to read your review! I think I am going to enjoy it very much, as I have read such good reviews of it. I think your point about war time literature is really interesting – I had never thought of it and imagined all of it must be quite emotional, but I imagine that people would have wanted something light and enjoyable. I have also added the 2010 Bloomsbury group prints to my wishlist….

    And am so glad your bookgroup liked the Whipple!

    1. Yes, do read it very soon! I love war time literature but most I read has a bit more reality to it, and I did feel that this was very trivial and very lady of the manor…I would have liked it to be a bit more sympathetic to those actually suffering. But then I am sure it was written as a war time pick me up so I don’t know how harshly I can judge it from this angle!

    1. You know you can buy it from the Book Depository with free shipping? Not sure how expensive it works out with the exhange rate but it’s worth a look. You will definitely be rewarded!

  3. Henrietta’s War was a delightful read but I do think there could have been a more substantial book pulled from it. Oh, and the doll in the drawer…how sad.

    It must have been a gratifying experience to introduce a wonderful author to your book group and have such a positive response. I can’t wait to get stuck into another Whipple and soon! What’s next on the list for the V&A book group?

    1. Yes, exactly – delightful but doesn’t really scratch the surface of what the war was really like.

      It was – I was a bit nervous but when everyone started gushing I was so pleased – it’s wonderful to get people reading Whipple! Our next read will be A Prayer for Owen Meany – a very different read for me so I am looking forward to discovering someone new.

  4. I want to read this! My aunt bought all the Bloomsbury Group books for my mother, and only gave her two of them for Christmas, so I’m still waiting sadly for her birthday to read the other ones. Including Henrietta’s War. It sounds fantastic!

  5. This book is absolute tosh. I too was induced, by a review on another ‘bookblogger’ site to order it from Bloomsbury. I can’t think that any woman who lived through WWII in the cities – stay at home wife, munitions worker, or in the country as a land girl etc would give it time of day. As a daughter of one of those above, and born in 1944, I was embarrassed by its deliberate ‘naive’ tone. I don’t doubt that fun was had by many – especially those who lived in the war zones of major cities and who never knew if they would see the dawn of another day. And good luck to them and the many accounts of their lives on the edge. But this narrative makes me sad for those who suffered and the author and publishers should be ashamed. From the gushing responses above I realise that many hundreds of good people died in vain. These survivors descendants weren’t worth it.

    1. I think it is a shame that the chronicles of WWII that are considered readable are the ones that don’t actually refer to the hardships suffered by many at all, and keep it very middle class and oh-no-there’s-no-eggs-for-afternoon-tea social satire that modern day readers find charming and funny. I did find this humorous but I did want it to be a bit more gritty than it was – but there is a deliberately cheery tone to it that suggests to me this was propaganda of the time more than anything else; Mrs Miniver style aren’t we Brits hardy and good at soldiering on, etc. So I don’t think I’d judge it as harshly as you, though I do agree with your sentiments entirely.

  6. It seems odd to think of someone not liking Dorothy Whipple merely because the books aren’t as fast paced as a modern novel. I like how Whipple lets the story unfold naturally. It’s one of the (few) times I agree with the comparison to Jane Austen.

    I’m glad you enjoyed Henrietta’s War. Like you, I am waiting impatiently for the next book.

    1. Yes – I know. I couldn’t understand how she found it boring, but some people don’t want character and only want plot, which Dorothy Whipple doesn’t spend as much time on as others.

      Can’t wait for the next installment of Henrietta!

  7. I’m so glad that Dorothy Whipple met with such enthusiasm. What are you going to read next?

    I was a bit disappointed by Henrietta’s War, for me it did not live up to Diary of a Provincial Lady.

    1. We are reading A Prayer for Owen Meany next – a new one for me so it should be interesting.

      No – it definitely wasn’t as good as Provincial Lady – E M Delafield’s talents are superior in my opinion. And I loved her tales of trying to find war work in London – her portrayal of the war was far more sympathetic and realistic than Dennys’ in my opinion.

      1. By the way, if you like wartime things, you must read Tell it to a stranger, Elizabeth Berridge’s collection of short stories, unsurprisingly published by Persephone. I’ve been reading it this week and it so well evokes what Henrietta’s War didn’t – the absolutely awful deprivations.

  8. Henrietta’s War is already on my wish list, and your review has me even more anxious to read it. I’m also adding Kisses on a Postcard. So glad to hear your book group loved Dorothy Whipple!

  9. I have to echo Marie’s sentiments. My parents were both children of the blitz, born in London (one in 1934, one in 1935), both evacuated to the countryside during the bombing (my father’s house was badly damaged by a bomb). I doubt that either of them would find Henrietta’s War very amusing or accurate. I’m reminded of one of Angela Thirkell’s books where the London evacuees are all described as swearing, lice-ridden hooligans who cry for margarine when they are offered butter. I think I gave up on Thirkell after that and I don’t think I’ll be picking up this one.

    1. Yes – there is a very strongly upper middle class feel to the book and it does exclude the majority of people’s wartime experiences. I can completely understand your offence and while, as I said to Marie, I think this was mainly written as propaganda, I do think more could have been made of the realities of war.

      1. Oh, I’m not offended, it’s just a matter of perspective. My upbringing was such that the war (even though it ended over a decade before I was born) was an ever-present thing with lots of stories of “when I was evacuated down Wilden,” etc. Food rationing was still going on in England when I was born and chocolate wasn’t generally available until 1960. All of us view the books we read through the prism of our experiences (and, in this case, through the experiences of our parents and grandparents) and I just don’t think it would be my cup of tea.

  10. Sorry – I think offence was too strong a word to use in my reply to you! Yes, exactly – your experience of the war and its effects would never tally with the one written by Dennys so it wouldn’t be something you could identify with at all, I presume. I think my Nan would probably chuck it across the room! For the majority of people who did experience the war, I think this would be a frustrating read that had no bearing on their experiences whatsoever, and reading it today, in the category of what a lot of people would put as ‘social history’, it gives a very misleading portrayal of life on the home front indeed. I’m sure there were an elite of people like Henrietta who still led quite cosy lives but they must have been a tiny minority.

    It’s interesting how differently people can feel about this. It’s only because I read a lot of wartime literature that I even picked up on the frivolity of this – if I didn’t know what else there was out there to read, I would have found Henrietta’s War perfect.

  11. Glad you liked this, Rachel, and thanks for the link!

    I never quite got used to Lady B. being a likable character, after reading the Provincial Lady so often, with her horrid Lady B….

  12. Did you happen to see my epistolary review of Henrietta’s War? /plug

    I found it delightful and very different -and agree with your assessment of its frivolous tone- in relation to the other WWII literature that I have read.

    I loved A Prayer for Owen Meany when I read it years ago; I’m looking forward to your thoughts and advise you go in with no expectations or reservations.

    1. No, I don’t think I did – I’m heading off to have a look now!

      Oooh that’s good to know – I’d never heard of it before. I’ve got to track down a copy pretty quickly actually as book group is coming up!

  13. I won a copy of this book as well and was really excited to read it. I didn’t love it though; Henrietta seemed silly to me, which I found annoying. But I did like the history behind the book and it was fascinating to read about life in Britian during the war.

    1. Yes, the social history aspect is what I enjoy most about books set in the war. I can see what you mean about Henrietta – the frivolities that occupy her did annoy me a little too. Always nice to win something though, isn’t it?!

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