I read Henrietta’s War a few months ago and absolutely loved it, despite wishing it was a little more realistic about the difficulties of life on the Home Front. So when I was offered the chance to pick some books from Bloomsbury’s catalogue, Henrietta Sees it Through was the main title I knew I would definitely want to read from their selection. As I expected, I was not disappointed; I actually thought it was better than Henrietta’s War, largely because it is much more candid about the hardships of living in a world at war. Though it hasn’t lost the jovial and witty tone of its prequel, Henrietta Sees it Through is tinged with a melancholic note of weariness and worry that made it feel much more heartfelt and genuine to me.
This volume of letters from Henrietta, a middle aged provincial doctor’s wife and mother of two grown up children, to her childhood friend Robert, a soldier at the front, chronicles the last three years of the war, from late 1942 to 1945. For the inhabitants of Henrietta’s Devonshire village, life is becoming increasingly frustrating as shortages continue, loved ones are killed, terrifying air raids occur with more frequency, and the war drags interminably on. Henrietta, Charles and their neighbours; the kindly, good natured elderly widow Lady B, the curt Mrs Savernack, the Colonel and his wife, the Admiral and his wife, the flirtatious Faith and the smitten Conductor, are carrying on as best they can, and Henrietta captures their characters and the often hilarious every day events of life with her usual dry humour. However, the underlying tension of life lived in a period of such uncertainty frequently makes itself known in the form of bad tempers and snappy comments, often in one of the queues at the shops, and sometimes coming to blows. I particularly loved it when a horrified Henrietta is told by no nonsense Mrs Savernack that she must donate some of her books to the Red Cross bank – Henrietta’s inability to give up any of her beloved books, before giving in, only to be told that they will be pulped – made me both laugh and rejoice in the fact that Joyce Dennys was clearly a kindred spirit when it comes to loving books like they are children. I also enjoyed the lamentations of poor Lady B, who was turned away from the V.A.Ds for being too old, and whose only contribution to the war effort can be knitting jumpers, which she finds highly unexciting.
There are some interesting asides about women’s roles during the war; many of the female characters desperately want to do something useful to help the war effort, but for those over a certain age, all they can do is knitting, bandage rolling or committee attending, and Henrietta and her friends find this incredibly frustrating and also guilt inducing. It reminded me of Laura in One Fine Day’s comment that during wars ‘men fight, women sew’. Though younger women could be nurses and ambulance drivers and all sorts of things in the various women’s auxiliary forces, women with children or those past forty were not allowed to do anything much but keep the home fires burning. Their sense of frustration at being stuck at home, making the best out of their meagre rations and waiting for news while their sons and husbands were out fighting for their lives must have been difficult to cope with. The belief that the women must stay at home and wait passively for the men to decide their fate on the battlefields is still very prevalent today, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. From what I understand, the British army still bans women from frontline combat. While this is very gallant it still upholds the notion that women are the weaker sex, and need to be protected. I don’t have a problem with being protected or cared for by a man; I’m not against gentlemanly behaviour by any means, but I know that if I didn’t entirely disagree with wars and were the type to join the army, I’d be more than peeved to be denied the active role I was equally qualified for just because people can’t cope with the idea of women being killed in combat. I’d be interested to hear other people’s views on this.
Anyway, I found this underlying sense of frustration and guilt among the villagers quite moving; despite the sacrifices they have made and the private griefs they have suffered, they feel they have had an easy time of it compared to their city dwelling friends and so aren’t really in a position to complain, even though they frequently have just cause to. This leads them to constantly hide their fears and troubles from one another, putting on a mask of good cheer, and the effort of doing so adds to the sense of general weariness they already feel. No matter how cheery Henrietta is to Robert, and how amusing the events she describes, she can’t hide how fed up everyone is at having their lives on hold and potential doom ever waiting around the corner. This realism is what takes Henrietta Sees it Through to another level, and when there is a sad loss to two of the characters, you really will feel it along with them. In these letters, the flippancy I found a little insensitive in Henrietta’s War has well and truly disappeared, replaced with a still very funny, cosy and excellently characterised novel, but one that is unafraid to show just how difficult living through a war was. As such I think it is really an unmissable and wonderful read for anyone who has an interest in life on the Home Front but also enjoys a critical eye that can lampoon the often difficult circumstances of a country at war; I know I’ll return to it time and time again. Plus, the illustrations add an extra layer of delightfulness to the text, and I particularly loved the drawings of the well endowed Lady B!
Just as an aside, is there anyone else who has noticed a lot of novels written in the 1930s have young female characters called Linnet, like the bird? I first noticed it in Illyrian Spring, then I saw it’s an Agatha Christie character’s name, and it’s in Henrietta’s War (Henrietta’s daughter), and another book from the 1930’s that I can’t remember but know I’ve read it in. I have never met anyone called Linnet or seen the name in use anywhere outside of mid century novels, but I’d be interested to know whether it was a name particularly en vogue during the period, or simply a coincidence! If anyone can enlighten me, I’d be most grateful!