Wartime Reading

Drinking-Tea-in-London-during-the-Blitz

I can’t believe it’s November: October was so busy that it completely ran away with me. I did lots of things and read lots of things, and saw lots of people and had lots of fun, but didn’t have any time to write about them, so sorry about that. However, I have finished the first draft of my novel, which is very exciting. This means I am now going to have a bit more free time, as I plan on taking a couple weeks off writing to let what I’ve done so far ‘rest’, and in the meantime my focus will be on doing some historical research to enhance the period detail of my story. My book is set during WWII, and while it’s not really about the war at all, it is happening in the background, and I think it’s important to get the details right. Most of my war knowledge is connected with WWI, but due to the required ages of the characters, I had to set the book during WWII, which meant I was floundering in the dark a little with my descriptions of what war was like for those on the home front. Obviously this meant I needed to buy some books to help me – such a shame!

Everything I’ve been reading of late, therefore, has been war related. A couple of weeks ago, I read Louisa Young’s My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, which was apparently quite popular a couple of years ago, but which passed me by until our school librarian asked me to read it to decide whether we should put it on our student book club list. It’s set during WWI, so wasn’t directly helpful for me in my fact-gathering mission, but it was useful for me to see how another contemporary author had tackled writing a historical novel. Of course I’ve read plenty of historical novels before, but I’ve never read one while I’ve been trying to write one, so I was far more attentive to the structure and the techniques being used than I would be ordinarily. It was, incidentally, a good read – it’s about a talented working class boy called Riley who is taken into the home of a famous artist in the days before the war. He falls in love with Nadine, the daughter of an upper class couple, who disapprove of him. Riley and Nadine acknowledge that they are in love, and when Riley goes away to war, they write to one another and meet up while he is on leave. However, he then gets injured badly while at the front, suffering terrible facial injuries that send him to the oft-written about Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, where pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies was in charge of creating the new surgical techniques necessary to treat many of the horrific facial deformities caused by bullets, bombs, and shrapnel. While in hospital, Riley befriends a nurse, Rose, who just so happens to be the sister of Riley’s kindly Commanding Officer, Peter Locke. He persuades her to lie to Nadine, telling her that Riley’s injuries are not that bad, but that he doesn’t love her any more, as he can’t bear for her to have to look after him and live with the hideousness that is his ruined face for the rest of her life. Obviously much sadness and tragedy ensues, and there are some other subplots involving further characters that don’t quite work in my opinion, but overall it’s an entertaining and emotional read, and I did enjoy it. So, if you’re in the mood for a wartime romance that’s not overly demanding, this would be a good choice.

I followed this up by reading the marvellous The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which I wrote about for this month’s Old Fashioned Girls Book Club here. I love the Provincial Lady series, and her good humour and biting wit survive marvellously into the early days of the war, where she details the scramble amongst middle class ladies for useful war jobs, and the camaraderie amongst civilians in London as they prepare for a war that doesn’t seem to be arriving any time soon. The Wartime volume of diaries focuses on the period of the ‘Phoney War’, between 1939 and 1940, and this was a very interesting period to read about, as most accounts of WWII focus on the Blitz. I didn’t realise how long things took to get started, and how early on evacuation, gas masks, air raid shelters, rationing and so on were set up, some of which were prepared before war was even declared. This gave me a new insight into just how aware everyone was that war was coming, and also how informed everyone was about the world situation. The Provincial Lady has conversations with people from all different sectors of society, who all have detailed opinions of what is happening and what they think will come next. This again surprised me, as I thought that the government had always done their best to avoid telling people what was happening, whereas in actual fact, there seemed to be a surfeit of information available to people at every stage of proceedings. The little details of everyday life tend to be those that don’t get recorded in history books, so having the chance to see what people ate, read, wore and thought as the war was in progress was fascinating and enormously helpful, and I would recommend it highly.

Also fascinating and enormously helpful was Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes, which Persephone Books will be republishing next year. I couldn’t wait for that, and managed to snap up a very cheap copy on ebay, which I read on the plane to and from Vienna earlier this week (more on that trip soon). Unlike The Provincial Lady in Wartime, it covers the period of the entire war, and is from the perspective solely of a Londoner and her experiences. It confirmed much of what E M Delafield wrote, as well as giving very useful factual accounts of what battles, invasions, talks etc were happening on a month by month basis, which was fantastic for me as it helped me to understand much more fully the progress of the war and how differently it was fought compared to WWI. It’s a very fact-based series of accounts, and doesn’t have the humour or more human-interest based details of the Provincial Lady’s diary entries, but it’s still a brilliant, well written and incredibly valuable selection of essays on the experience of WWII, perfectly expressing the uncertainty and anxiety of the conflict. Keep an eye out for the Persephone edition next Spring!

I have a further pile of factual books to read to boost my knowledge over the next few weeks, but I also feel that I would like to revisit many of my Persephones that are set during the war, as well as Elizabeth Bowen’s fantastic novel set during the Blitz, The Heat of the Day. On my list to read is A House in the Country, Few Eggs and No Oranges, To Bed with Grand Music and Good Evening Mrs Craven. Now, if only I could curl up for a month and just read solidly, I might just get through them all…

35 comments

  1. Rachel, well done on your novel. Wow!! Do you have a publisher or an agent yet? I love your enthusiasm for books and indeed for life! It is quite infectious. I went to Vienna this year too, lovely city!

    1. Thanks very much! You are very kind! Oh, no – it’s not anywhere near ready to show anybody yet, but hopefully once I’ve spruced it up a bit it might attract somebody’s interest…we’ll see! I’m not anticipating that anyone other than me will read it really, but I can dream! I’m glad you enjoyed Vienna – it’s certainly a very striking city.

  2. Congrats on finishing the first draft, Rachel! And sounds like you have some fun reading ahead of you – WWII-era Britain is one of my very favourite topics. If you don’t already have it on your list, I’d highly, highly recommend Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime: Britain 1939 – 1945 (also The Blitz by her, if that overlaps with your novel at all). For fiction, it’s hard to best Angela Thirkell for wartime detail. I know you don’t like her but she includes so many ordinary details that other writers omit (the irritation of double summertime, the horror of the Times moving around the crossword puzzle, etc). Even your beloved Elizabeth Bowen commended Thirkell for this attention to detail, saying “If the social historian of the future does not refer to this writer’s novels, he will not know his business.”

    1. Thanks Claire! Do you know what, I bought that Juliet Gardiner book in the charity shop the other day – it’s massive but looks fascinating and I can’t wait to read it! Oh Claire…you are on a mission to make me read her! I promise I will try something soon!🙂

  3. Do go on and read The Heroes’ Welcome….it is a great book…in some ways My dear…etc is simply the set up for this wonderful book…

  4. A lovely selection of books. I read A House in the Country in the summer and absolutely loved it. It is a beautiful story and the female protagonist is endearing.

  5. Could I suggest Miss Ranskill Comes Home as another Persephone book which gives a rather different outlook on the war!

  6. Congratulations Rachel, how exciting that you’ve finished your first draft!

    Another recommendation for WWII reading, although I’m not sure it’s quite your cup of tea, (also it’s out of print) is Henry Green’s Caught. It’s about the London Auxiliary Fire Service, and was published in 1943. I’ve blogged about it somewhere and so has Stu (http://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/caught-by-henry-green/). It’s not an easy read and it does look at the seamier side of the war. (It’s funny too.)

    1. Thanks Helen! You know what, I have Caught on my bookshelf and have been meaning to read it for ages – thanks for the reminder. I shall add it to the list!

  7. For selfish reasons I am so thrilled that your book has WWII as a backdrop, Rachel. If you would like a companion when you re-read The Heat of the Day don’t hesitate to let me know! I’ve been keen on reading that one more deeply a second time around and may I add to your list? The Love-charm of Bombs is excellent, as you know, for a bit of period detail. And loads of people steer clear of chunky books but Few Eggs and No Oranges could have been twice as long as far as I’m concerned, it’s wonderful!

    1. Oh Darlene, I’m definitely writing something you would like, don’t you worry!🙂 I will do – it will probably be over the Christmas holidays at this rate. I do need to read The Love Charm of Bombs – I’ve been saving it for a time when I have the length of time to devote to it…and that time never seems to come! I am also looking forward to Few Eggs…it is certainly not short but I am hoping for lots of detail.

  8. I’m very fond of WWII literature – and I love the photograph you chose to head this post!
    Have you read A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian? It’s one of my very favourites. And Pastoral, by Nevil Shute? Also very good…
    Congratulations on finishing your draft! I wish I could say the same for me! I look forward to reading your book one day!

    1. Thanks very much! Your recommendations are very interesting – I think I read A Little Love Song as a child but I’ve never read the other two. I shall check them out. Good luck with your own writing – if I can do it, anyone can!

  9. You might also want to check out Among You Taking Notes, Naomi Mitchison’s war diary for Mass Observation.

  10. Hi. Know I mentioned it before but the Nella Last Diaries are gr8. Happy to send u my duplicate version if you want it. Well done on the draft. Always thought I would write, but sadly never found the time! Maybe in a few years…. Jane

    1. Thanks Janey – if you don’t mind sending me your copy, that would be lovely! Send me an email and I’ll send you my address. That’s so kind of you! You must find the time! It’s such a brilliant experience. I feel very creatively fulfilled!

  11. I have an obsessive relationship with WWI and WWII literature! I read everything I can find that is contemporary to the time or historical fiction. As a teenager I was fascinated with the Home Front of WWII and the British experience of the war at home so this is such an interesting post for me!🙂

    However, these days I read a lot of literature about Germany. I find the German experience more interesting. I think it’s the sheer incomprehension of the how life must have been in Germany and the age-old question of ‘how it happened’ that engrosses me. Macabre but I can’t get enough. (Not sure what that says about me…)

    1. Sounds like you should be writing my book, Jessica! You’re far more well qualified! You know, I haven’t read much about the German experience of the war but I agree – it is fascinating to hear about life on the ‘other side.’ Do pass on any recommendations you might have!

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