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…