Saturday, 1 November 2014

Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys

Published 1985  written 1939-41







November 1 1939

In the matter of trousers, dear Robert, the war has hit us hard. Nobody can live in a seaside town without becoming more or less slack-minded. Our female visitors every summer adopt such a nautical air one expects them to break into sea-shanties any minute. But now, such is Hitler’s power, this evil influence has begun to affect even the residents, and it keeps breaking out in the most unlikely quarters. Miss Piper, the girl in the greengrocer’s, has gone into jodhpurs; Faith, our friend, looks quite superb in a pair of pin-striped flannels; Mrs Savernack, though I can hardly expect you to believe this, saw fit to appear last week in a pair of khaki shorts (we all consider her excuse that she is digging her way to victory a poor one ); and I tell you frankly, Robert, only my love for Charles has kept me out of a pair of green corduroy dungarees.


observations: I love the continuing Facebook meme of people writing lists of best or most influential books. I used it as a basis for a blogpost here, and I really enjoy other people’s lists: nodding at old favourites and looking up books that are new to me. My friend the crimewriter Christine Poulson did hers on her blog here, and this was one of her choices - as we are forever finding we share book tastes, it seemed worth a try.

Joyce Dennys wrote a series of articles during the Second World War for the magazine Sketch: she collected them together and published them as a book 40 years later. Online sources vary as to whether she was born in 1883 or 1893: the later date seems more likely, but either way she was over 90 when this book was first published. No-one seems to think this worthy of comment, and she in her introduction is busy telling us how the material turned up while she was doing the spring-cleaning…

Anyway, I’m always interested in Second World War books, particularly contemporary homefront ones, written when the author truly had no idea how things were going to turn out. This was a slowburn charmer: when I started I was busy thinking it was quite like the Diary of a Provincial Lady of blessed blog memory, and quite like Nella Last’s War (a Mass Observation diary, though very different social circumstances), and a bit Stella Gibbons, and then there was that nice Angela Thirkell book... But gradually I got pulled in and stopped thinking about what books it resembled, and just enjoyed it as a first-rate book in its own right. When I finished it I instantly downloaded the second volume and started reading that.

The book takes the form of letters that Mrs Brown, Henrietta, is sending to an old friend, a soldier: she aims to distract him by describing what goes on in her small Devon town, and there are delightful accompanying illustrations by the author – she was primarily an artist.

Henrietta and her circle do all the usual things: they learn about rationing and queueing, they take in refugees and evacuees, they do the blackout, they dig for Victory, they fund-raise and entertain themselves. There is nothing very new here, but it is beautifully done, very real and very funny, and affecting at times.

Henrietta invents a blackout Folk Dance:
in which the couples advanced, each holding two sticks with a piece of black cloth suspended between them, changed partners, set to corners, and, after a little Olde Worlde stamping and circling, advanced down the room in a long line, the black cloth held high above their heads like a long, dark ribbon.
Another clothes highlight is the uniform someone invents for a theoretical Women’s Defence Corps: ‘a circular green skirt to the knees, with shirt to match, and a yellow forage cap which she said would look like gorse from an aeroplane.’

Tremendous stuff, and thank you Chrissie for the tipoff - as it happens, this is the second time this week she has inspired a blogpost, see the scarey stories for Halloween here.

The picture is of Land Girls in their trousers enjoying a cosy evening. It’s from the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful collection. The picture I really wanted to use is this one: it’s not available for reproduction, but do go and have a look - it shows a woman in dungarees AND what looks like the green skirt/gorse-from-above combination….

Women in trousers is a continuing theme on the blog - click on the label below, or see for example this piece for the Guardian Books Blog


10 comments:

  1. Moira - I always think letters are such an interesting way to tell a story. And that look at life at home during the war gives such a great picture of the time and context. Little wonder you enjoyed this one. I like the writing style of the snippet you've shared too.

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    1. Thanks Margot - I agree, letters have an immediacy don't they? And there's something very real about these ones.

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  2. This does sound interesting. Maybe someday I will read it. I especially liked the comments on trousers in the extract. And also, I liked your comments on what you were thinking when reading the first part of the book. I do that a lot, and try to tell myself to stop analyzing things. Sometimes I think it a measure of how well I like a book, whether I am pulled in or evaluating as I read. But each book is different.

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    1. Yes Tracy, I do it too much, always trying to 'place' books, when I should just get on and read them...

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  3. Not feeling this one I'm afraid, I'll pass.

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  4. So glad you enjoyed this, Moira. I thought you would. There is something so charming about it and I only wish there were more volumes.

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    1. I'm so glad I read it and am so grateful for the reco! Yes, I could have gone on reading her pieces forever.

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  5. I love these books, the other is Henrietta Sees It Through.

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    1. Yes, I had to read that one too, and will be blogging on it. Love your online name - I did a couple of entries on Lolly W, a book and author I love.

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