Writer Christine Poulson and I have shared a few lists in our time – favourite Agatha Christies, books set in schools, books that make us laugh – and given the VE day anniversary this week (70 years since the end of World War 2) we decided to demonstrate our joint love of books about the homefront with a new list each, to be posted simultaneously.
Christine’s website is here, and this is the link to her Homefront post.
If the book has featured on the blog, there’s a link to the post.
Best books about the British
Homefront in WW2
Westwood by Stella Gibbons For anyone who has only read her sublime Cold Comfort Farm – you have a treat in store. She wrote many novels, and they vary in quality, but this is a really good one. Margaret leads a dull life in wartime London, but gets pulled (through the chance of a lost ration book) into the aura of a rich, Bohemian, theatrical family. It’s a funny story, but also sad, and absolutely full of authentic details of life at that time – it was published in 1946.
Henrietta’s War and Henrietta Sees it Through by Joyce Dennys Two-for-one, and very appropriate because Christine Poulson introduced me to these books via her list of books that made her laugh, and they’re probably going to make it onto her list today. This was a collection of weekly articles Dennys wrote at the time about life in a small town – they seem to be semi-autobiographical, and are hilarious and fascinating – you get a real feel for the times.
Nella Last’s War, aka Housewife, 49 This is non-fiction, but fits with the other books. It is an edited selection of the Mass Observation Diaries kept by Nella Last from September 1939 onwards in her not-very-exciting hometown of Barrow in the NW of England. Mass Observation was a scheme which aimed to record the lives of people via diaries: Nella Last sent in her reports on a regular basis, so it is a true diary, with no benefit of hindsight. The book was made into a delightful television film by the comedian, writer and actress Victoria Wood.
Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell This one was published in 1941, and perhaps was aimed at cheering up the public - Thirkell specialized in light romantic comedies. Here she turns her eye to a small village: evacuees, servicemen billeted at the rectory, the worries about children in the forces. In a rare moment of seriousness: ‘Mrs Villars, standing back from the party for a moment, thought how peculiar it was, judging by almost forgotten pre-war standards, that what people called “nothing happening” meant going on in darkness, discomfort [and] anticipation of danger.’
The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948) is an intense book – a claustrophobic account of complex lives being lived during the war: Stella with her confidential job, and the men she loves. It’s a book about spying, about loyalties and betrayal, and truly makes you feel you know what it was like to be in London at that time.
Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (originally known as Curtain Up) is a look at the lives of some young children living in London during the war and (of course) trying to pursue theatrical interests. (Their very theatrical family in fact resembles the one infiltrated by Margaret in Westwood above.) Clothes rationing plays a particularly big part, and there is a lot about the changes in life since the 1930s. A delight for fans of the ur-text, Ballet Shoes.
Green for Danger by Christianna Brand is one of my all-time favourite crime novels, but also presents an amazing picture of life in a hospital in Kent during the war (the book was published in 1945) – air raids and shelters and gasmasks and volunteer nurses. Mesmerizing.
N or M? by Agatha Christie (1941) Such an authentic picture of WW2 life that Christie actually came under suspicion for calling a character Major Bletchley while mentioning secret code-breaking work. Tommy and Tuppence are embedded in a convincingly dreary seaside boarding-house, hunting spies.
Crooked Heart (2014) and Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009)– both by Lissa Evans. Two wonderful modern looks at the homefront. 1.5 hrs (as I cheekily like to call it) is about a film-making unit during the war, Crooked Heart (one of my best books of last year) is about evacuees and small petty con tricks. Evans creates her characters’ worlds completely and wonderfully: they are totally convincing and real.
Night Watch by Sarah Waters – another modern book, 2006 – has a curious reverse structure, which I did not understand, but the section set during the blitz is a tour-de-force of writing, and I said in a blogpost the description of moving through London under the rain of bombs is deeply memorable and ‘would alone make the whole book worth reading.’
Do be sure to read Chrissie’s list too, and please add your own suggestions in the comments.
All the pictures are from the Imperial War Museum’s marvellous collection of homefront photographs.
Loved doing this, Moira, and it is so interesting to see where we overlap and where we don't. Can't believe I didn't think of N or M? On the whole, Agatha didn't make a lot of use of the war, did she? I like Netta Last, too, and read her diaries in a collection of other Mass Observation diaries covering the war - all very interesting. Must read Crooked Heart.ReplyDelete
Yes me too, and loved your books - some 'oh yes' moments and some 'must look that up' moments. You're right about Christie - she did more on post-war Britain: Murder is Announced and Taken at the Flood both very atmospheric.Delete
Thanks for the lovely mention! re Nella Last: There are many other good and readable wartime diaries, but Nella's is qualitively different - it's like hearing a blackbird singing after listening to a school recorder. She was a naturally brilliant writer, a novelist manque.ReplyDelete
Home front fiction recommendations: The Slaves of Solitude - Patrick Hamilton (a truly great book), Put Out More Flags - Waugh (hilarious account of evacuation), The Ministry of Fear - Greene (best account of a raid), Daylight on Saturday - Priestley (murder in an aircraft factory)
And four superb non-fiction accounts of the blitz, all actually published during the war:
A Chelsea Concerto - Faviell (an artist, who survived a direct hit)
Post D - John Strachey (an air raid warden)
Raiders Overhead - Barbara Nixon (ex actress and warden and passionate Socialist)
Outside Information - Royde Smith (superb about gossip and rumour)
I'll stop now....!
Thanks Lissa for fabulous suggestions. That's interesting about Nella Last, that she stood out among the others. She has a very memorable voice, for sure.Delete
Do you intend to write more about that period....? (Please say yes!)
I would do a smiley emoji if I knew how....Delete
What a terrific idea for a list!! Of the ones I've read on your list, I've enjoyed them quite a lot. I think books like that remind us that war has far greater effects than we might think. And that people find ways to get on with life, even in the midst of war.ReplyDelete
Yes indeed Margot. And I'm hoping you might be able to enlighten us about some US books about the homefront in the war. I read a very good book by Carolyn Hart, Letter from Home, about 1940s Oklahoma, and thought then it would be good to read more like that. Could we hope for a Confessions post on books set in the era....?Delete
I want to read all of them - right now!ReplyDelete
For non-fiction there are also Joan Wyndham's gloriously frank, not to say bawdy, diaries, published as Love Lessons and Love is Blue. The things people got up to in the blackout! I've only just remembered them or might have put them in.
Oh yes, I read them. And I keep thinking of others too - Provincial Lady did a wartime book, and Nancy Mitford had one with a wartime setting, and Pursuit of Love where the final third is wartime... so many books...Delete
Oh, Green for Danger! How vivid the descriptions of the low cottages where the nurses boarded, the makeshift hospital set-up, the short tempers, and the witty comebacks. I love this book and must re-read it at once.ReplyDelete
To everyone's list I'd like to add Marking Time, the second of the Cazalets. It only goes through the first year or two of the war, I think, but it captures the mood so well. Actually, what really intrigues me about all the Cazalet volumes is the detailed and often nauseating descriptions of food. That fine family in its great house ate slop, and not just in wartime! Everything cobbled together, scraps saved and recycled not just once but several times by the resourceful cook (Food in Books would make a fun blog!). But I digress . . .
I'm not familiar with Crooked Heart, but it sounds terrific and I'm off to amazon it right away! Thank you for these specific lists; they are mines of fascinating finds.
I love it that other people are adding such good ones - thanks for the suggestion of the Cazalets. I've caught bits of that on the radio, but not read the books.Delete
Home Front films now? The brilliant Millions Like Us. And what was that one with Cecil Parker?ReplyDelete
Films is a great idea - Mrs Miniver. I was going to say This Happy Breed, but I think that ends before the war. So what is the Cecil Parker?Delete
Good Evening, Mrs Craven - Mollie Panter-Brown's beautifully understated short stories on the effect of the war on ordinary people (well, ordinary middle-class people if I'm to be strictly accurate, but that doesn't lessen their impact). And Vere Hodgson's war diaries, Few Eggs and No Oranges, which I think are fantastic - I love the juxtaposition of her descriptions of bombing raids and war news alongside everyday things like flowers in the park, or a new book or film.ReplyDelete
I've read something by Mollie P-B but not the stories, and will note that and the Vere Hodgson - have I seen that on the Persephone list?Delete
Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More FlagsReplyDelete
Caught by Henry Green
Julian Maclaren-Ross's short stories
Fireman Flower by William Sansom
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
The volumes of James Agate's Ego about WWII are particularly interesting because Agate - self-indulgent and spendthrift - regarded the war as personally offensive.
Haven't read any Sansom, nor that Green, nor the Agate - though I recently read a novel by Anthony Quinn with a character plainly based on Agate! The Waugh brings back Basil Seal doesn't it? And the Hamilton is very good.Delete
Interesting list. I only know about the non-mysteries via your blog. I might enjoy them someday. I need to get to N or M? soon. It will definitely be a reread. Most Agatha Christie novels I can't be sure if I read them earlier or not, but this one I read for sure. Still don't remember anything about it. I liked Green for Danger. Glen has not read it but he loves the film.ReplyDelete
I never can remember anything for suggestions, but I did like John Lawton's Frederick Troy books, and some of them must be set in this time period. There were some set earlier and some of them jumped around before and after the war.
As I was saying to Margot above, if you think of any US homefront books you must tell me about them. I really like the John Lawton books, but haven't read one for ages.Delete
I don't do well trying to remember books, but there are a few. John Dunning wrote Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, set in 1942 and at a radio station. Dunning is a historian of the early days of radio, so that background is very interesting and well done. Unfortunately I did not like his style of writing in this book or the other one I read by him. If I still had my copy I would send it to you, I think you might like it.Delete
Rex Stout wrote three Nero Wolfe novellas (published in two different books) set during World War II, all of which I enjoyed a lot. No surprise there. I don't think any of the novels were set during the war because he was involved (as a civilian) in the war effort and did not publish much.
I read the Dunning book - because I worked in radio for a long time I always like books about it, and read it for that reason. I had high hopes of h is Bookseller series, but, like you, didn't really take to them. When I get going on Rex Stout I will look out for wartime ones!Delete
Not too much I'm familiar with, though I have got the Brand book somewhere. Probably not tempted to expand my horizons either. My dad used to read Elizabeth Bowen though I couldn't tell you which ones.ReplyDelete
That's the Irish connection - she's a really Anglo-Irish author. You'd think there must be some nourish wartime books, but I can't think of any!Delete
Millions Like Us is also the title of Juliet Gardner's history of the Home Front. Very good.ReplyDelete
Sorry, it was Virginia Nicholson - and the book was specifically about women's lives on the Home Front.ReplyDelete
Oh that sounds good, I must read it.Delete
Moira, this is a fine list of WW2 novels set on the British homefront. Not all of the authors are familiar but their stories sound really good.ReplyDelete
Our lists are just skimming the surface - it's so interesting that so many people have come up with favourites.Delete
Of the titles above, I only read Night Watch by Sarah Waters.ReplyDelete
But I sure saw films set in England at the start of and during WWII. So many. But a real favorite of mine, and I join millions in saying this, I'm sure, was Mrs. Miniver.
I thought Greer Garson was the most incredible woman hero of that war. (Since I've accepted she was a fictional hero, though many women had to cope with what she did, I've moved on to look at real heroes.) But I then saw every movie she was in.
I have a friend in her 80s who lived in England during the war, her Jewish familh having fled Poland and landed there. During the blitz, she and her siblings were sent to live on a farm in the countryside. They weren't treated like family members and had to eat in the kitchen, not in the dining room with the family. This is what I've heard.
Mrs Miniver was an iconic movie I think, and Greer Garson was a terrific actress. Films set at that time really is a good subject.Delete
Evacuees, and families billeted on others, had very very varying experiences, which I suppose makes them good for fiction. Some people established lifelong bonds with their host families - this happened to one of my mother's best friends, and I've heard it about others.
My friend had lost her mother, so it was her father and two siblings who went to England. Being separated from her father who stayed in London, and then being excluded from the resident family's togetherness may have been too hard on her.ReplyDelete
Indeed it must have been dreadful. Nowadays people would at least worry about the psychological after-effects of these situations, but I don't think that happened then...Delete
Dorothy L. Sayers wrote ... hmm, I'm not certain if it was letters or newspaper columns or what, outlining how the Wimsey family dealt with wartime restrictions, etc. They were never published in book form, to my knowledge. And as I remember, Jill Paton Walsh used them as the basis for a (dreary) Wimsey novel, A Presumption of Death. There is quite a bit, as I recall, about the fine points of rationing and food shortages.ReplyDelete
Oh yes, Noah, thanks - she did didn't she? I think I read them at some point of Sayers completism many many years ago, but can't remember where. And yes I agree about the JPW book... so disappointing.Delete
Great lists! Have read five of those here and seen the film version of Green is for Danger. Also recommend Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, as the WWII section is shattering, The main character Ursula, goes through the Blitz in horrifying fashion, at one point working in Civil Defence and facing the gruesome after effects of the bombings. Brilliant stuff beautifully written. Another recommendation is the too little known Canadian author Helen Humphreys, whose The Last Garden is about a land girl in Devon, but the Blitz is covered. Humphreys's less successful Coventry has strong sections about the cathedral's destruction.ReplyDelete
As for films, the shocking Went the Day Well? is a fictional account of what the home front might have faced and remains staggering. Great to see some love for Mrs Miniver, an iconic film of the genre. It went into preproduction just as after the Blitz got going and that as well as the real fear England would be invaded continually disrupted the screen writing. The original stories were all set prior to the war, which also affected the writers (about six in total contributed). Although with Barbarossa in June 1941, invasion fear receded, the Miniver script was continually tweaked to remain "fresh" and realistic (given the time and being made in Hollywood before Pearl Harbor) until shooting began in Nov 1941. It still packs a punch.
Thanks Luisa for some great additions to the list. I should have had the Kate Atkinson on all along. I'd not heard of Helen Humphreys, she sounds reaslly interested, I am off to look her up. Thanks for the extra info on films too - fascinating about Miniver being constantly updated, didn't know that.Delete
Love so many of these. I adore the Dennys ones, especially and have lost count of how many times I have read Nella's. Even had to replace a copy that had become too tattered to read properly! Even though they always make me feel rather sad.ReplyDelete
I have never read D L S, always meant to but somehow never got around to it. Must remedy that forthwith.
I'm on the last of the Sword of Honour trilogy at the moment, and about to start Anthony Powell's Dance to The Music of Time.
I know exactly what you mean about Nella Last, it is such a lovely book, but it IS sad, and you can't help wondering what life she would have led in other circumstances. Sword of Honour I find admirable rather than lovable, but I do love Anthony Powell.Delete
I never fail to cry during Mrs Miniver, I hope that is acceptable for a bearded old man. I read Green For Danger many years ago and want to read it again. Things were not much different for the UK population in the post war years with rationing lasting till about 1953.ReplyDelete
I don't remember the war years I was a baby, but from my photos I can tell that we were not starved by the U - Boat campaign.
Yes Mrs Miniver is a killer. And the post-war period always sounds fairly grim in terms of rationing - miserable food regulations lasted longer in the UK than anywhere else (including Germany) I believe. I'm glad to hear you didn't starve!Delete
Two years behind here, but enjoying this list. Will be looking up several of these now as it is a subject that interests me. The Mary Wesley novels are a particular weakness of mine. One I've meant to look for is an evacuee novel by Lynne Reid Banks (Uprooted). She was sent to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where she attended high school with my uncle. Also on the subject of children sent to Canada is The Guests of War trilogy by Kit Pearson. I did make a serious study of the evacuees at one point and wrote an unproduced screenplay about children from Glasgow sent out to the countryside. My favourites listed above would have to be the Bowen, the Waters, and the Atkinson. I do have that Persephone edition of the Vera Hodgson but have only dipped into into it. And I keep meaning to get the Lissa Evans to read before the film...thanks for this reminder!ReplyDelete
I love almost any book about the homefront, and as you say, the subject of evacuees specifically is particularly fascinating. Such strange stories, such a strange thing to do. My mother was evacuated, but to family in Ireland, and she says she still can't understand how people sent their children away to strangers.Delete
Do read the Lissa Evans, and see the film!