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.