Books about the Home Front in WW2 – A List






In my recent post on Annabel Davis-Goff’s This Cold Country I concentrated on one of the main themes – the heroine going to live in a big Irish house, part of the Protestant Ascendancy. But the book is also about the Second World War: before the action moves to Ireland, it is very much a Home Front book, with the heroine working as a Land Girl.

I love any book about the Home Front, and back in the day did a list of Best WW2 Home Front Books, a cross-blogging project with my friend Chrissie Poulson. The list is here.

But I have read more books since then! That list was keyed to the 70th anniversary of VE Day, 2015, 7 years ago. So here are some more I have read since then, a mixture of books written at the time, and historical novels from later.

Lissa Evans completed her loose trilogy with V for Victory (helpfully informative title) a wonderful book about Noel and Vee, highly recommended. Her research for this and Their Finest has given her expertise in this area – so:

She also told me to read The Fancy by Monica Dickens, and Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh, both excellent finds.

And she also set me onto Maiden’s Trip by Emma Smith a dream-like excursion into the tiny world of wartime canalboats, and a true work of art.

I have very recently read Deed without a Name by Dorothy Bowers - again a contemporary and enthralling picture of London as the war starts to bite. The same could be said of the very cheery Murder’s a Swine, written by Pamela Hansford Johnson and her husband under the pen-name of Nap Lombard.

And then there is SusanScarlett/Noel Streatfeild’s Murder while you work, and JB Priestley’s Blackout in Gretley, with its unusual spying plot .

Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is a book about adultery, but its evocation of wartime London is stunning and beautiful: my post has a consideration of the saddest lines…

Sarah Manning’s After the Last Dance re-creates the atmosphere of the Rainbow Club, R&R for US soldiers in the middle of London, with all the opportunities for romance and adventure that offers (and the post has some wonderful photos of the club).

Sunset over Soho by Gladys Mitchell doesn’t linger in Soho all that long (it goes off in the usual Mitchell weirdness), but while it is there it paints a wonderful picture of London in the Blitz - this 1942 picture from the Imperial War Museum collection shows a Rest Centre like the one in the book.



Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift looks at refugees living in London at the beginning of the war – there are two posts. Picture is Canteen at Christmas – a café is important in the book as a sanctuary for refugees.




I have always loved Robert Harris’s book Enigma, about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park during the war, and I also love the film.

I claim that Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books often seem as though they could be set any time in her curious world of romantic heroines, rich relatives and misunderstandings with young men – but The Traveller Returns has a most definite setting towards the end of the WW2, and is full of details of ration books and coupons and queuing. I used this wartime painting from the IWM.





Unexpected: I read Monica Baldwin’s I Leap Over the Wall many many years ago, interested in the (non-fiction) story of a nun who leaves the convent after 28 years. I didn’t particularly notice then that she steps out in the middle of wartime England (1941), but on re-reading it is particularly fascinating as she has to learn a lot about modern life. There is a hilarious list of the things she had never heard of which were now part of everyday life:

The Unknown Soldier, Jazz, isolationism, lounge lizards, Lease-Lend, Cavalcade, Gin and It…. Hollywood, cocktail, robot… Greta Garbo, Picasso, DH Lawrence and Dr Marie Stopes.

And of course she also has to learn about wartime restrictions. It is a quite grim but compelling read, and she bravely but apparently consciously shows herself to be not a tremendously nice person (in my view). (She is also related to, and spends time with in the book, Angela Thirkell who took her light novels from the 1930s right into wartime – Northbridge RectoryCheerfulness Breaks In)

For anyone who shares my fascination with this era, I can recommend this 1997 book: Millions Like Us by Jenny Hartley, subtitle ‘British Women’s Fiction of the Second World War’. It is a great read, illuminating and entertaining – though leaving you with a list of books you need to obtain. (There is another book with the same name, also about women in WW2, which I am sure is very good, but you need to be aware. Both books take the title from an absolutely wonderful black and white film of 1943, again dealing with women’s wartime lives. I think I am correct in saying it is Lissa Evans’ – see above – favourite film.)

No qualms about using the top photo again. It is my favourite of all the pics I have ever used on the blog, and I bought a print to hang on my wall. It shows a landgirl, taken by Bryson Jack as part of a series of photos about poultry keeping.

As with the other pictures it is from the Imperial War Museum, who, as I keep saying, have an astonishing collection of photographs and other items which they generously make available to non-profit websites.

Comments

  1. Millions Like Us - yes the film is "absolutely wonderful"! Class barriers break down - permanently? No such luck. Anne Crawford will not marry Eric Portman. (She married Bonar Law.)

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  2. Bonar Colleano! Dammit no edit button.

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    1. Thanks Lucy! What an enjoyable film that is, and so full of life. I have just been looking up Bonar Colleano - tremendous stuff. A circus acrobat, and a sad end when he crashed his Jaguar in Birkenhead.

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  3. For that I should recommend a book. How about Ladies May Now Leave Their Machines, non-fiction, same context as The Fancy. (And from WWI: Lloyd George's Munition Girls.)

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    1. Don't know either of these - will look them up

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  4. The home front is such an interesting topic, Moira! There are so many ways in which society changed while the soldiers and others were away at war. Everything from getting food to getting married was different, and it's fascinating to explore that. People don't really think (unless they've lived through it) what that's like. This is a great list of titles and recommendations, and a fantastic idea for a post!

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    1. Thanks Margot! I do find it endlessly interesting. I would love to find our more about the homefront in the US at the same time, I must look for some books on that.

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  5. I love your landgirl so much I have made her the star of the 3rd Swallows'Flight,Skylarks'war book that I am beginning. The Camomile Lawn is a favourite of mine, not sure if it would make your excellent list though.

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    1. Oh I am so excited about the idea of my landgirl featuring! (and excited about the prospect of another Skylarks book). Oh yes, Camomile Lawn - I had forgotten that. .Mary Wesley had quite the moment, but is she forgotten now? Or not?

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    2. I wonder. I think perhaps she had too much fun with her stories for these stern and self conscious days.

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    3. I remember a TV adaptation of Camomile Lawn that I enjoyed. And a friend sending me another one because the main character had an important and fabulous dress - and that was pre-blog days, she just knew I would like that. I did like the ways people behaved badly in her books.

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  6. Some I seem to be anonymous again. Hilary Mckay

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    1. Yes I knew! I wish I knew more about how to cope with blogger... I have no advice to give people

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  7. Millions Like Us: love the book and the film.
    Two more for your list: Timber Girl and Jill on the Land by Phyllis Matthewman.
    https://callmemadam.livejournal.com/tag/phyllis%20matthewman

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    1. Oh great, thanks, I don't know either of those

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  8. I love Doreen by Barbara Noble. An East End evacuee finds herself staying in a home quite different from the one she has left.

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    1. Excellent thanks, more for the list. Such a good topic for a novel

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    2. Some of Peter Dickinson's novels - Hindsight, and Some Deaths Before Dying, for example - have sections set in WWII.
      Goodnight Mister Tom - book and film - is probably the classic evacuee story.
      A rather more cynical view of evacuees is in Waugh's Put Out More Flags.
      Two other films - Alan Parker's The Evacuees and No Room at the Inn give a different view.

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    3. Thanks! I'm a big fan of Peter Dickinson, and surely no-one can resist Goodnight Mister Tom. Evacuees always a very fruitful topic for fiction and non-fiction - but I haven't come across either of those films and will look out for them

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  9. Thanks for mentioning Murder While You Work (one of Dean Street Press's August publications!). DSP actually have a large number of WW2 home-front novels (and memoirs) out. Just to pick two of my personal favourites, A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell, and The House Opposite by Barbara Noble.

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    1. Yes, I should have mentioned that your list is a great place to look for those books. Did you see the comment above mentioning another Barbara Noble book?

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  10. Angela Thirkell is I admit an acquired taste and she can be both entertaining and cringeworthy. The Barsetshire novels begin before the war and end long after, and the novels written during the war years are pretty much contemporaneous with events. They recount middle class life in the shires - with families separated, husbands at war, sons called up, daughters escaping into war work, shortages, rations, evacuees, officer billets, voluntary work of all sorts. They are my actual guilty pleasure - I know they aren’t good for me but…

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    1. Oh I couldn't agree more! she drives me mad in many ways, and I hate her snobbish (small c) conservatism (though likely large C too) and yet, and yet - so entertaining, and often so very funny, and some real insights and nuance from time to time. Then she'll spoil it all with a twinkle-eyed retainer who loves the young mistress's children more than her own. (It has also taken me several minutes to decide exactly how possessive of mistress should look, and still very likely wrong)

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  11. The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons is set during WW II and shows many facets of the home front. There's a refugee maid, a woman munitions worker, and a frighteningly peace-loving spinster.

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    1. Oh thank you! I am a big fan of Gibbons' Westwood, similar era, so that sounds like a good one to read next.

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  12. Two books by Cyril Hare deal with WWII on the home front - Tragedy at Law and With a Bare Bodkin (which is an entertaining account of life in a remote part of England then).

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    1. I've been enjoying some non-fiction home front writing recently: Margaret Kennedy, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, her 1940 journal (marvellous). and Julie Summers, Our Uninvited Guests, about the country houses that were requisitioned for the war effort, and Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War by Julie Summers (right up your street, Moira!). For some reason I can't give my name (Chrissie Poulson).

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    2. Yes, Francis Pettigrew gains a wife in one of them doesn't he?

      And some good additions to the list there. I always liked in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love where it was decided that the family's grand country house was far too uncomfortable for anyone unused to its cold and discomforts to live there - only the posh family could cope with it, so they didn't get any evacuees.

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  13. There was a wonderful television show about 25 years ago called Homefront about a small town in the US as the men are returning from WWII. You would enjoy it if available online.

    You have some great books on this list, including several I don't know and want to find. I really loved Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce (the sequel was good too) about a young woman who wants to become a war correspondent but ends up as an advice columnist.

    A Strange Enchantment about a WWII Land Girl and Time to Go Back, a WWII time travel, both by Mabel Esther Allan, are two of her best.

    I love evacuation stories and my favorites are The War That Saved My Life (Bradley), Back Home (by the author of Goodnight Mister Tom), and Now That April's There by Daisy Neuman. The latter two are about children *after* they return from being evacuated to America and how hard it is to fit in and meet their parents' expectations.

    Enemy Brothers is a fascinating children's book about a boy reunited with his English family during WWII after being brought up by Nazis. The unswerving love of his older brother, an RAF pilot, gradually reclaims the boy.

    I could go on but am supposed to be tidying up for guests.

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    1. Thank you! That's a great list, and most of them I am unfamiliar with - I did read Mrs Bird but didn't blog on it for some reason. And of course I didn't remember all the homefront books in time for the list. The TV show sounds great too.

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  14. Christine Harding31 August 2022 at 13:57

    There’s a surfeit of riches when it comes to books about the Home Front. Dean Street Press,, Persephone and the old green-spines Viragos all have som real treasures. One of my favourites is Few Eggs and no Oranges, the wartime diaries of
    Vere Hodgson, which provides a lovely mix of the everyday and momentous international events. It’s funny, and sad, and uplifting, with quiet moments of joy amid the horror, and lots of snippets about clothes and food. Nella Last’s Wartime Diaries, written for the Mass Observation project gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of a Barrow housewife and her work in a WRVS (or WVS as it then was) shop. Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith is an enjoyable partly fictionalised account of the author’s wartime journeys hauling coal, steel etc along the Grand Union Canal - think water girls rather than land girls! I would highly recommend the Barbara Noble books already mentioned And what about The Provincial Lady and Mrs Miniver?

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    1. Thanks for some great additions, and books to look out for. I certainly second the recommendation of the Nella Last book. I also liked the TV version of it, featuring Victoria Wood, did you see that?

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    2. And also, yes we are very lucky to have those wonderful publishers around finding lost gems for us.

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