Showing posts with label Second World War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Second World War. Show all posts

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson

Subtitled Women's Lives during the Second World War, this book - like Singled Out - draws on a vast range of personal accounts of the experiences of British women.  Virginia Nicholson uses interviews, diaries, Mass Observation records as well as published sources to construct a sense of how women lived their lives during the war.  As she points out, relatively few women entered the uniformed services during the war, with most continuing to keep house and look after their children through the privations of wartime, and the book seeks especially to tell the story of that Home Front.

While she succeeds in this - and with diarists like Nella Last at hand, she has plenty of good sources among the women who struggled with rationing and did their bit as volunteers in the WVS or similar - one of the problems with accounts of quiet, stoical endurance is that they may not always be terribly exciting.  But the book also includes plenty of accounts of women who ventured a bit further, and whose bravery and heroism makes for a little more drama such as Mary Cornish, who survived the wrecking of a ship taking evacuated children to Canada, and Aileen "Mike" Morris, who served in Malta and North Africa with the WAAFs; a fluent German speaker, she listened to and interpreted their radio messages.

Throughout the book, Nicholson considers where feminism is in all this activity, whether women were motivated by patriotism, the desire to defeat fascism or a wish to extend women's social role.  Particularly interesting are the chapters on the years immediately after the war, when many women went back, with some relief, to home-making and child-rearing.  The impact of prolonged separation from their husbands and the independence this enforced affected even the most devoted housewife, however; Nicholson tells of returning husbands whose need to reassert their masculine authority marked the end of the marriage.  For other women, the end of the war was a time of frustration; sidelined out of their jobs to make room for returning heroes, they felt unvalued, no longer of use to their country.  But many women, as Nicholson points out, were entirely identified with the idea of home; home was, as she says "who they were", and the chance to return there meant self-fulfilment and expression rather than constraint.

Perhaps this position partly has its roots in the type of war service women undertook; as Nicholson explains, most women's wartime roles were ancillary, supportive of the front-line war service of men, and kept that way deliberately by the wartime administration; anything else was far too challenging to the notion of woman as man's helpmeet and women with an idea of themselves as equal to men were, in any case, few and far between.  To the modern feminist reader this can, as Nicholson acknowledges, be frustrating, but she is always fair and balanced in her approach, seeking to understand their position and its origins rather than to criticise.  The whole book is deeply empathic; Nicholson's fellow feeling for the women she writes about means that their stories are moving and engaging, although even Nicholson couldn't make me empathise with Barbara Cartland.  My one minor criticism is that, although there is quite a lot of material on women's sexual lives during the war, lesbianism only seems to be mentioned in terms of predation.  There are several published memoirs of lesbian life in wartime that could have amplified this - the book It's Not Unusual has a chapter on the Second World War, if you are interested in finding out more.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Little Gods by Anna Richards

Anna Richard's first novel is the story of Jean, an oversized baby born in 1920 who grows to giant adulthood by the start of World War II - a war which will bring her new opportunities for pleasure and pain.  Tormented by her ghastly mother, Wisteria, the child Jean is underfed and overworked in an effort to contain her growth.  Her size makes her schoolfellows afraid of her ("I broke someone's arm once when I fell on her") but beautiful Gloria is not scared of Jean.  Gloria gives Jean some sense of normal life, with her affectionate parents and determination to make Jean socialise.  The outbreak of war - which also thankfully dispatches Wisteria - gives Jean an answer to her perpetual question: what am I for?  Engaged as part of a demolition team, given clothes - a set of overalls - that finally fit her, Jean develops a sense of self and purpose.  The war also brings her love, in the form of a rather small and ratlike GI whose sexual ideal is a giantess; Danny will eventually take her to California where she will explore other, often extraordinary, ways of being useful.

I was drawn to this book because of a personal affinity with the theme; I've been 5 feet 10 inches tall since I was thirteen, and well remember the feeling of being oversized in a primary school designed for tiny infants.  But there is much to offer readers of all heights.  Everyone will have felt at some point that they do not fit the world around them; Jean's story magnifies that experience and shows how it can be dealt with to magnificent effect.  Jean herself is a marvellous character, aware of her strength and the capacity for mayhem, and therefore determined to be gentle and restrained; her slow-burning pleasure in the discovery of all the things her marvellous body can do is beautifully realised.  Indulged Gloria, daughter of sweet-shop owners, could be an irritating do-gooder but she is drawn with depth and sincerity.  Even the monstrous Wisteria is allowed sufficient humanity to stop her being a caricature. 

The quality of the writing is also excellent.  I could quote almost any paragraph, but here is a paragraph about Jean's war: "Death came often to the seaside.  Jean grew strong shifting tons of rubble left over from lives taken, and the survivors added their own lifesongs to the din around them.  The air crackled with the static of people.  It could go in any direction, the static, numbing life or making it a fierce itch that can never be quelled.  Jean let hers sing through her arms and legs as she worked; she didn't want to stop at the end of each day because then she would be deafened by the excess of life within iner and reminded that what she was, was not enough.  Not yet."  The novel exploits the remarkable images available in wartime, and at all times to giant young women, to great metaphorical effect.  Richards also has a keen eye for the ridiculous and Jean's size means that there is a great deal of humour in the book, not all of it farcical or at her expense.

If I have one quibble it is with the section of the book in America in which Jean becomes involved with an evangelical movement.  This seemed to me to be a rather broad caricature of American society and to be essentially plot-driven, rather than telling us much more about Jean.  But there is much to admire and enjoy, and Jean's story is thoroughly absorbing and enriching.  I hope Anna Richards is working on an equally inventive second novel.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

This collection of short stories was published in 1945; thematically, the stories concern the psychic, social and material damage inflicted by the Second World War.  Many of the stories centre around houses changed by bombing, requisition, or disuse, and on the effect of these changes on the people who move around and through these houses.  A crack in a wall may act as a conduit to another world; disturbing memories and dreams are summoned by rediscovered objects; social structures are as cracked as the masonry.  Some of the stories are deeply sinister in effect - the title story in particular - and Bowen is very good at showing how close to the boundaries of madness her protagonists come.  Other stories deal, more humorously, with the frustrations that arise from the limitations of wartime, and in more than one story Bowen skewers the self-importance of the war-worker with great effectiveness.

This collection left me with the general impression that civilian life in wartime, with its dreary constraints, deprivations and shocks, allows long-buried sorrows to surface, almost as if one trauma calls up another, older one; and that war service required a mask, a persona, not just for the purposes of national security but also to sustain individual endurance of the intolerable.  It is these masks that slip, or are knocked askew, in Bowen's stories.  Being Bowen's stories, they are exquisitely written: there are some elegiac descriptions of the lost past, imbued both with beauty and with a deserved sense of unreality, as they are invariably the products of dreams or hallucinations.  Beauty can be read as another casualty of war, only to be accessed if one is prepared to peer beyond the limitations of sanity.

Bowen tends to focus on her particular milieu and class; if you are interested in fiction about the Blitz in the East End, you won't find it here.  There is even an Irish country house setting for one of the stories.  However, as with The Death of the Heart, the voices of the servant class and the lower-middle class do break through, and in some stories are symptomatic of the social disruption occasioned by the war.

The Demon Lover is no longer in print as a collection, although there are second-hand copies about - mine is a rather elegant volume that the title page tells me was "produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards" prevailing in 1945.  However, Vintage offer a volume of Bowen's collected short stories which includes 79 of her stories, including the stories in this book.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Museum of Cheats by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Typically lyrical, tricky stories from STW. The title story is a long history of the eponymous museum spanning several centuries, much in the style of The Corner That Held Them; the story of an institution rather than the characters that populate it. Many of the stories focus on the immediate aftermath of the second world war, with separated couples reunited but unreconciled. It will make a good companion piece to Austerity Britain.