Somewhere in England by Carola Oman – a wonderful 1943 novel of country life republished by Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press.
Somewhere in England by Carola Oman
This is a truly wonderful book from the pen of an accomplished writer produced as part of her war effort in 1943; it now appears in a republished form in the stylish format of a Furrowed Middlebrow title from Dean Street Press. It covers the life of a country house hospital during the Second World War and its links to the residents in the local village and airbase. It avoids any hint of being worthy by telling the stories of the people via Pippa Johnson, a young nurse who arrives at the house with many confused ideas about what and who to expect, and in the second part Mary Hungerford, owner of Woodside. Some may recognise some characters from Oman’s 1940 novel “Nothing to Report” as this novel is in some ways a sequel to the earlier novel, which has also been republished by Dean Street Press. This novel stands completely alone, however, and most of the storylines stand completely independently.
Pippa has little knowledge of what has gone before as she arrives in the area from a strenuous railway journey partly disorganised by her guardian Auntie Prue, and she has only a few names to go on, including the rather managing Mrs Bates. As the focus turns to Mary, the older woman encounters memorable characters both in her hospital who she must deal with, as well as her local links to the minor gentry and residents of the area who can cause problems. The humour is gentle, often poking fun at those who are talking more about war work than doing it and get themselves into situations from which Mary must try to persuade them. Like the later Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels which are set in the early days of the War, there is at least one woman who insists that her efforts are of enormous significance, but which really only upset everyone else, and there is another for whom her marriage is insupportable. Oman is a superb observer of character, as she details Pippa’s tentative first steps into life in a new community, overwhelmed by social events, reacting to the remarkable women she encounters and dealing with the advice of the Dowager Lady Merle, and the resourceful Mrs Bates. She is baffled by some of the actions of the slightly older nurses, and quietly admires her favourite author who suddenly appears in the guise of a Quartermaster. I was particularly fascinated by her journey to the house when she decides that “the results of bomb damage fell into four classes… (including) the doll’s house, with the face open…and the spilt box of matches”. Realising she is now technically in uniform; she uses a café but is frightened of dozing off as there is a stern notice saying that they cannot accommodate “sleepers”. Her move to the countryside means that she volunteers to walk a remarkable dog while indulging in the beauties of a wildflower filled environment. Mary’s concerns are more long standing, as hospital politics fill her time as well as coping with the mix ups and muddles of her family, friends, and acquaintances.
This is a book which reveals in the changing seasons and times of a significant time in the experience of the characters, of weather and plants, romance, and some sadness. There is a lot of humour as genuinely funny characters unintentionally cause problems, as well as a keen eye for the clothes and daily life being dramatically affected by war. There is a point of disaster, but also the positives of people being forced to pull together. I really enjoyed this perceptive book which is written in a light and entertaining style and how it observes people so brilliantly. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading books that were written during wartime when so much was unknown, especially when they capture the reality of people facing daily challenges.