English Climate: Wartime Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
This book contains a tremendous collection of twenty two stories that sum up a lot of the British attitudes to the Second World War. Written in the moment, these stories were submitted to the New Yorker and other publications and have been collected by Persephone in this fascinating book. Though some have not been seen since their original wartime publication, all stand up to being read again in the twenty first century, despite their brevity in some cases. Their accurate representation of life in the English countryside is witty, full of atmosphere and conveys a lot of the sense of the people’s reaction to the shortages, rationing, evacuees and so many other elements. These stories, though excellent and successful, were often unpublished since the original publication; indeed, as Lydia Fellgett writes in her excellent Preface, Townsend Warner was uncertain herself as to whether some of the stories had actually appeared in the New Yorker, given the complicated wartime situation. Fellgett goes on to write that the stories “perfectly balance the domestic and the political. And they bring such joy with their quick humour and their lively detail.” This book features stories of implication, suggestions and dialogue which speak of people beset by war, coming to terms with a new way of life. It is a collection to be savoured.
The stories are wide ranging, beginning with a well travelled shirt, and going on to discuss the almost mundane everyday story of a time bomb. The latter story makes much of the London landscape and what someone would save. “Noah’s Ark” reflects the difficulties people living in the countryside had with the expectations of evacuees, displaced children without parents shipped out into new environments. A mother of evacuees appears in a later story, together with some humour about a donated coat, and exasperation with her demands for help. This book mainly features women, coping, or trying to, with shortages and rations, learning new skills with weaponry, depending on men or striking a blow for independence. There are managing women, who insist on their war effort being up to standard, despairing of those who had not built up a store. There are people in difficult situations, as a funeral may mark more than one death. A story from December 1942 deals with a woman who has designed and surveyed her own remarkable house, as she tries to take over the whole war effort in the area, earning herself the title “Austerity Jane”. A strange tale sends a mixed message about the generosity of others regarding much loved possessions.
Most of these stories are fairly short, some almost impressions, others introducing more nuanced characters, reacting to new experiences and challenges. The writing is generally light, but none the less successful in conveying so much. Townsend Warner is known for her novels, but also produced several collections of short stories, and on the evidence of this book I would love to track them down. Persephone have produced several collections of stories, diaries and novels actually written during the Second World War, and for its immediacy, its ability to convey an impression of how people felt, and sheer audacity of its style, this is an incredible example of a Persephone reprint.