Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce – an enjoyable novel of wartime problems and answers – a warm and funny read

Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce

I am aware that I am a bit behind with this one – I have had a copy for years, but it was only when I listed it for our book club that I actually read it. It is so good that I am annoyed with myself for delaying, and desperate to read the sequel!

This is a novel that I found moving, funny and generally wonderful. One of my questions to the book club will be “How do contemporary novels looking back to the Second World War compare with ones actually written at the time?” In the case of this one – very well indeed. Yes, it is written with the benefit of hindsight, where the plot can be shaped by the choice of when and where to set it, and so on, but it has the undeniable stamp of warm authenticity. This is probably because a large part of the book is devoted to the problems women sent into magazines of the time, of which the author has apparently amassed a big collection. The main character, Emmeline Lake, who narrates the story in her own inimitable voice, is so truthful in her mixture of ambition, compassion and determination to do her bit that I was carried along by her story. She reveals the feelings that we can all admit to: confusion, bewilderment, ambition, uncertainty, regret and guilt, as well as attraction, excitement and the feelings of friendship for the known and less well known. While it is set in exceptional times, in London 1940 with the Blitz at full strength, it has a certain timelessness in terms of a young woman coming to terms with life and love and so much more. I really enjoyed this book.

Emmeline or Emmy is a young woman who lives with her best lifelong friend Bunty in a flat in London. Both women come from relatively well-off families; although Bunty is an orphan, she has a loving if fearsome grandmother. They have chosen to live in central London where it is dangerous in order to do their bit, in Emmy’s case volunteering for the fire service phone centre. She is in a long-term relationship with the absent Edmund, while Bunty loves William, a fireman at the station. Bunty is a typist with the War Office, while Emmy is desperate to be a journalist, a Lady War Correspondent to be precise. She discovers an advertisement to work as a junior in a newspaper publishing house and applies in the hope that it will be the first step in her exciting career.  Unfortunately, having accepted the job she discovers that she will be assisting the eponymous Mrs Bird, a remarkable woman who edits a magazine and has strong views on the “problems” that are acceptable for her readers. Frustrated, Emmy decides that she must help some of the desperate women who write in, and so her deception begins. Bunty is appalled at her friend’s intentions, and Emmy realises that she is taking a huge risk, but as she becomes more involved with the magazine, she is determined to do her bit. As significant events overtake her and those closest to her, can she maintain her ambitions?

This is a book that I thoroughly recommend to anyone in search of a good read set in wartime. It is immensely thoughtful, absorbing and well written. I am really looking forward to the next book in the series, “Yours Cheerfully” and probably the third book due next year. A lovely read.