The Night Raid by Clare Harvey – Wartime Art, Weapons and Love

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This novel by a Nottingham author thankfully avoids much of the overly sentimental themes which can spoil some books set in the Second World War. The “Blitz Spirit” is often seen as a bit of an illusion, almost manufactured to suit the propaganda needs of an embattled nation. This historical novel depicts three women whose involvement with an Ordinance factory changes their lives in profound ways, and there is far more than a surface endurance despite the strains of the Home Front. The atmosphere of personal relationships threatened means that decisions are made with far reaching circumstances. A well-known artist becomes involved in the lives of young women whose prospects seem bleak; it is an imaginary episode yet is written in a believable way. Sometimes coincidences seem too much, but overall much that is positive emerges from this novel of realistic drama which goes beyond the “Night Raid” of the title.

Laura Knight was an artist who had always pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Her husband, Harold, was a noted portrait painter in a very traditional style, while Laura chose unusual subjects and depicted them in colourful and challenging ways. In this novel Harold is an elderly man, and Laura is a war artist who has had some success with painting “Ruby Loftus”, a girl working on heavy machinery to produce vital weapons. Financial necessity dictates her arrival in Nottingham to paint war workers. One of the girls she decides to paint, Violet Smith, is already in trouble. Unmarried mothers are shown as having little choice about their babies, and Violet’s own sister has placed further strain on her large family. She knows about life on the poverty line, and her work in munitions is not only vital to the war effort. Zelah Fitzlord is concerned for the welfare of the young women who work at the factory; it is her unusual qualities and determination to help that first interests George Hanford, supervisor of the night shift. What happens is partly under the control of these people, but fate continues to take a hand and occasionally tips into situations which can be a little too foreseeable to the reader, but Harvey manages to rescue the narrative before it becomes too awful. There is a tragic element of the story, but ultimately hope emerges in several ways.

I enjoyed this novel for several reasons. The writing is clear and the characters well defined. A balance is maintained between the problems that the characters face and the outcomes that left hope rather than misery. Laura’s unhappiness is seen from the inside, but also she is depicted as a strong and determined character as well as a sensitive, almost compulsive artist. While this is a fictional episode in her life, I think that it is well grounded in what is known about her, and no slander is committed. Zelah is a great character, determined yet vulnerable, and it is the little details about her that catch the attention and make her believable. Violet’s behaviour makes her a victim in some ways, but she is consistent in her spiky, realistic way. The small details of light, weather and behaviour are telling in a book which is perhaps not great literature, but a readable picture of women’s lives in a particularly difficult time, with some engaging writing and a clear story.

Laura Knight the artist featured in our visit to Nottingham Castle and Museum today. It was an accessible place to visit, once we had worked out that the gate would open to allow us to get to the Disabled parking space!  There were three of her paintings on display, not the best known (most of which we saw in an exhibition a few years ago in Newcastle), but including “Motherhood”, which is a thoughtful study of a mother and child. I bought the postcards, needless to say!


Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange

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This reprint of Orange’s book is a welcome addition to the Furrowed Middlebrow series published by Dean Street Press, and it is one of the best I have read. As a fan of Angela Thirkell’s novels, I thought I knew this territory well; a wartime look at life in a village with the focus on some individuals out of their comfort zone. This book is set in the early days of the Second World War, before bombs fell in blitz, when evacuees were debating whether to stay in countryside safety or return to London, when people were preparing for challenges to everything they knew.

Caroline Cameron is a young woman who seems to have it all, child, husband, money and a lovely home. Constance Smith has a lovely home in a village, Chesterford, but no children and a distant husband, Alfred. When war threatens Constance welcomes not only her old school friend Caroline, her daughter and Nanny into her home, but also an evacuated mother and child. Challenges soon emerge as Alfred’s behaviour becomes more flirtatious and ambitious, and the mother from London   struggles to look after her child. When Constance’s brother George comes to the village, Caroline is diverted by his sense of humour, but also embarks on an affair in London with an actor. Mysterious letters, Constance’s developing affection for the evacuee child and the scandalous behaviour of a local teenager threatens the peace of the village long before war wreaks havoc in the country at large.

This all seems rather grim, but Orange is a skilful and amusing writer. I particularly like the asides in brackets after many characters, especially Caroline, speak, revealing what they wished to say in reality. It is this factor, together with a stronger plot, which is the main difference from Thirkell’s writing, as well as it being a stand alone book. It features many strong characters, well written and believable.  For example, Caroline spends the weekend with her lover at friends’ house, and although these characters only appear briefly they are very funny, with no idea if they have servants or how they survive. I really enjoyed the working out of the plot and thought that the characters were consistent and realistic in many ways.

This is an easy to read and involving book, of its time and reflecting the uncertainty of 1941, when no one knew how the war would proceed. The characters, though a little confusingly named, are funny, realistic and generally understandable. It is in many ways a jolly book, despite the time at which it was written, and a rewarding read. It does not totally resolve the situations it creates, and it is not a substantial piece of writing, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period and the experience of women at the onset of war.

Dean Street Press are publishing excellent reprints of Golden Age Crime novels, and they are worth seeking out. I have downloaded several onto my kindle, despite not being a fan of ebooks, and they have been useful to read on my kindle app when waiting around. I still prefer physical books, and have so many waiting for  attention (putting on shelves?!?) that seven days in a week are far from enough! Still, who needs to be able to see the carpet?

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you will have noticed that I have an interest in life in Britain during the Second World War. I have picked out some of the Persephone titles which reflect the experiences of women such as Winifred Peck, as well as Furrowed Middlebrow’s offerings of fascinating memoirs like Chelsea Concerto. I have long enjoyed the books of Margery Allingham as her unusual hero Albert Campion solves mysteries in a wartime setting as well as introducing the foggy “Tiger in the Smoke”. So I was interested to track down a copy of The Oaken Heart  being  “The story of an English Village at War”. It is available to order from bookshops in a lovely edition by Golden Duck publishers, which look to be a small Essex business.

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This is an unusual book in two ways; it is an unusual book for Allingham, who is known mainly for her murder mystery books, notably featuring Albert Campion. It is also unusual as a book in that it is almost a real time record of one village’s experiences of daily life in the Second World War. There is one suggestion that it was originally written for the American market, not just to earn its author money, but also to help with the effort to persuade the U.S. public to join in the war effort. The narrative ends in February 1941 when it was far from clear how the war would progress yet alone end, and there is a sense of controlled fear that everything and everyone is still very unsafe. Invasion of this country by enemy forces was still, after all, a very real possibility.

The author was living in a large house in an Essex village in 1939, and the stories and experiences reflect the lives of those around her as war looked increasingly likely, people were evacuated to the village from London, the outbreak of war and the departure of men and women into the Forces. There is a small railway, a school, shops and all the small businesses and concerns linked to a mid century British village. There are characters who behave well in adversity, and the general tone is of resigned acceptance of the imminence of destruction, whether personal, local or national. Thus there is the urgency of gas mask distribution, the preparations for evacuated schoolchildren who turn out to be mothers and children, and the reality of bombs falling in the area if not immediately on the village itself. There are the daily practical concerns of a large influx of people who need not only housing but also feeding and clothing. Book manuscripts must be hidden in biscuit tins, windows taped up and a place for London couples to argue provided. A straw shelter from bombs is built but is most used for cattle over winter. Various elderly people adopt a fatalism which means that they do not seek shelter; and the dropping of flares and incendiaries provide firework type entertainment.

This book is an account of life by a woman dealing with unprecedented experiences; her daily life and the departure of her husband and others to fight. It is reality finely drawn, as the foreword says “And The Oaken Heart    reflects her truthfulness on every page”. It is not a smooth, highly planned narrative, yet it is not a diary in the sense that it contains reflections on this war and those whose lives are being threatened and transformed by its progress. There are funny tales of the determination of one man to build a glass topped extension, but not to hit the last nail in as that is when it is bound to be destroyed. This is no bland ‘Britain can take it’ propaganda as it is too honest; it reflects the real fear as well as the determination to survive and flourish.

It perhaps feels wrong to say I enjoyed this book as there is an element of suffering and fear present. It is an eminently readable narrative, fascinating in its eye for detail and its honesty, when much of the writing about this time almost romanticises the romance of peril. This is the story of a woman who has to visit a bomb scarred London and misses buildings no longer standing, and also who confronts the potential ending of everything. It is also well written and personal, as she recalls and records the strange events and personalities that make up the village around her. The Golden Duck edition that Blackwells tracked down for me contains a short diary and other information, pictures and photographs which all add to the reality. If you have an interest in the Home Front in Britain I would definitely recommend this book.

The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell

Another post, another Barsetshire Chronicle from Angela Thirkell. In the face of many wonderful books to read, and new authors to discover, her restful yet insightful characters have drawn me back again. Yet, I think that this book would be a good starting point for anyone curious about her books which describe mid twentieth century life so well.

Image result for the headmistress thirkell I love Angela Thirkell’s books and have avidly collected them for years. This reprint by Virago is more than welcome as it is difficult to get hold of this book, despite it sitting in the middle of Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and it being one of the best for characterisation. Finally getting my hands on this British reprint is great; I have really enjoyed reading it.

This novel is set in the “latter years of the Second World War” and was originally published in 1944. Thus it was actually written when the end of the war could not be foreseen by the vast majority of people either in the army or on the Home Front. The probability of invasion had receded, but those in the armed forces were still liable to be sent on missions from which they would not return, be moved to parts of “The Front” which were notoriously dangerous, and those living and working in big cities, especially London, were never considered to be truly safe. Those with family or friends in uniform such as Mrs Belton had much to be concerned about as well as the financial, social and daily concerns of village life. Much of the War concerns run in the background of this novel, but it resurfaces at times when grown up children reappear on leave with their effects on parents and admirers of the community.

The Headmistress of the title is Miss Sparling, a perfect headmistress according to those who invite her to social events, a perfect scholar to those interested in such things, and the moving force behind the establishment of a Girls’ School in Harefield Park. We learn little about how she feels compared to Mrs Belton, whose old home was the Park. There are many set pieces about tea parties, dinners and the challenges of blackouts, and there are the usual Thirkell descriptions of romantically obsessed servants, land squabbles and unfortunate portraits of non specific Europeans, who never get a good press in Barsetshire.

I found the descriptions of some of the women disappointing, as the female doctor is roundly condemned for just about everything by everyone, some clothes are despaired of, and Elsa, otherwise a successful and responsible woman in her war work, is seen as impossible for her behaviour towards her fiancé. Another headmistress is socially criticised, even though I cannot remember a particular crime on her part elsewhere in the Barsetshire chronicles, but she does form a contrast against the perfect Miss S. The schoolgirls are well described, especially the outings, drama and skating which are very funny pictures. Heather Adams is the girl most focused on, but this is a real person, unflattered but understood. Mrs Belton is especially well described in all her realistic family and social concerns. Mrs Updike is a favourite character as her frequent household accidents punctuate and lighten the mood throughout the novel.

Stylistically we can enjoy small events well described, with memorable characters rather than big storylines. There are asides to the knowing reader, and references to characters found elsewhere in the other novels. This novel represents Thirkell writing at the top of her form, and she has so many characters and situations in her Barsetshire set that she can afford to explore a group nonetheless tied to others. I think that this book is a worthy entry in the chronicles of people, place and time, but works well as a separate novel of 1940s life of interest to many readers.


Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck – A Furrowed Middlebrow edition

This is an actual book! Thank you to the nice people at Furrowed Middlebrow/ Dean Street Press who listened to my plea that as a 21st century Vicar’s wife that I would really enjoy this book about a Vicar’s wife in 1940, I now have a a new favourite book!

If you have ever found a book that you wanted to last longer, and that you really didn’t want to read too fast, this is it for me. I appreciate that it may not be to everyone’s taste, but anyone who has enjoyed The Diary of a Provincial Lady  will recognise and enjoy this style of writing.

Camilla Lacely is married to Arthur, Vicar and Philosopher, as the Second World War is beginning. Their only son, Dick, is in the Army already, but so far safe. They live in a fairly grim parish just outside Manchester, and the book is an account by Camilla of a week in the life, in which she copes with a campaign against a curate’s sermon (which she has slept through), romance, an Archdeacon, a Clergy Wives Quiet Day, innumerable committee meetings, and a charity Bazaar.  There are the phone calls that she deals with (always at the wrong moment…how do they know?), the appeals for help from the strangest of sources, the pile of Stuff that appears at every sale, the complaints that no one can sort out, those people who need careful handling….

Also there are the people who want little, but who are a delight to meet, like the older lady who slips towards her end dreaming of her youth in the countryside, the clergy wife who drops cakes in the road which need retrieving or hiding in the pouring rain, the family crisis solved against the odds. The style is discursive, and the story diverts into Camilla’s thoughts as she tries to cope with being late, being insufficiently holy, a cook/maid who has an individual approach to work, and a fire that will not light. She fights the battle of a husband who does not stop to eat, a small income on which to run a large house, as well as maintaining a calm unruffled face in all circumstances. Of course, there is the looming threat of war, as she fears for her son, and indeed the country in the face of possible invasion. Sickness in a family is a a financial worry  for everyone, as well as pre-penicillin dangers.There is hope, and even love, as some couples eventually plan to marry, and as much as possible there is a happy ending. I was also really interested in the references to other books that she is reading, notably Demon in the House   and Wild Strawberries,  both by my favourite author Angela Thirkell.  It is fascinating (for me at least) to think of these books actually being important in their own time, which I enjoy today. Indeed, she claims that she has read the latter thirty times, and will probably read it thirty times more, as a reliably happy book.

This book is a long way from A Chelsea Concerto  and does not cover the bombing, the problems of refugees, and in some senses the harsh reality of war. I can say that I recognised some of the pressures, some of the constraints, that can affect  clergy families today.  I realise that it is a privilege in some ways, but hard work in others! This is a good book of its type, and I certainly plan to read it again, though not perhaps thirty times…

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Northbridge Rectory – Angela Thirkell

I thought that it was about time I wrote about a book that I really love, that you can buy easily, and is an enormous contrast to A Chelsea Concerto,  reviewed here  .

Northbridge Rectory  is one of the Thirkell books that I managed to read when I first discovered this writer a few years ago. The fact that it is one of her earlier novels,written and set in wartime when the outcome was still very far from clear (1941), makes it interesting. More than that, she takes the setting of a fairly rural rectory not directly affected by air raids and peoples it with such characters that even if you have never read Thirkell you can read it with enjoyment. It has got some of the reoccurring characters for fans, but they work well here and do not need their backstory to be detailed to enjoy the narrative.

Back in the days of large Rectories and Vicarages ( they tend to be big now, but not that large, thank goodness!), eight officers of the local regiment have been billeted there with the Reverend and Mrs Villars for the duration. Most are no trouble and unremarkable, but Lieutenant Holden greatly admires Mrs Villars, and becomes a bit of a nuisance with his never ending insistence that she must be tired and needs to rest. Miss Pemberton is a frequent vistor, sad in her devotion to her ‘lodger’, Mr Downing. Romance happens, there are women who emerge in order to ‘run things’, and a rota is constructed of watchers from the church tower, nervous of parachutists but actually bird watching through a much envied telescope.

The best character for sheer description, if not exhaustion, is Mrs Spender, one of the officer’s wives. She has witnessed some of the bombing in London, but so many stock phrases issue forth from her that no one is terribly alarmed. She apparently tells herself much when any audience is lacking, and her constant “believe it or not” and ” if you know what I mean” leads those around her when there is a raid to become more than a little murderous themselves. She is a great creation, and the other characters’ reactions to her are farcical. She certainly sticks in the memory!

This is one of the excellent reprints that Virago have produced in the last few years, and make Angela Thirkell’s novels (or some of them) much more available to the general reader as well as the fans who spend time and money tracking down copies. There are another three available later this month, including at least two that I have had problems finding. This is a great installment in the ongoing Barsetshire series, in which Thirkell is really enjoying creating and working with her characters. Well worth a read.

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Peace Breaks Out – Angela Thirkell

I usually try to review books in this blog that are easy to get hold of, but I think I will do this one as although copies are expensive, it is being brought out on kindle on the 3rd November so will be available. I am surprised that Virago bring out some of Thirkell’s books on kindle only; those who have discovered her usually like physical copies of her books to add to their collection. I have two physical copies, but would still welcome a paperback. The three books that are coming out on the 3rd are on my birthday list, so watch this space…

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This is one of Thirkell’s  wartime novels in a way, though based more on the events of V.E. Day and “Vee – Jay” Day. It does reflect why some do not get on with her books, as the war is a background issue and those who lose loved ones rare in her books. There is a character in one book whose husband is posted as missing, and it is a moving picture of a woman whose life is in some senses on hold until she gets confirmation of her husband’s fate.  One of the characters who is not always the most popular (Mr Adams) tries so hard to find news. Which novel is it? I feel it might be one that is due to come out in the near future…

But I digress. This novel is surprisingly bitter about Peace being declared, seeing the announcement as an inconvenience rather  than marking the end of a terrifying time. Maybe it’s because this book is set in the countryside where air raids are rare (see Northbridge Rectory   for  home front descriptions), or maybe the day to day concerns of bread supply are the realistic way most people actually made it through. There are some disturbing references to refugees from European countries, but maybe I’m a little sensitive to such things at this time. Having just finished a Mitford novel ( I read them over breakfast – don’t judge) I found myself gritting my teeth far more over her subject matter. Is it a matter of hindsight or a genuine problem with writing of the past?

This novel is dominated by romance. David is at his outrageous flirting again, which almost proved disastrous in Wild Strawberries  , and it is more than time that someone stronger takes him on, which looks increasingly possible. In the meantime both Anne (Miss Buntings second heroine) and Martin are both made miserable by his antics. This book features many reoccurring characters, so may not be the best place to start with Thirkell (High Rising or Wild Strawberries  being better) . This novel will not disappoint Thirkell fans, if only because it features Lady Emily and her “portable property” barriers, her formidable if selective memory, and her appreciation of “that lovely creature”, Robin’s mother. This book ends so well for those with a sentimental nature, but could put others off who like their fiction a little more realistic and sensible….

In other news, northernvicar and I made our annual pilgrimage to Harrogate for the History festival. We only went to events on the Friday, but saw some interesting new novelists speak about their debut novels, and Wolf Winter  win the prize. I also saw Philippa Gregory’s presentation on her work, and the queues for book signing after she won the Outstanding Contribution Award. I have reviewed a few of her books, including her latest here More to come about this festival I’m sure.

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