Edith Olivier is most famous for her enchanting 1927 novel The Love Child, which can be found upon the Virago Modern Classics list. A lot of her other work has sadly faded into obscurity, but much of her canon has thankfully been reissued by Bello this year, making her charming books available to a wide audience once more.
Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady was first published in 1943. It is a non-fiction account of a woman named Miss Nightingale, who lived in Olivier’s village. The preface both intrigues and sets the tone of the piece from the first: ‘Like most living creatures, Miss Emma Nightingale possessed two distinct personalities. In her case, they were the Emma-by-day, and the Emma-by-night… Miss Nightingale went early to bed; and once there, she lay quietly, unaware that she was, in some curious way, quite another person from the familiar figure known to her neighbours as they met daily in the village street’.
Olivier received the fifty to sixty notebooks which Miss Nightingale – the goddaughter of George du Maurier – had kept throughout her life during a wartime ‘Salvage Week’. On getting rid of her notebooks, she told Olivier, ‘Everything is changing so much that we never need to refer to the past. It doesn’t apply’. The next morning, ‘the whole village was shocked by the news that Miss Nightingale had died suddenly in the night’, and Olivier commented that, ‘it seemed that she had consciously made an end’. It was Olivier’s decision to transcribe the notebooks into the format of a coherent work of non-fiction, thus giving ‘a picture of one aspect of rural life which during the war came into being in many country places’ – the notion of becoming a landlady to various evacuees who were sent away from London, and other European cities.
Miss Nightingale’s account in Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady focuses solely upon the Second World War, and her viewpoint is set out immediately: ‘War is so antipathetic to most English people, that it was almost equally antipathetic to believe that any country could desire it’. As well as setting out how war affected her own home, and the lives of those around her, Miss Nightingale also touches upon a lot of issues and elements which are not directly involved with war, from holidays, architecture and painting to historical figures, astrology and the great outdoors. She was clearly so passionate about so many things, and this shines through in her writing. She demonstrates how history related to her present, and how the war affected ordinary people such as herself. Miss Nightingale comes across as such a kind-hearted, benevolent lady, and one can only thank Edith Olivier for publishing her charming and fascinating diaries.