I had wanted to read Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta’s War: Notes from the Home Front, 1939-1942 for such a long time before I finally got my hands on a copy. I have seen many favourable reviews of it over the years, and am now adding my own into the mix. The book’s blurb greatly praises Dennys, saying as it does: ‘Hundreds of small towns in England underwent dramas similar to those enjoyed or bravely borne by the citizens of this one… But none of those other small towns sheltered an observer with such an eye for comedy, who was equally deft with pen and pencil.’
Henrietta’s War is a fictionalised series of wartime letters, which first appeared as a regular magazine feature in the United Kingdom, in the now defunct Sketch. They were not published together until 1985 however, after Dennys uncovered them in a drawer during a particularly thorough spring clean. She sought a publisher for them only after being urged to do so by her friends.
There is a highly autobiographical element to these letters, and many similarities can be drawn between Dennys and Henrietta. The blurb points out that Dennys ‘recreated’ a facsimile of herself here, but makes clear that the rest of the characters are pure inventions. Not all of the letters have been collected together and published in this volume; rather, a selection has been made of the originals. They have been placed chronologically, as one might expect, and span the period between the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, and the Christmas of 1941.
Henrietta’s War ‘purports to the wartime letters to a friend serving overseas, written by a doctor’s wife who lives in a seaside town’ named Budleigh Salterton in Devonshire. The recipient is Robert, described as a ‘middle-aged colonel on the Western Front’, who has known Henrietta since both were small children. The blurb describes the way in which: ‘The world she invented to counteract the glooms of wartime is a perfect one of dogs and gardens and tea parties, inhabited by bumbling vicars, retired colonels and fierce tweedy ladies who long for Hitler to land on their beach so they can give him what-for.’
The book’s blurb boasts that it is ‘as fresh as the day it was written’. Certainly, the tone is chatty and amusing; Dennys’ series of accounts have such a warmth and affection to them, as well as an overriding intelligence. There is such understanding here, too. In the first letter, for instance, Henrietta writes: ‘I think there is a tendency in our generation to adopt a superior, know-all attitude towards this war just because we happen to have been through the last one, which the young must find maddening.’
One cannot help but draw comparisons between Henrietta’s War and E.M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady series, in terms of their general themes, standpoints, humour, and wartime settings. As with The Provincial Lady, the trivial is often discussed in rather a lighthearted way – the wearing of trousers by fellow ‘slack-minded’ female villagers, for instance – alongside the more serious elements of living in wartime – her husband not wanting to be called up is one poignant example. Asides are made even with such serious things; in this instance, Henrietta tells Robert that ‘we are expecting a shower of white feathers by every post.’ After the test of an air-raid warning, she writes: ‘I haven’t seen this place so gay since the Coronation.’ She later says, of the effect of the war upon her: ‘I find that I grow more and more absent-minded, and I blame the war. We are so constantly urged to concentrate on keeping Bright, Brave and Confident, that it doesn’t give a woman a moment in which to realise that she hasn’t put on her skirt that morning, or that she is walking down the High Street in her bedroom slippers.’
Henrietta’s War proved to be the perfect holiday read; there is a seriousness to it, of course, given the wartime situation in which the characters have to cope, but it is filled with amusing anecdotes, and its tone is lighthearted enough to make the whole feel joyous. Dennys’ accompanying illustrations are quite charming. Stylistically, they have a humour all of their own. Henrietta’s War is filled with character, and is highly entertaining from start to finish.