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‘Henrietta’s War’ by Joyce Dennys ****

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.

2509405There 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.

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The Book Trail: The Historical Edition

I begin this edition of The Book Trail with a novel set during the First World War that I read recently and absolutely loved; my review of it went up yesterday, if you wish to read my thoughts.  I have, as usual, used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to come up with this list.

1. We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood 9781906784997
‘Elin lives a comfortable but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Hugo loves his young wife but is damaged by his experiences in the Boer War. August 1914 sees Hugo off to the front. Elin must support Hiram and its people, drawing on all her determination to do the right thing. Alongside her cousin Alice and friend Mouse, Elin learns to manage the estate in Cornwall, growing much needed food, sharing her mother’s recipes and making new friends and enemies. But Mouse cannot resist the lure of danger and it isn’t long before Elin herself is drawn into the horrors in France. Not everyone escapes unharmed – and when the Great War finally ends, Elin faces an even more difficult battle at home…’

 

2. The Summer of the Barshinskeys by Diane Pearson
Although the story of the Barshinskeys, which became our story, too, stretched over many summers and winters, that golden time of 1902 was when our strange, involved relationship began, when our youthful longing for the exotic, for the fulfillment of dreams not even dreamed, took a solid and restless hold upon us.” So recounts Sophie Wolloughby as she remembers that magical English summer afternoon in the season of King Edward VII’s coronation and at the end of the Boer War; that dreamlike lull in time when the hedgerows were smothered in elderflowers and the meadow air was sweet with haymaking. With her brother, Edwin, her sister, Lillian, Sophie listened to the seductive strains of the wild Russian violin tune Mr. Barshinskey played and watched spellbound as the ragtag Barshinskey family-Ivan, sullen and dirty; Mrs. Barshinskey, pale and withdrawn; and Galina, sensual, wanton, beautiful-made their way across Tyler’s meadow and into the Willoughby’s world. The delighted Willoughby children could not know that this day and the Barshinskeys’ arrival would change their lives forever-much as a breathless Europe could not anticipate that in a few short years, winds of revolution and war would whip across continents, sweeping away the old familiar way of life. It is at this enchanted moment that The Summer of the Barshinskeys begins. A beautifully told, compelling story that moves from the small village of Kent to teeming London, from war-torn and revolution rocked Moscow to St. Petersburg, this is the unforgettable saga of two families whose destinies are fated to entwine in endless combinations.

 

178503953. Daffodils by Alex Martin
Daffodils follows the varying fortunes of three people through the turbulent time of the First World War, as Edwardian England’s rigid class structures crumble under its weight. Katy is frustrated as a domestic servant and longs to escape. Jem loves Katy but cannot have her. Lionel, fresh from working in India, is ambitious, arrogant and full of radical ideas. War affects them all in very different ways and each pays a high price for the changes they are forced to make.

 

4. Pattern of Shadows by Judith Barrow
Mary is a nursing sister at a Lancashire prison camp for the housing and treatment of German POWs. Life at work is difficult but fulfilling; life at home a constant round of arguments—often prompted by her fly-by-night sister, Ellen, the apple of her short-tempered father’s eye. Then Frank turns up at the house one night—a guard at the camp, he’s been watching Mary for weeks—and won’t leave until she agrees to walk out with him. Frank Shuttleworth is a difficult man to love and it’s not long before Mary gives him his marching orders. But Shuttleworth won’t take no for an answer and the gossips are eager for their next victim, and for the slightest hint of fraternization with the enemy. Suddently, not only Mary’s happiness but her very life is threatened by the most dangerous of wartime secrets.

 

5. The Summer House by Mary Nichols 6934159
England 1918. Lady Helen believes her parents when they say she will never find a better husband than Richard, but when he returns to the Front, she begins to wonder just who it is she has married. His letters home are cold and distant and Helen realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Then Oliver Donovan enters her life and they begin an affair that leaves Helen pregnant and alone she is forced to surrender her precious baby. Over twenty years pass and a second war is ravaging Europe, but that is not the only echo of the past to haunt the present. Laura Drummond is caught in a tragic love affair of her own and when she is forced to leave London during the Blitz, she turns to the mother she never knew.

 

6. Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front by Joyce Dennys
Spirited Henrietta wishes she was the kind of doctor’s wife who knew exactly how to deal with the daily upheavals of war. But then, everyone in her close-knit Devonshire village seems to find different ways to cope: there’s the indomitable Lady B, who writes to Hitler every night to tell him precisely what she thinks of him; the terrifyingly efficient Mrs Savernack, who relishes the opportunity to sit on umpteen committees and boss everyone around; flighty, flirtatious Faith who is utterly preoccupied with the latest hats and flashing her shapely legs; and then there’s Charles, Henrietta’s hard-working husband who manages to sleep through a bomb landing in their neighbour’s garden.
With life turned upside down under the shadow of war, Henrietta chronicles the dramas, squabbles and loyal friendships that unfold in her affectionate letters to her ‘dear childhood friend’ Robert. Warm, witty and perfectly observed, “Henrietta’s War” brings to life a sparkling community of determined troupers who pull together to fight the good fight with patriotic fervour and good humour.’

 

2715227. We Were at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Simon Garfield
Of all the accounts written about the Second World War, none are more compelling than the personal diaries of those who lived through it. We Are At War is the story of five everyday folk, who, living on the brink of chaos, recorded privately on paper their most intimate hopes and fears.  Pam Ashford, a woman who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, writes with comic genius about life in her Glasgow shipping office. Christopher Tomlin, a writing-paper salesman for whom business is booming, longs to be called up like his brother. Eileen Potter organises evacuations for flea-ridden children, while mother-of-three Tilly Rice is frustrated to be sent to Cornwall. And Maggie Joy Blunt tries day-by-day to keep a semblance of her ordinary life.  Entering their world as they lived it, each diary entry is poignantly engrossing. Amid the tumultuous start to the war, these ordinary British people are by turns apprehensive and despairing, spirited and cheerful – and always fascinatingly, vividly real.

 

8. How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton
Mention Girl Guides to any woman and the reaction will be strong. They are all too often regarded merely in terms of biscuit sales and sing-songs, hardly anybody is aware of the massive impact that they had on gender equality and the outcome of World War II. This book explores how the Guides’ work was crucial to Britain’s victory.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have you added to your TBR list?

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