Five From The Archive (no.2)

Thanks for all your encouragement for Five from the Archive last week – it was great to hear your suggestions, and I think this will be a fun feature.  (If you missed my explanation for this new feature, click here for no.1.)  Now I’ve even made myself a logo for it!  Feel free to borrow it if you want to use the idea.  This week…

Five… Books Set in World War II


1.) Miss Ranskill Comes Home (1946) by Barbara Euphan Todd

In short: Published by Persephone Books, this novel tells of Miss Ranskill, a woman who was stranded on a desert island and returns to find England at war – and is mystified by this ‘brave new world’.

From the review: “Miss Ranskill Comes Home has plenty of comedy, but it is comedy heavily dosed with pathos and even a tinge of the tragic. Certain scenes, such as that where Miss R tries and fails to give a speech to a local society on Life on a Desert Island, are painful to read in their awkward sadness. But the novel still manages to have plenty of light-hearted moments alongside.”


2.) Put Out More Flags (1942) by Evelyn Waugh

In short: a satire on the War Office and its administration attempts – especially concerning evacuees, all with Waugh’s recognisably spiky humour.

From the review: “Waugh’s idea of humour is mostly on the mark, and he uses comic language superbly (I laughed out loud several times) but too often the undercurrent was too nasty for me. I need to read a Wodehouse or two as an antidote.”


3.) Suite Francaise (2004) by Irene Nemirovsky

In short: Two books in a planned trilogy, about life in Occupied France.  Written with an astonishing ability to see the human in everyone, especially since Nemirovksy would later tragically die at Auschwitz – the manuscripts for these novellas were discovered decades later.

From the review: “Nemirovsky is an incredibly gifted novelist. Had these been further edited; had the trilogy been complete, this could have been one of twentieth century’s most important works.”


4.) A House in the Country (1944) by Jocelyn Playfair

In short: Another Persephone title, about war and the home front – captivating, complex Cressida takes in paying guests, and awaits the return of her soldier husband.

From the review: “A House in the Country is not a cosy paean to countryside ways, but a deep, moving, and surprisingly controversial novel. […Playfair is] brave in her extremely honest, often critical discussions of warfare. Characters suggest that war is futile; that few soldiers know why they are fighting, and that ideals are far below blind obedience, when it comes to motive.”


5.) Henrietta’s War (1985) by Joyce Dennys

In short: The serialised diaries of an average woman during war, published in a magazine during the war and later republished together.

From the review: “Henrietta represents the middle-class women in England, plucky and determined to carry on as normally as possible. […] Henrietta’s War is quite simply a wonderful, witty, charming, and occasionally very moving book.”

Over to you – which titles would you suggest?

20 thoughts on “Five From The Archive (no.2)

  • June 6, 2012 at 1:06 am
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    Can't have WW2 books without Gravity's Rainbow.
    Nice idea – if I ever build up an archive like yours I might try this.

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    • June 9, 2012 at 11:06 am
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      Love the Taylor, of course – and fully intend to read the Green (especially having just read William Maxwell and Eudora Welty discussing it in their published correspondence)

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  • June 6, 2012 at 10:25 am
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    A Fine of 200 Francs by Elsa Triolet – a nice Virago edition!

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  • June 6, 2012 at 10:26 am
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    Ooh, excellent. Miss Ranskill is on my Classics Club list and I've only seen one other review. *click*

    The best book I've read so far on WWII was non-fiction. It was Leo Marks' haunting Between Silk and Cyanide about working for SOE and writing and breaking codes for British agents in France. Marks is eloquent and honest about the experience and I'd always wanted to know more about him after falling in love with his code-poem The Life That I Have.

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    • June 9, 2012 at 11:07 am
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      Thanks for the tip, Alex, and I do hope you enjoy Miss Ranskill – I think you will :)

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  • June 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm
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    What about Mollie Panter-Downes' collection of short stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven? Lovely, understated, bitter-sweet tales about the people who didn’t fight, but kept the home fires burning and tried to maintain a degree of normality? Or Winifred Peck's House-Bound (which I've just finished and reviewed), about Rose, who decides to keep house herself because she can't get servants.

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    • June 9, 2012 at 11:07 am
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      I have both of those, but haven't read them (although have loved Minnie's Room, as well as One Fine Day) so thanks v much for bumping them up my tbr pile

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  • June 7, 2012 at 9:33 am
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    Thanks for this list, Simon. I'd been wondering what to read next, after just finishing (and loving) Housebound – I'll pop over to read Christine's review in a moment… I recommend Good Evening, Mrs Craven, too. Anyway, I've now taken A House in the Country down off the TBR bookcase and am about to refill my hotwater bottle and head back up to bed with it. (Some sort of lurgy at the moment… :o( )

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    • June 9, 2012 at 11:08 am
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      Great choice! It's not what you'd expect from the title – much braver and daring than it sounds.

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  • June 7, 2012 at 9:36 am
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    I should have said (lurgy affecting brain…) that I also second the Elizabeth Taylor and Henrietta, whom I MUCH prefer to the Provincial Lady, as she had a much nicer husband! :o)

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    • June 9, 2012 at 11:08 am
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      I love Henrietta, but I have to say I love the PL beyond measure!

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  • June 8, 2012 at 1:40 am
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    Another excellent selection, Simon! I've only read two of these – Suite Francaise and Henrietta's War (which I didn't particularly love) – but the other three are all on my to-read list. I bought Miss Ranskill Comes Home last autumn, immediately read the first chapter, and realised I was going to adore it but then wasn't the right time to read it. I am really looking forward to returning to it but there's something very exciting about knowing you have a fabulous unread book waiting for you.

    As for what titles I would suggest, that's a dangerous question with this theme! Books written or set during the war make up far too much of my reading. I adore Angela Thirkell's wartime novels, could not have done without Kit Pearson's "Guests of War" trilogy when I was growing up (about the experiences of a brother and sister evacuated to Canada during the war), think Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius is brilliant, and cannot praise Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham (dealing with anti-semitism in Montreal during the war) highly enough.

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    • June 9, 2012 at 11:09 am
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      I know, my list could have been acres long! I did intend to include the Delius, actually, when I came up with the list in my head – it must have got lost along the way. Thanks for your other recommendations, about which I know nothing (apart from Thirkell, of course.)

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  • June 8, 2012 at 7:18 am
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    What a great list. I've read & enjoyed them all. I'd second the suggestion of Mollie Panter-Downes' short stories. Also At Mrs Lippincote's. Also Fair stood the wind for France by H E Bates. Requiem for a Wren & Pastoral by Nevil Shute, Snow Goose by Paul Gallico & Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther would be other suggestions. Also Nella Last's diary.

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    • June 9, 2012 at 11:10 am
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      I bought the Bates after reading your review, and must, must read it. And of course I love Mollie P-D, At Mrs. L's, Mrs. Miniver, and Nella Last too… so many wonderful options!

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  • June 13, 2012 at 12:44 am
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    Here's my Five for Five about WWII. Three are Persephones and one is an NYRB Classic:

    1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
    2. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes
    3. The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
    4. Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper
    5. Doreen by Barbara Noble

    Love your new feature!

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  • June 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm
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    Aside from seconding The Book Thief, most of the books I would recommend come from school reading: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, I am David by Anne Holm, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. I could name a fair few from back then I wouldn't recommend as well. School set texts really concentrated on WW2 as far as I remember.

    Oh, but I do recommend If This is a Man by Primo Levi (not a school set text, though perhaps it should be). And I suppose you might class Sophie's Choice by William Styron (which I LOVED) as a WW2 book, though it only looks at the war in flashbacks.

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