I’m sure it won’t have escaped your notice how excited I am about The Bloomsbury Group – not Virginia et al, but the reprints being published by Bloomsbury this year. Amongst them is my favourite novel, Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker – but they are coming out in instalments, and the first two are The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson, and Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys. I believe the latter was suggested by Karen at Cornflower (see the links on the left; she now has a book blog and a separate domestic blog) and is the first one I’ve read. Not published until 7th July, I believe, but available for pre-order in quite a few places. (I also wrote about The Brontes Went To Woolworths a while ago, a book I now have in three different editions, though looking back at that review it’s pretty vague and woolly, sorry.)
It’s just as well that I’m using stock pictures, rather than taking a photograph of my copy of Henrietta’s War, as it’s pretty battered. I took it up to London, and carried it around all day, loth to be apart from it. (And what a beautiful book it is too, I love the designs of this series, so well done Sarah Morris for your design, and Penelope Beech for your illustrations – delightful.) Quite simply, Henrietta’s War is wonderful, and I never wanted it to stop.
Henrietta’s War was originally a series of articles in Sketch magazine during the Second World War. In the 1980s (the year I was born, actually) Joyce Dennys was doing her Spring Cleaning and came across the articles – and they were published in two collections. Henrietta’s War and Henrietta Sees It Through. They take the form of letters from Henrietta to Robert, a childhood friend away at war.
It is very Provincial Lady-esque, which can only be a good thing. In the first few pages we had a Robert, a Lady B. and even advice concerning the planting of bulbs, which happens on page one of The Provincial Lady (EM Delafield, but I’m sure you knew that). They’re even both set in Devon. It took me a while to cope with a Lady B. we were supposed to like, unlike Delafield’s condescending Lady B. – but, of course, this hindered me little. The humour is very similar – self-deprecating, and appreciative of the ridiculous even while she is proud of England’s bravery. The letters are also accompanied by Dennys’ own delightful sketches – have a look at Elaine’s review of Henrietta’s War over at Random Jottings to see some examples (one of which I have stolen) as well as reading Elaine’s wonderful thoughts, of course.
Henrietta represents the middle-class women in England, plucky and determined to carry on as normally as possible. They garden and chat and squabble – resisting the overly-zealous scrap metal collectors, and slowing down the knitting bee so as not to finish too soon, can be slotted into their daily lives. ‘There’s not much glamour on the home home-front. Ours not the saucy peaked cap of our untrammelled sisters [in the ATS]. Ours rather to see that the curtains are properly drawn, and do our little bit of digging in the garden. Ours to brave the Sewing Party and painstakingly make a many-tailed bandage, and ours to fetch the groceries home in a big basket.’ In the background are Henrietta’s husband, Dr. Charles; friends and occasional enemies Faith, Mrs. Simpkins and Mrs. Savernack; Henrietta’s children Linnet and Bill.
I think this quotation demonstrates the mixture of pluckiness and ability to laugh at oneself, which characterise both Henrietta’s War and so much writing of the period:
‘I was thinking to-day,’ said Lady B dreamily, ‘that if all we useless old women lined up on the beach, each of us with a large stone in her hand, we might do a lot of damage.’
‘The only time I saw you try to throw a stone, Julia, it went over your shoulder behind you,’ said Mrs. Savernack.
‘Then I would have to stand with my back towards the Germans,’ said Lady B comfortably.
Henrietta’s War is quite simply a wonderful, witty, charming, and occasionally very moving book. It deserves to be in the company of Diary of a Provincial Lady and Mrs. Miniver as great chroniclers of the home-front – and I can only hope that Bloomsbury will reprint Henrietta Sees It Through at some point in the future.