Way back in January of 2015, I began a post called "Hopeless No More Part 2" by bemoaning how ridiculously long (i.e. two months) it had taken me to get back round to part 2 of 5 planned posts on WWII-related books happily made available to me for reading by Grant Hurlock, a kind friend of this blog. But two months is looking pretty darned timely compared to the year and a half plus it has taken me to get round to part 3! Sigh. I don't even know how or why it could have taken me so long to get round to reading another of the books, which I was really genuinely so excited about, so how about if we just pretend that I only just happened across it and am gleefully sharing my discovery with you in a prompt and efficient manner? Are you game?
That summer was the finest summer that anyone could remember in England. The sun shone all day, day after day, and it seemed that there never would be rain. Everyone said all the time "What lovely weather, if only we were able to enjoy it." For in England everyone feels that they must enjoy a fine day because in ordimry summers more than one fine day at a time is so rare. But nobody was able to enjoy that wonderful series of fine days because it was the summer of 1940 and nearly everyone was working all day and often all night in offices or factories or A.F.S. or A.R.P.,and there were no week-ends and no summer holidays. So in the daytime all the glorious sunshine was wasted and at night the rooms were stifling behind the blackout curtains.
So begins this imperfect but highly entertaining novel of London office life just before and during the Blitz. It follows a group of women translators at the (fictional, I think?) Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in London as they bicker and maneuver and form shifting allegiances, particularly around the pending selection of a new Deputy Language Supervisor to be chosen from among them. The tale particularly focuses on two of the women, who are in sharp contrast to one another—smart, successful, but hopelessly cranky Elsie Pearne, middle-aged and permanently disappointed and bitter about life, and the bright, cheerful, pretty new addition to the office, Anne Shepley-Rice, whose formerly wealthy family has now fallen on hard times.
The novel, which I first came across while reading Jenny Hartley's marvelous Millions Like Us: British Women's Fiction of the Second World War, is wonderfully bitchy at first (which I certainly mean as praise). One almost feels it's the kind of writing Barbara Pym would have done if she had really let it rip on a cast of interesting and eccentric women who don't particularly like each other. The other women include kind, elderly Mrs. Doweson, who irritates her colleagues with her fresh air fantacism and turns out to have been an important figure in the Red Cross during World War I; the inept supervisor Miss Saltman, who would lose everything important if not for her irreplaceable deputy, Mrs. Just; Miss Purbeck, a lifelong lady's companion with a joyfully negative attitude toward the war and indeed all bad news and disaster ("She never allowed any expression of optimism to go unchallenged in her presence and she was able instantly to put her finger on the weak spot in good news of any kind. She was thoroughly enjoying the war."); and finally, the two who seem particularly familiar to me from my own office experiences: First, the dithering, incessantly chatty Mrs. Jolly:
Mrs. Jolly trotted off obediently. She was about fifty, short and fat and she had her hair dyed bright gold and wore it in little fluffy curls all over her head and she had a rather pink face which was almost always flushed because she was almost always excited and hot with the exertion of talking so much. She wore dresses which fitted her tightly and the general effect that she made was that she was bursting—talk bursting out of her lips and her body bursting out of her clothes.
And then, Miss Younge, a busybody who tries to avoid doing actual work:
Miss Younge went through all the miscellaneous odd jobs that she had done in the last ten months. For she was one of those people who prefer to do any work except the work they are paid to do and she was always looking for something which gave her a chance to look busy and avoid translating which very much bored her; and she particularly liked jobs which kept her in the neighbourhood of Miss Saltman's desk where she could pick up a little information and where she liked to think she was a sort of Deputy-Deputy.
Is there anyone who has worked in offices for any length of time who hasn't encountered such colleagues? Most of the office scenes in the novel could take place in any modern office without an ounce of revision.
The novel's weakness, such as it is, is that Wilenski seems to have had some trouble deciding between the two main perspectives she presents—Anne's rather bland view of the world, her cheerful, perky romance with wealthy Sebastian, her blithe taking for granted of all the advantages that her background and looks bring her way, and Elsie's far more lively and entertaining (for me, at least) bitter, snide, cynical view of it all, and the rather tragic sabotage she keeps perpetuating on herself.
But when the focus is on Elsie, there's just so looking away. She's one of the most interesting and unique characters I've come across in fiction of this time period—a middle-aged, professional woman, never particularly attractive but quite smart and capable, who allows her own insecurities and selfishness destroy every chance of romance, friendship, or companionship that she has come across. She's admittedly a rather bleak character, and I assume that boring Anne was meant to provide an antidote to Elsie's negativity, but where else can one find, in such a central role in a novel, such an unsympathetic, unromantic, and yet professional, competent, and serious-minded female character—and a middle-aged one, no less!
And Wilenski does give us the occasional glimmer of Elsie's vulnerability and personal sorrows (when one learns, for example, late in the novel, the details of the one great romance she remembers fondly decades after its end, it's quite heartbreakingly pathetic). By comparison, the perky Anne, who will undoubtedly make the best of whatever mild dilemmas country life with a wealthy husband puts in her way, seems to be made of cardboard. All the more reason, then, for me to wish that the Wilenski had kept her focus more sharply on Elsie—though I suppose that might have made the novel a bit too bleak.
But despite this quibble which makes the novel just a bit misshapen (if only Wilenski could have gloried in Elsie's bleak perspective and made hay with it the way Pym or Rachel Ferguson might have done!), this remains one of my favorite reads of the year. This is first because, as I already suggested, it's strengthened throughout by vivid details about an area of women's lives that seems to be little documented in fiction of the period—office work. But it's particularly a goldmine in showing us how that underrepresented population experienced the beginning of the Blitz.
The story begins after the Blitz has begun in other parts of England, but before London itself had actually been hit. Londoners blithely stop during their lunch hours to watch the Battle of Britain unfolding in the skies overhead, and express a smug confidence that England's air defenses have proven too strong and the Germans will never be able to get through to London at all. There are fascinating descriptions of the way life went on during air raids:
In these early days of air-raids all the traffic stopped when the sirens sounded. Outside the Ministry the street was as quiet as a street in some country village and what made it look more like a village street was a row of horses and carts standing along one side by the pavement, with the horses unharnessed and tied to the backs of the carts and the drivers standing about in groups and chatting, just as if they were all waiting for the market to end. The few other people who were about were either hurrying to their destinations or walking deliberately slowly to show that they were enjoying the sunshine and were not afraid.
It is only nearly halfway through the novel that the first raid on London actually occurs. We are presented vividly with Anne's experiences that night, leavened with humor about the women's conversations the following day:
They were all telling their stories and interrupting each other and no one was listening to what anyone else was saying, when old Mrs. Doweson said, "What has happened to Miss Jones? Shouldn't she be here to-day?" Everyone stopped talking and looked vaguely round for Miss Jones. ''Perhaps she has been bombed. It's awful to think that there are nine of us here to-day at this table and in six months' time we may all be dead," said Miss Purbeck. "There were thousands killed last night, so the bus conductor told me."
"You certainly are our little ray of sunshine," said Elsie scornfully.
And perhaps most interesting of all for me were the descriptions of the practical implications the Blitz had on workers' commutes (always a sore subject with me—suffice it to say that SF MUNI is not my favorite organization in the world). Lately, as one terrible story follows another in our present day news cycle, I have found myself thinking of the Blitz as a kind of reassurance, and the practical realities of keeping going despite anxieties and inconveniences. Imagine (I tell myself) if my commute were more like this:
It was slow work getting to the office. Diversions were more usual than a straight road and the buses wandered through narrow streets hardly large enough to hold them, where from the seats on the top you could see right into the front floor rooms of the houses on either side. The roads were strewn with broken glass which was being swept up into great piles like heaps of snow waiting to be taken away. Glass was everywhere except in the windows, the tyres of the cars rolled over it, the shoes of the passers-by crunched it to smaller pieces. Bombed houses were already too much of a commonplace to be noticed; they lay in depressing heaps half across the roadway and the traffic squeezed past in the space that was left or went by ariother route. One house attracted Anne's attention as she passed it.
For the extraordinary had to be tamed and ignored and overcome, it had to be reduced to the ordinary as quickly as could be done; conditions were chaotic but chaos had to be conquered. The first thing everywhere and all the time was to get small things straight. There was no time to stand and stare, there were too many practical problems to solve. True, a country cousin up for the day to look at London's ruins might gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets; these immense fantastic holes only astonished Cockneys on Monday—by Friday they were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to the traffic; there were too many other things to think of—how to get to work and how to get home again, how to cook the breakfast on the faint glimmer of gas that was all most people could coax from their burners, how to make the tea, let alone how to wash or bath, when there was no water at all in the taps. Scrambling over the broken houses, through the dust and the rubble, picking their way through the broken glass and the broken pavement stones, few people had time to look up at the battle which went on overhead by day and by night.
There are numerous other such interesting details in Table Two, and if the dark humor of the first hundred pages or so doesn't appear quite frequently enough in the rest of the novel, it does occasionally surface to lighten (or darken?) the mood. And it's all so readable and compelling in its setting that I very much regret that this is Marjorie Wilenski's one and only novel. If she was this strong, and created such vivid, funny, and moving characters and striking situations, what might she have done if she'd dedicated herself more wholeheartedly to writing? But alas, the same can be said of many other women of the time.
Little seems to be known about her, though I was able to find that she was married to Reginald Howard Wilenski, a well-known art critic and historian, who has his own ODNB entry. That entry notes that he was in the intelligence department of the War Office during World War I. One suspects that Marjorie must have been writing out of first-hand knowledge of a ministry job herself, but I can't say that for sure. Regardless, she clearly knew how to vividly capture the tensions, pettiness, and rivalries that surface in any office, let alone during a historic time like the Blitz.
This is indeed an almost "hopeless" book to track down, so I send my thanks once again to Grant Hurlock for making it possible for me to read it. It deserves to be much better known.