This book has been on my Hopeless Wish List for years now. It's now vanishingly rare, and when copies do surface, they don't come cheap. I wasn't even absolutely sure if it was an adult novel or a children's tale, but I knew that it was set during the Blitz. I had also read that Lewis was the secretary and friend of E. M. Delafield (she is mentioned in the Provincial Lady novels, apparently appears in Virginia Woolf's diary as "Miss L," and was, according to the informative "Who's Who" website about Delafield, not much liked by Delafield's children).
But now, thanks to Grant Hurlock's incredible perseverance in tracking down the most obscure books on earth—as well as his generosity in sharing them—I have finally had a chance to read the book. Thanks very much for this opportunity, Grant!
And the opportunity turned out to be quite worthwhile. The book is a little bit uneven, a curious mix of adventure tale and wartime career story for girls, but its presentation of wartime events in and around London, through the eyes of a young girl experiencing them for the first time, is surprisingly effective and has a vivid ring of truth despite some obvious idealization.
Jackie Lawrence is an energetic seventeen (and a half) year old volunteering with the Emergency Mobile Canteen Corps until she turns eighteen and is able to join the WAACs. We meet her on her first day, as she is just learning the routine and having her first experience of driving a tea-van in London—having just slightly overstated her previous driving experience (I can't seem to find a clear reference to her home town, but she is from "the Downs," which I believe means Sussex). I can only imagine my own anxiety in such a situation, but Jackie takes it all in her stride. It's not long, however, until she (and we, through her eyes) begin to witness some of the drama and tragedy of the Blitz.
Although the dialogue and characters of the novel are a touch on the bland side, not terribly realistic and a bit too gung-ho and upbeat, even in the darkest moments, to be entirely believable, the descriptions of the city, of the Blitz, and of Jackie's first impressions of them are remarkably effective. I completely believed, for example, the sort of ghoulish thrill she feels at seeing bomb damage for the first time:
Then there was for her the added thrill of seeing so much real bomb damage, for the first weeks of the London blitz had left its mark pretty severely on the city. She gazed astonished at deep craters and huge heaps of ruins, at whole blocks of buildings of which there was little left but gaunt skeleton walls, twisted girders and torn woodwork. Sometimes the sight of half the floor of a house, its dusty, shell-torn furniture clinging precariously to it, or a wall ending in space but holding shelves on which books, kitchen utensils, ornaments and the like still perched, made her draw a breath of horror.
Ditto with the first time she hears the sirens, which though not really described in detail ("It was the first time Jackie had heard the weird wail of the raid alarm sound all over a big city.") somehow made me feel the eeriness of it a bit more than I previously had.
Of course, no reader will be even slightly surprised to find that it's not long until Jackie's desires to experience an air raid first-hand are fulfilled, and I think here too Lewis somehow managed, even with very simple prose, to capture some of the immediacy of the experience. Here are three bits from a scene that lasts several pages:
Jackie was just going to answer when there was a sudden sharp whistling sound as of something rushing through the air, followed by a dull heavy Broomph!
Charles Dale looked at Jackie. "Heard anything like that close to you before?" he asked.
"No. I suppose it was a bomb?"
"A bomb right enough. They must be gliding in. Generally you hear the zoom of the planes first. Ah, there go the guns!"
An outbreaking of loud banging had started, louder and nearer than anything they had heard so far.
They stopped at a cross-road for Mr. Dale to get out and see if the turning they wished to take was still open to traffic. For the first time Jackie noticed a steady zooming noise overhead, an eerie sound against the background of guns.
Mr. Dale stopped suddenly in the middle of his sentence.
For at that moment, with a shriek and a whistle, a bomb dropped apparently right over their heads and fell with a sickening crump! somewhere on the banks of the river just beside them. The van faltered, as though caught by a sudden blast of wind, then settled down and dashed forward again.
Before Jackie had time to recover from this surprise, there was another fearful whistling rush as another bomb fell. Then a third . . . . It wasn't until a fourth and fifth had fallen in quick succession, and the whole city seemed rocking with the crashes and the sound of their echo, that she realized that she was gripping the cash box with an iron grasp, that every muscle in her was drawn tight, and that she had clenched her teeth and held her breath, staring ahead of her with eyes that ached with the strain.
Whew! One can certainly believe, after such passages, this introductory note by Lewis at the beginning of the book:
Later in the book there's even more drama, including a slightly daft scene in which Jackie, otherwise a reasonably intelligent girl, idiotically demonstrates the risks of "careless talk," as well as the obligatory daring rescue and subsequent recognition, which might almost have been lifted from a school story of the time. But it's all entertaining enough, and if Lewis is by no means a great writer, her knowledge continues to come through in interesting details and effective description.
I admit I had rather hoped that, having been Delafield's secretary and friend, Lewis would have absorbed some of Delafield's wit. Alas, such is not the case, but her obvious first-hand knowledge of Jackie's experiences nevertheless make this book well worth reading.