I first came across this book (and many others) through a brief reference in Elizabeth Maslen's article "Women Writers in World War II," published in Literature Compass. (But don't ask me how I first came across that article, as I have no recollection at all…)
Since I love tales of English village life, and love reading about day-to-day life during World War II even more, I checked around and discovered that a small British publisher, Folly Books, had recently reprinted it, along with some other war-related titles. I also found almost no information about its author, which—with my perversely obsessive nature—made it even more intriguing for me. How could I resist?
Salute to the Village is a memoir (though undoubtedly a bit fictionalized in an idealizing sort of way) of Inchfawn's experiences, along with her husband, daughter, neighbors and friends, in the early years of the war in an unnamed village near both the "City of the West" and the "Roman City." (The introduction to the Folly Books edition helpfully identifies these locales as the
village of Freshford,
the town of Bristol, and the city of Bath, respectively.) The back cover of the Folly Books edition
adds that Inchfawn wrote more than 30 books which sold a staggering 650,000
copies, so it's even more surprising that she has such a slight web presence
today. Ah, the sands of time…
Inchfawn's first published book, The Verse-Book of a Homely Woman (1920), was followed by many other works of light, sometimes sentimental poetry, several of which also incorporate the "homely woman" theme in their titles. In addition, she wrote several other memoirs, including Journal of a Tent-Dweller (1931), Living in a Village (1937), As I Lay Thinking (1950), and Those Remembered Days (1964). The chapters of these were apparently often (as in the present case) interspersed with poems. It seems that Inchfawn wrote one novel as well, called Sweet Water and Bitter (1927), but I haven't yet found any detailed information about it.
Salute to the Village is a light and cheerful book overall, and is informed throughout by Inchfawn's religious beliefs (though this is never heavy-handed). She writes with a gentle humor, and focuses on the overall kindliness and diligence of the village folk in the face of war. (No gritty descriptions of bomb casualties, à la Frances Faviell, here!) It opens with mother and daughter "having the time of our lives. We were managing without a maid." Inchfawn nevertheless fantasizes about having time to write a new book when their housekeeper has recovered from her present illness:
Then, as often before, I spent a few minutes dreaming over the fabric of this volume. Sometimes it takes the form of a story—sometimes it is partly in verse. In any case this book is to be a rest-encouraging, and not an embarrassing book. It must contain the sort of reading one could safely indulge in during wakeful nights, and never become excited nor frightened thereby.
Of course, there must be a love interest in it, for what is any book worth which makes no mention of this, the most thrilling of earthly experiences? John Milton, when writing of his own aims in putting pen to paper, said he wished "to justify the ways of God to men". In my own humble sphere I have always wanted to do that. In this book which has never been written, I told myself hopefully "perhaps I shall".
This is actually quite a good description of the kind of book Salute to the Village is—albeit without the love interest, which might be just as well.
When war breaks out, there are the usual concerns about the blackout ("All the rooms were looking sombre and Machiavellian with black paper swathed round lights, and brown paper pasted at the tops and sides of windows."), planning for evacuees, and trying to find household help. I found myself really liking Inchfawn, in large part because of passages like this one, about her willingness to host evacuees:
Quite sincerely, and truly, I wanted to help my country—yet, as I went round the house and peeped into the nice clean bedroom and the sunny, comfortable sitting-room prepared for our guests, I found myself praying that they might be refined, grateful and agreeable (but not presuming) people. In short, it was the old wish in a slightly different dress. I would like to feel I was being useful—if that usefulness did not put me out too much.
Here, what starts out sounding a bit condescending becomes funny and genuine (and perhaps more or less what most of us would feel in the same situation) with her concluding self-awareness and self-deprecation.
Although Inchfawn's style is lightly humorous rather than outright hilarious, I did laugh out loud at the following passage, which takes place just after war has begun, and which captures the general unease and jumpiness that must have been prevalent:
One morning my helper and I were busy with the bedrooms when Mrs. Sands came to us with horror written in capital letters upon her face.
Through the open window we heard a metallic dong—dong—dong—dong—
"The church bell!" said Mrs. Sands. "That means invasion!"
So it had come! Come most probably as John had always said it would—by parachute on the
Downs. The Germans
would pour along our Wiltshire roads, past the White Horse—or what had been the
White Horse—through the old town with the gables and over Woodwick Hill.
All this went through my mind in the space of a second.
"They will probably use gas," said Mrs. Sands.
"And I've left my gas-mask at home!" Mrs. Nonesuch's eyes dilated.
My thoughts flew to my two bread-winners—gone, I knew, without the protection which Mr. Bond said everyone ought always to carry with them.
Dong—dong—dong—then the sound suddenly ceased.
I looked at the clock. The hands stood at ten precisely.
"Oh, it was only the church clock!"
The climax of the book—only heard about from its victims who pour into the village's Rest Centre—is the Nazis' "Baedeker" raid on nearby
Bath (the "Roman
city" of the book). The Inchfawn home
is overrun with the homeless—such that they cede not only all of their bedrooms
but their dining-room floor as well to provide sleeping space—and they hear of
the terror from some of their bombed-out guests.
The descriptions of the bombings are sad, of course, but none too detailed or harrowing, and I imagine that this is in part due to Inchfawn's desire to make the book wartime "comfort reading," but I wonder if it is also partly due to censorship concerns? (By the way, I noticed that Folly Books also publishes an interesting-looking book specifically about the bombing of
The following passage, for example, part of the tale told by one of the Inchfawns' guests, sounds a bit too upbeat by comparison with Faviell's later recollections:
No one was hysterical; she was not even sure whether they actually prayed; they just stuck it, all through those three deadly attacks, and when at last the raid was over, by great good fortune Mr. Wood got a taxi, and they went to some special friends whose house had not suffered and who gladly took them in.
Good fortune indeed to be able to blithely hop in a taxi after an air-raid!
But when I was already nearly finished reading Salute, it struck me that I could think of very few other memoirs relating to the war that were actually published during the war. There were dozens (hundreds?) in the decades after its end, and there were many novels published during the war that make use—in fictionalized, and therefore perhaps less disturbing, form—of wartime conditions. But very few memoirs that I know of. Margery Allingham's The Oaken Heart (1941), about the very beginning of the war, is one example, and it, too, is an upbeat and rather idealized view of villagers facing the war. The introduction to Salute makes reference to a few specific details that were censored from Inchfawn's book, and I wonder to what extent the overall tone—its upbeat, inspiring, and sometimes sentimental perspective—may have been governed by the necessities and limitations of wartime writing. No doubt Frances Faviell could never have published her gutwrenching account of the Blitz while the war was still raging! [By the way, if I am forgetting other wartime memoirs, please do remind me.]
|Innisfree, Fay Inchfawn's home during World War II|
Although Salute to the Village may not stand as one of my very favorite World War II books, it's a quite enjoyable book, and Inchfawn herself comes across as a very likeable figure—a sort of ideal neighbor for my unrealistic fantasy of idyllic British village life!
By the way, poking around for more information about Inchfawn, whose real name was Elizabeth Rebecca Ward (née Daniels), I discovered there is a Yahoo Group dedicated to her, and although the group seems to be rather inactive, there were some fascinating posts from two of the members, one who personally knew Inchfawn and the other the son of Inchfawn's housemaid from the 1930s (who, if I recall correctly, also works for Folly Books and wrote the introduction to the book). There were also some wonderful photos of Inchfawn, her daughter, and of Freshford, as well as a mouthwatering array of bookcovers. I love coming across these kinds of details about writers who have so long been largely forgotten, and if any of you read and enjoy Salute, be sure to check out this Yahoo Group.