Sunday, May 3, 2015

WORLD WAR II BOOK LIST (2 of 6) (updated 5/15/2016)

Last week, I started posting my latest list—admittedly partly a recycling of my earlier War List, but this time organized in a hopefully more helpful way. The first section of the list featured World War II memoirs or diaries by British women. Now, part 2 of the list focuses on fiction set (and in most cases written) during the years immediately before the war broke out and in the earliest days. As a reminder, here are the six sections of the complete list:

          1) Diaries/Memoirs
          2) Fiction: The Approach of War and Early Days
          3) Fiction: The Thick of It
          4) Fiction: The Immediate Postwar
          5) Fiction: Retrospective (published after 1950)
          6) Other Non-fiction (miscellaneous / historical / anthologies / critical)

If you're not an aficionado of World War II home front fiction, it might seem odd at first to create a separate section focused only on the approach to war and the war's early days. But on the other hand, I feel like few readers familiar with fiction from the period would be likely to mistake a title from the first days of the war for a title published in its final months.

It's rather difficult to nail down exactly why this is. Certainly, the first years of the war saw publication of quite a few gung-ho, light-hearted, "England can take it" works of fiction, epitomized by E. M. Delafield's The Provincial Lady in Wartime or Angela Thirkell's Cheerfulness Breaks In. That spirit seems to dissipate a bit in works published later in the war, as the realities of war have made themselves felt more deeply. Even such an upbeat author as D. E. Stevenson shows a markedly different tone in The Two Mrs. Abbotts, from 1943, than she does in Mrs. Tim Carries On just two years earlier.

In more serious, literary and/or politically-involved works of fiction, it might be a bit harder to put one's finger on the difference between 1940, say, and 1945. But it still seems to be true that, even in works with a serious tone, the characters and situations presented shift as the war drags on. In The Rich House by Stella Gibbons, the war is just on the verge of beginning and is mentioned with some anxiety here and there, but the characters are young and energetic and full of their own interpersonal problems. By the time Gibbons published The Bachelor in 1944, her characters are palpably fatigued and short-tempered, and the rather negative tone of the novel is perhaps why it's my least favorite work by Gibbons, who is otherwise a favorite. And her entire tone shifts again by the time The Matchmaker, set just after the end of the war and permeated with the relief her characters feel to finally begin rebuilding their lives, is published in 1949.

What's more, it's difficult to imagine some of the best novels of the late years of the war, such as Elizabeth Taylor's At Mrs. Lippincote's, Marghanita Laski's To Bed with Grand Music, or Norah Hoult's House Under Mars, with their exhausted, jaded, surly characters, being written a few years earlier. Perhaps the authors would have felt they had an obligation to keep up their readers' morale, or perhaps it's just that the authors themselves weren't feeling the stresses and strains so profoundly in 1940 as they were in 1945 and 1946 when these novels appeared.

Winifred Peck

Either way, though, I felt there was enough justification to split the two periods into two separate lists. It's obviously not an exact science, however, and there are, as always, some books here that I've only read about, not actually read, so if you think I've got something wrong, do let me know.

And now, without further ado, my Top Five for this section of the list:


E. M. DELAFIELD, The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940)
RACHEL FERGUSON, A Footman for the Peacock (1940)
WINIFRED PECK, Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940)
D. E. STEVENSON, Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941)
ANGELA THIRKELL, Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940)

This section is shorter than the first, and much shorter than the next, but it was still hard enough whittling down my favorites to five. How could I not include Mrs. Miniver in my top five? Or one of my favorite Stella Gibbons novels, The Rich House? But by the same token, how could I leave out the Provincial Lady, or my favorite Thirkell, or Winifred Peck's wonderful, underrated tale of the early days of war in a rectory, or my second-favorite Stevenson, or Rachel Ferguson's brilliantly hilarious Footman, which might well be one of my top five favorite novels, period? Decisions, decisions.

But what would your top five include?

A P P R O A C H   &  E A R L Y   D A Y S

RUTH ADAM, War on Saturday Week (1937)

Follows a group of siblings from childhood during World War I to the outbreak of World War II.

RUTH ADAM, There Needs No Ghost (1939)

Humorously contrasts the reactions of villagers and Bloomsburyites to the Munich Crisis.

ROSE ALLATINI, Family from Vienna (1941)

Set during and after the Anschluss among an assimilated Jewish family in London who take in refugee relatives from Austria.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM, Traitor's Purse (1941)

Campion novel set during the phony war; part mystery, part wartime spy thriller.

KITTY BARNE, Visitors from London (1940)

Barne's most famous work, about evacuees on a Sussex farm.

PHYLLIS BOTTOME, The Mortal Storm (1937)

Novel warning about the rise of the Nazis; made into a Hollywood propaganda piece in 1940.

PHYLLIS BOTTOME, The Life-Line (1946)

Set in Austria in 1938.

DOROTHY BOWERS, Shadows Before (1939)

Mystery novel set as war is looming.

KATHARINE BURDEKIN, Swastika Night (1937)

Dystopian novel set after centuries of Nazi and Japanese rule of the world.

SARAH CAMPION, Thirty Million Gas Masks (1937)

Described as "a Near Future tale predictive of the coming catastrophe."

JOANNA CANNAN, Death at the Dog (1939)

Mystery set in the earliest days of the war.

ROMILLY CAVAN, Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940)

Delightful family comedy of village life and of approaching war getting in the way of young lovers.

MARGARET COLE (w. G. D. H. Cole), Murder at the Munition Works (1940)

Mystery presumably set in the early days of the war.

GWENDOLINE COURTNEY, The Denehurst Secret Service (1940)

GWENDOLINE COURTNEY, Well Done Denehurst (1941)

Popular girls' author's adventure tales involving German spies.

CLEMENCE DANE, The Arrogant History of White Ben (1939)

Allegorical novel about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.

E. M. DELAFIELD, The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940)

Follows Delafield's beloved title character into the early days of the war.

E. M. DELAFIELD, No One Now Will Know (1941)

Begins on the cusp of the war but then flashes back to the 1870s.

MONICA DICKENS, Mariana (1940)

Heroine recalls her early life as she waits to hear of her husband's fate after his ship has been sunk.

MARY DUNSTAN, Banners in Bavaria (1939)

Dealing with a "typical" German family on the brink of the war; praised for its "extraordinarily impressive picture of Munich on the night of the Anschluss celebrations."

JOSEPHINE ELDER, Strangers at the Farm School (1940)

The last of Elder's Farm School trilogy; the strangers of the title are Jewish refugees escaping from Hitler.

RACHEL FERGUSON, A Footman for the Peacock (1940)

Vivid, hilarious, and distinctly unusual portrait of a terrible family determined not to face wartime hardships.

STELLA GIBBONS, The Rich House (1941)

Follows several young, mismatched couples and an anonymous letter-writer just on the cusp of the war.

STORM JAMESON, In the Second Year (1936)

Dystopian novel about a Fascist takeover of England.

STORM JAMESON, Cousin Honoré (1940)

Novel which attempts to examine the causes of the war via the microcosm of a village in Alsace.

STORM JAMESON, Europe to Let: The Memoirs of an Obscure Man (1940)

A collection of novellas about the rise of Fascism.

WINIFRED LEAR, The Causeway (1948)

Tragicomic tale of life in and around a rectory from the approach of war to the early days of the Blitz.

ADELAIDE MANNING (w. Cyril Henry Coles, as Manning Coles), Drink to Yesterday (1940)

ADELAIDE MANNING (w. Cyril Henry Coles, as Manning Coles), Toast to Tomorrow (1940, aka Pray Silence)

ADELAIDE MANNING (w. Cyril Henry Coles, as Manning Coles), Without Lawful Authority (1943)

Light-hearted spy novels making use of wartime intrigue.

ANNE MAYBURY, Arise, Oh Sun (1940)

Romance set in the early days of the war.

GLADYS MITCHELL, Brazen Tongue (1940)

Mystery set against a backdrop of air-raid precautions and blackout in the early days of the war.

NAOMI MITCHISON, The Blood of the Martyrs (1939)

According to ODNB, "attempted to draw parallels between Nero's treatment of early Christians and Hitler's persecution of the Jews."

NANCY MITFORD, Pigeon Pie (1940)

A rather zany spy story set in the earliest days of the war.

KATE O'BRIEN, The Last of Summer (1943)

Social drama set during a two week period in late summer of 1939, just as the war is beginning.

CAROLA OMAN, Nothing to Report (1940)

Takes place in 1939 up until mid-1940.

WINIFRED PECK, Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940)

Hilarious fictional diary of a rector's wife just as the anxieties of war are kicking in.

DORIS POCOCK, Catriona Carries On (1940)

Girls' story set in the early days of the war.

EVADNE PRICE, Jane the Patient (1940)

Wartime entry in her popular Jane series.

DOROTHY L. SAYERS, "The Wimsey Papers" (1940)

Published in the Spectator and apparently never reprinted, a series of fictional letters between Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, and others of their circle, focused on the early days of the war.

D. E. STEVENSON, The English Air (1940)

Set in the last days of peace and first days of war, involving an English family coping with the approach of war and the son of a Nazi officer who visits them and has a somewhat different perspective on events.

D. E. STEVENSON, Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941)

Stevenson takes her loosely autobiographical alter-ego into the early months of wartime.

JAN STRUTHER, Mrs. Miniver (1939)

One of the most famous works of the pre-war years, a series of short pieces about a family in Chelsea, later made into an Oscar-winning film.

ETHEL M. TALBOT, The Warringtons in War-Time (1940)

Children's author's foray into wartime fiction.

ANGELA THIRKELL, Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940)

The approach and beginning of war as hilariously experienced in Barsetshire.

SYLVIA THOMPSON, The Gulls Fly Inland (1941)

Set during 1939-1940, but apparently primarily focused on interpersonal relations.

P. L. TRAVERS, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land (1941)

Children's title by Mary Poppins author, dealing with evacuated children.

DOROTHY WHIPPLE, The Priory (1939)

Mentioned by Delafield's Provincial Lady as perfect wartime reading; set in the final days before the outbreak of war.

VIRGINIA WOOLF, Between the Acts (1941)

Highly experimental novel about a village pageant, over which the threat of war looms in subtle and symbolic ways.


  1. Cheerfulness Breaks In (well, you KNEW I would write about a Thirkell novel, eh?) amazes me - it starts out rather light heartedly with Rose's wedding, although people keep talking around the possibility of war. Mrs. Morland finally bites it in that she actually says if anything does happen......and of course it does. We see the beginnings, people done, even a first casualty (off the page) and evacuees beginning, and then - leaves, embarcartion leaves, and finally Dunkirk, and it ends with Lydia receiving a telegram - the contents of which we don't learn. The Thirkell group has discussed this, and agree that the tension lies in the fact that Mrs. Thirkell is writing this as it is happening, so no one knows the future - it is almost as if she wants to gather everything together - in case there are no future novels. Chilling, even in hindsight. Scott, you are doing yoeman work - applause and kudos!

    1. Thanks for that, Tom. You've pointed out many of the qualities that I love about CBI, and also some of the reasons books from the earliest days of the war are so interesting and so distinct from those written later on. And despite the war looming over everything else going on in the novel, AT managed to make it thoroughly entertaining and hilarious.

  2. I'm enjoying these sub-lists, Scott. Thanks for sharing all of them in their various arrangements. :^)

    I am familiar with only a few of these (Pigeon Pie is around somewhere, but I haven't read it yet.) so I can't really express my faves based on any semblance of extentive reading. Even so, The English Air would be on the top 5 list. (I love MrsTCO too).

    I wouldn't, however, describe it as a light romance. Yes, there is a romance, two in fact, in the story, but I think the real thrust of the story is the depiction of an ordinary English family (all right, middle-class English family) and how they deal with the end of peace and the beginning of war, set sharply against the reactions of their visiting German cousin. And all written just as it was taking place.

    1. To add to the complexity of The English Air, we also hear quite a lot about the impact of WWI, especially on Frank/Franz's English mother living in Germany, but also on Sophie, etc.

      I think there really needs to be at least one Manning Coles title on this sub list. Depending on where you make the break between this and the full war, others could be added. But at minimium, A Toast to Tomorrow, which starts in 1933 and ends as the Nazis prepare to annex Danzig. It watches the growth of the Nazi party and preparations for war. As I recall, Without Lawful Authority has characters watching and waiting for Chamberlin to comment after the Munich Crisis, so that is still build up to war.

      Is N or M? by Christie coming on the Thick of It List? It feels early war to me. But I am not sure exactly when the division point is in your listing.


    2. Thanks, Susan and Jerri. I'm going to tweak my description of English Air--you can tell that it's one of the DESes I haven't gotten round to yet.

      Jerri, I'll also tweak this list and the next one, because I had for some reason placed Toast to Tomorrow on the "thick of it" list, but that's oviously an error. I'll correct that.

      I went back and forth with N or M, but ultimately decided to put it in the next list. It's not an exact science, obviously, but my logic is that the war is in full swing and there is a sense of urgency to catching the spy. I'm basically considering the beginning of the Blitz to be the dividing line, and N or M sort of straddles that line--probably written before, but published during.

  3. I want to agree with Tom, to me one of the major issues between books written during the early days of WWII and books written about that time, but written later, even by people who lived through the war, is that they wrote these books not knowing how the war would turn out. In many cases, expecting that invasion was possible or even probable. Just one factor, think of what an occupying Nazi force would have thought of the authors who had written some of these books! I remember reading a letter from Dorothy Sayers to her son, who was not publicly known at that time as her son, advising him, in case of invasion to keep their connection quiet so that the Nazi's wouldn't have reason to punish him for her views.


    1. Good point, Jerri. It's easy to forget that some of the authors who were concerned with morale-lifting or inspiring a fighting spirit in their readers as part of their war work would have felt it as a real matter of life and death for themselves as well. And the looming war, the stresses of the Blitz, and the expectation that both she and her husband were on the Nazis' liquidation list were, if I recall correctly, factors in Virginia Woolf's suicide as well.


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