Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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

5) Fiction: Retrospective (post-1950)

Fiction: Retrospective (published after 1950)

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions on part four of my list. I have several more books to read now because of you. Please do keep the suggestions coming, as this part undoubtedly needs your help as well.

It might seem odd at first to divide fiction set during World War II into that actually written during or immediately after the war and that written even just a few years later and on up to recent years. And perhaps it is just my own idiosyncrasy (please feel free to tell me if you think it’s just my book-addled brain getting carried away…).

But it does seem to me that there is a real difference in tone and perspective between those books which came directly out of the turmoils, traumas, and day-to-day realities of the war, and those which I’ve called retrospective, which seem to approach the war in a more reflective way, with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the outcome—which are, in some cases, even in the early 1950s, basically historical fiction re-imagining wartime life for their authors’ particular literary purposes, rather than tales primarily focused on uncertainty and survival. It’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly how these variations are reflected in the texts, but I imagine the same distinction applies to any historical event: books written during the Victorian period are certainly different from books of the 1940s which are merely set during Victoria’s reign (just think of the difference between Charlotte Yonge’s view of the Victorian family and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s!). 

It’s also hard to place a definite dividing line between retrospective works and those that are more immediate or direct. There are always grey areas. But 1950 seemed like a convenient line to draw. Certainly, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, published in 1948, manages to capture an immediacy and urgency that’s already long lost by the time Olivia Manning tackles her distinctly historical Fortunes of War trilogies starting in 1960. And there are several important novels written during the war that were only published in the years after it ended, such as Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music, Norah Hoult’s House Under Mars, and Stella Gibbons’ Westwood. If the line is to be drawn, it must be drawn somewhere, so, for this list, 1950 it is.

If you want to feel very overwhelmed very quickly by the vast array of more recent historical fiction set during World War II, have a gander at this site, which may give you lots of new reading material. For my purposes, however, this section of the list is limited to books by authors who qualify for my Overwhelming List (i.e., if you haven’t perused that list lately, British women who published fiction during the years 1910-1960). Thus, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalets series, the final volume of which only appeared in 2013, is listed here, while dozens of other titles published earlier than that but by younger authors are not included.

Elizabeth Jane Howard

This is certainly an idiosyncrasy that comes of my own interests: Because my main interest is in those authors who experienced these years first-hand, I’m interested in a 2013 novel by an author who began publishing in 1950, but not so much in a 1980 novel by an author who started publishing in 1975 (however marvelous the 1980 novel might be). An idiosyncrasy, for sure, but hopefully one that makes some kind of sense from the perspective of the heyday of the women’s middlebrow novel. And it certainly makes my list shorter and more manageable than it would otherwise have been (I couldn’t have fathomed attempting a list of all WWII-related novels, even just by British women writers—overwhelming indeed!).

On the other hand, since their author doesn’t qualify in any way, shape, or form for this list, I will take this opportunity to mention two of my very favorite books concerned with the World War II home front in Britain. Connie Willis is American, too young to have experienced the war first hand (born on New Year’s Eve, 1945), and only began publishing in the 1970s, but I couldn’t stop reading Blackout and All Clear (2010), her two epic novels (really one big giant novel) about several time travelling historians from 2060 who venture into the Blitz (and other hot spots of the war) for research purposes and find themselves trapped there by complications with their time portals and the laws of physics. There are some naysayers bothered by anachronisms and Americanisms in Willis’s portrayal of the war, but however true this might be (I’m probably not the best judge of either), it’s also true that they’re vivid and page-turning and probably did more to stir up interest in the home front among general readers than a dozen riveting Imperial War Museum exhibitions. So, I encourage you to read them, but they are not, of course, included in my list below.

Since the list is so short, it’s somewhat anti-climactic to choose my five favorites from this section (I’ve only read about 7 of the books shown, so the competition isn’t fierce), but what the hey, here they are:


BRYHER, Beowulf (1956)
OLIVIA MANNING, The Balkan Trilogy (1960-1965)
MURIEL SPARK, The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
GERALDINE SYMONS - Now and Then (1977, aka Crocuses Were Over, Hitler Was Dead)
LAURA TALBOT, The Gentlewomen (1952)

Bryher’s underrated novel—richly deserving of a reprint—is truly one of my favorites, while Symon’s book, a time slip tale about a lonely girl in a big country house who finds herself flickering back and forth between the dull present of the 1970s and the house’s far more eventful wartime past, has haunted me ever since I stumbled across it as a child. (And by the way, this is one of the only examples I know of where an American title is actually better than the British original. The crocuses in the novel are a kind of marker that allow the reader, as well as the girl herself, to realize which time she is in.) A part of me wouldn’t mind slipping back in time to the war years for a week or two, though I’d like to be terribly selective about the exact time and location of my slippage (and be more certain of the functionality of my portals than Connie Willis' historians can be)…

What am I missing this time around?

R E T R O S P E C T I V E   W O R K S

MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, Time to Go Back (1972)

Popular author’s tale of a young girl in Liverpool who travels back in time to witness her mother and aunt’s tragic past.

LUCILLA ANDREWS, One Night in London (1979)

LUCILLA ANDREWS, After a Famous Victory (1984)

LUCILLA ANDREWS, The Phoenix Syndrome (1987)

LUCILLA ANDREWS, Frontline 1940 (1990)

Pressured to remove wartime themes from her early novels, romance novelist Andrews returned to the war in these late works.

BERYL BAINBRIDGE, The Dressmaker (1973)

Set in Liverpool during the war, this novel focuses on a young woman living with her two aunts.

NINA BAWDEN, Carrie's War (1973)

Acclaimed children’s book about the evacuation of a young girl and her brother to a Welsh village during World War II and the effect their stay has on her later life.

ANN BRIDGE, A Place to Stand (1953)

ANN BRIDGE, The Tightening String (1962)

Popular novelist’s tales of Hungary in wartime.

BRYHER, Beowulf (1956)

Powerful “blitz lit” novel detailing the experiences of two women (perhaps not unlike Bryher and her partner, Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D.) running a tea shop under harsh wartime constraints.

HESTER BURTON, In Spite of All Terror (1968)

Children’s novel set during wartime and featuring scenes of evacuation, bombings, and the Dunkirk evacuation.

BARBARA COMYNS, Mr. Fox (1987)

Set during the war and based on Comyns' own life after the breakup of her first marriage.

LETTICE COOPER, Fenny (1953)

Set before and after the war in Florence, which follows a young girl from her arrival in Italy as a governess through turbulent events both personal and political.

FANNY CRADOCK, Castle Rising series (1975-1985)

Eccentric chef and novelist’s popular series tracing a family’s fortunes, including the war years.

THERESA DE KERPELY (writing as Teresa Kay), A Crown of Ashes (1952)

Novel based on her wartime experiences living in Budapest, published pseudonymously to protect family members still living in Hungary.

RACHEL FERGUSON, Sea Front (1954)

Traces, in Ferguson's eccentric fashion, life in a seaside resort town before, during, and after WWII.

RUBY FERGUSON, The Wakeful Guest (1962)

Rather uninspired mystery/melodrama focused on a superficial young woman’s encounters with refugees of war.

HELEN FOLEY, A Handful of Time (1961)

A Book Society Choice that deals with two women, one British and one Austrian, from immediately before WWII until "its confused aftermath," set mostly at or in Cambridge, with occasional scenes in Austria.

SARAH GAINHAM, Night Falls on the City (1967)
SARAH GAINHAM, A Place in the Country (1968)
SARAH GAINHAM, Private Worlds (1971)

A trilogy. Night Falls was a bestseller and BOMC selection, set in Vienna during the war. The less acclaimed sequels are set, respectively, soon after the war has ended and in the early 1950s.

CATHERINE GAVIN, Traitors' Gate (1976)
CATHERINE GAVIN, None Dare Call It Treason (1978)
CATHERINE GAVIN, How Sleep the Brave (1980)

Historical novelist’s popular trilogy set in wartime Britain.

ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD, The Light Years (1990)
ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD, Marking Time (1991)

Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, her best known and most popular works, which detail a family's experiences in wartime England.

PAMELA HANSFORD JOHNSON, The Survival of the Fittest (1968)

Novel tracing a group of friends through the war years.

MOLLY LEFEBURE, Blitz! (1988)

The one novel by the author of Evidence for the Crown (1954), a memoir of working in the London morgue during WWII, dramatized a few years ago as Murder on the Home Front.

ALICE LUNT, Tomorrow the Harvest (1955)

ALICE LUNT, Eileen of Redstone Farm (1964)

Children’s stories based on Lunt’s own experiences in the Women's Land Army during World War II.

OLIVIA MANNING, The Balkan Trilogy (1960-1965)

OLIVIA MANNING, The Levant Trilogy (1977-1980)

Two epic trilogies—dramatized for television as Fortunes of War—tracing a young married couple’s lives in the Eastern Europe and the Middle East during the war years.

ANNE MARRECO (writing as ALICE ACLAND), A Person of Discretion (1958)

About three sisters from Brussels who get mixed up with the black market and the Resistance movement late in World War II.

MARY RENAULT, The Charioteer (1953)

Early portrayal of gay men, dealing with a wounded soldier's triangular relationship with a conscientious objector and a naval officer while in a hospital in the midst of blackout and bombings.

DOROTHY EVELYN SMITH, He Went for a Walk (1954)

Children’s book in which a boy made homeless by the Blitz finds his way across wartime England.

MURIEL SPARK, The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

Takes place in a London boarding-house for girls during the final days of World War II.

D. E. STEVENSON, Amberwell (1955)

About a family and their staff in a country house before and during the war.

D. E. STEVENSON, Sarah Morris Remembers (1966)

Story of a woman looking back over her early life, from her childhood in a vicarage to the thick of the Blitz in London.

NOEL STREATFEILD, Beyond the Vicarage (1971)

Third volume of Streatfeild's fictionalized memoir, in which "Vicky" becomes an author and joins the WVS during the war.

NOEL STREATFEILD, When the Sirens Wailed (1974)

Children's fiction in which Streatfeild returns to her wartime experiences.

GERALDINE SYMONS - Now and Then (1977, published in the U.S. as Crocuses Were Over, Hitler Was Dead)

A time-slip story of a girl moving with her family to a country estate and occasionally slipping back into World War II when she befriends a gardener and his dog from those earlier years.

LAURA TALBOT, The Gentlewomen (1952)

Novel focused on the disruptions of class identity brought about by World War II.

GILLIAN TINDALL, The Intruder (1979)

Novel about a young Englishwoman and her son stuck in occupied France during World War II.


  1. I'm not sure which of your categories these two should go into - if at all! - but I'll mention them here anyway.
    Susan Cooper's Dawn of Fear - based on her own childhood experience of WW2 is worthy of your perusal, if you haven't read it...different in tone from her later Dark Is Rising Sequence, for which she is best-known, but as well-written as ever.
    Also, Diana Wynne Jones' Tale of Time City starts on an evacuation train - the time slips in this are different from those in 'conventional' time-slip stories, as part of the premise is that certain periods of history are unstable, and the mid-20th-century war in our world starts earlier and earlier - not least because when Jonathan tries to take Vivian back to where he mistakenly kidnaps her, he makes the period even more unstable, but it is evident that nuclear energy has been discovered in the 1930s in this 'version' of the time, whereas Vivian 'originally' travelled on a steam train...this gets more complicated the more I try to describe it, but I do recommend it - and it makes perfect sense within the covers of the book!
    DWJ was evacuated to the Lake District in the War years, so is also writing from her experience of living through the war as a child.

    1. Thanks for the reminder about Diana Wynne Jones. It has been some time since I read Tale of Time City. But you also started me thinking about some of her other books, and the impact WWII and her life as an evacuated child had on them. I can now remember "seeing" WWII influences even in the less obviously set then books by DWJ.


    2. These both sound so interesting, Ruth. Thank you for the suggestions. You've added even more to my TBR list!

  2. Oh wow, Scott, I figured you'd be overwhelmed with the retrospective looks. But of course, one must draw the line somewhere.

    And of course there's a difference between books written while the bombs are still falling or the ruins are still smouldering, and those written with the help of a rearview mirror and the passage of time.

    Now, I have to offer the DES books to your list. (Although I'm sure Jerri is also sending you a similar addendum.)

    Amberwell (1955) tells of a family before and during wartime. It's a wonderful story of how the Aryton family members and the staff at the big house weather the war.

    The sequel, Summerhills (1956) shows the family in the immediate aftermath of the war, literally rebuilding for a new generation.

    Sarah Morris Remembers (1966) is one of my favourite DES books, and puts us right into the thick of things in the London Blitz.

    (the sequel, Sarah's Cottage, 1967, could be included as a post-war book, though it continues on into the 1950s and the aftermath of the War is not the main theme)

    Here's a link to all DES books, if you're interested.

    And yes yes yes. I loved Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear novel, whichI had to read with post-its so I could keep referring back to earlier bit.)

    I hadn't realised Lucilla Andrews had written other war books. I enjoyed Frontline 1940, and that led me to her memoir (which I love). I'll have to look for them.

    1. Excellent, Susan! I'm adding this information to my database, and will add the books to this list accordingly.

      I keep thinking I will do a re-read of Blackout & All Clear and make notes with the dates so I can try to sort out some of the jumping back and forth. If I ever get round to it, I may be emailing you with questions!

      I haven't read any of the other Lucilla Andrews books either. I read Frontline because of your recommendation and enjoyed it, but I can't vouch for the others except that they deal with the war.

  3. Here are some DEStevenson WWII themed books written after 1950: Sarah Morris Remembers (followed by Sarah's Cottage which deals with post war issues) (1967/1968). Amberwell/1955 deals is a family novel over a long period of time, ending with WWII issues. Still Glides the Stream/1959 is set after the war, but deals with an attempt to follow up on a letter written by a WWII soldier, and received by his sister after the war, talking about a secret. Susan D, did I miss some?


    1. Ha! I knew you'd be doing the same list, Jerri. I'd forgotten the war connections of Still glides The Stream. Very specific war related search.

    2. Yes, we have long been well known on the DES email list for sending very similar replies to questions, overlapping in the ether. I forgot the post war implications in Summerhills, perhaps because I tend to forget where Amberwell stops and Summerhills begins!


    3. Thank you, Jerri! You and Susan can overlap here as often as you like. I appreciate your help!

  4. Thanks so much for this list, Scott! The ones I already know best are the two Olivia Manning trilogies, which I was prompted to read after seeing the television dramatizations. They were very good, of course, but I do love the books more, I think.

    1. I still haven't seen the Fortunes of War series, Karen, though I keep meaning to watch it. But I agree that books are usually better--even with six hours I'm sure they couldn't really do these books justice.

  5. It would be wonderful of you if you could give us hints about buying Cadell's at a decent price. $400.00 for one of her trilogy? $75.00 for a paperback. I confess that ABE, Alibris, and any of the other book sites have left me in shock.

    1. I wish I knew of a cheap place to get Cadells, Mage!

  6. As a former children's librarian, I am always pleased when you include what have traditionally been considered children's novels. MANY THANKS for including Streatfeild's "When the Sirens Wailed." LOVE that book! Tom

    1. Thanks, Tom! With your comment and the one below, now I don't know whether to read it or not! :-)

  7. More books to look out for!
    I have to disagree with Tom because I hate, hate, hate When the Sirens Wailed. It's an excellent example of the difference between a book written at the time and one written retrospectively. Curtain Up and The Children of Primrose Lane were written not only about the war but while it was still taking place and they are so much better. But I think Streatfeild's work got worse and worse with time. Although I love her early books, I really dislike the later ones.

    1. Always interesting how different people can react so differently to the same books. I have to admit I haven't read the two earlier Streatfeilds you mention yet either. So many books, so little time!

  8. It's more than 4 years since you published this list,and I don't know whether you still check for comments on it, but Good Night Mr. Tom, by Michele Magorian (published 1981) might fit into your retrospective category. It's about a young boy evacuated during the War and sent to live with a very crusty elderly man. An unlikely pairing, but they eventually become the best of friends.


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