"I suppose people in the future will picture our existence now, in London, as quite abnormal and pretty terrifying, and yet it hasn't been, has it? I mean, in between the sticky moments, we seem to have gone on much the same as usual—being pleased or miserable about the same things, worrying about money and what our neighbours think of us, and getting a devil of a kick out of any sort of promotion or achievement."
To the extent that most readers have heard of Barbara Noble at all, it will be because of the Persephone reprint of her 1946 novel Doreen, in which the title character is a young girl evacuated from her working class home in London to a well-to-do home in the county, and her subsequent alienation from her parents. Though I never blogged about that book, I enthused about it in my notes, particularly the astuteness of Noble's child psychology in portraying Doreen herself and a harrowing scene of London during the Blitz.
As is often the way with me, my appreciation of one of Noble's books only made me yearn that much more for her most unobtainable work. And in the years since, I had very nearly given up hope of ever having a chance to read The House Opposite, which was discussed as a blitz novel in Jenny Hartley's Millions Like Us, but which has virtually ceased to exist in libraries or booksellers. A few weeks ago, however—a full seven years after first reading Doreen—I discovered a copy, complete with (most of its) dustwrapper, at an almost reasonable price from my old standby World of Rare Books. Eureka! I have honestly rarely been more excited by a book find (and the fact that I added several other alluring books to the same order didn't hurt any either—more on those in upcoming posts, of course).
So did it turn out to be worthwhile? Absolutely. Though perhaps not quite so much for it's relatively run-of-the-mill plot as for its fascinating insights into life in London during the Blitz. And while it's marvelously vivid in portraying both the attitudes and emotions of Londoners and the drama of air raids and their human toll, it also insistently and intriguingly downplays the experience, as you can tell from the quotation above, which comes near the end of the book. Noble's theme is that real life goes on much as normal, mundane and ordinary, even with the prospect of death looming over one. Something of a change of pace, I think, from many blitz novels which milk the drama for all it's worth, and all the more interesting for that.
According to Persephone's bio of Noble, she was working at 20th Century Fox's London office before the war, and in 1939 became their London story editor. Between this and the author bio on the back flap of the book, which notes that she also volunteered in a Red Cross Sick Bay during the Blitz, it's apparent that the vividness and detail of her descriptions in The House Opposite stem from her own personal experiences. She knows whereof she speaks, and it shows throughout, as this is one of the best documentations of life in the Blitz that I've encountered.
The story that forms the scaffolding for this wonderful documentation is perhaps a bit run-of-the-mill. It concerns itself mainly with Elizabeth Simpson, a secretary in love with her married boss, Alex Foster (she refers to them as "second-grade people" but believes that love will out), though a number of other characters feature prominently as well. There's her co-worker Joan Walsh, whose tales of her eccentric neighbors in the shelter enliven the office; Elizabeth's father Henry, an air raid warden, and her mother Alice, whose anxiety about the raids leads her to rely a bit too heavily on her secret bottle of rum; Bob Craven, a soldier Elizabeth strings along as cover for her illicit romance with Alex; Owen Cathcart, Elizabeth's neurotic teenage neighbor, who is terrified that his adoration of his cousin Derek means he's gay; and Owen's parents, kindly Daisy and shady Lionel, whose dealings in the black market are about to catch up with him. And all of the characters are (suitably for an author with a flair for both psychology and realism) entirely believable and flawed—if not always entirely likeable—and they grow and evolve in perfectly believable ways as well.
It's an enjoyable enough story, and moves at a tidy pace, but as I mentioned the devil (or in this case the saint) is in the details. There's the fact that people during the Blitz developed phobias about suggesting any changes to another person's plans, for fear it would be their suggestion that resulted in death or dismemberment. Or, there's Owen slipping out at night to watch the fireworks and collecting souvenirs of shrapnel. Because, of COURSE a teenage boy would want to do that! I might have been tempted myself, and in fact I still think it would be rather cool to have a bit of shrapnel from the Blitz—does anyone have such memorabilia hanging about, handed down from relations who were in the thick of it?
There's the desire to see the most dramatic of the ruins. In one scene, "Bob hailed a taxi and began a lengthy conversation with the driver about the best route for bomb damage." And there's the unique set of anxieties the Blitz sets up for Elizabeth and Alex and their secret love affair: "To die together would be simple. It would not be so simple to be dug out still alive from the same collapsed building."
I very much enjoyed Elizabeth's co-worker Joan's descriptions of her evenings in the shelter, particularly the unflappable Miss Dalrymple:
"Elizabeth, you would have screamed last night. There was the most God-awful row going on about half-past nine, before that first All Clear, and we were all sitting in the basement pretending we didn't hear it and Miss Dalrymple was telling an incredibly boring story about a Swiss alp she'd climbed in the 'sixties, when suddenly, whoosh! down came a thousand-pounder, I should say, about a couple of yards away—or that's what it felt like, anyhow. The poor old house just rocked and the sideboard leant forward and bowed in a polite way and then went back again. I fell on my stomach and hit my head against the Major's—he'd had the same idea. Mrs. Henley let out a sort of strangled squeak, and Miss Dalrymple shot forward off her chair and then climbed back again in the most dignified way and said in just the same prim little voice: 'I used to pick a lot of gentian and press it between the covers of a book. Such a lovely blue!' Honestly, I have to hand it to the old girl."
There's a lovely evocation of what office work would have been like just after the worst of the Blitz began:
All through September they had taken the day raids very seriously at the office. The dingy old-fashioned house held three other firms besides their own and when the sirens sounded most of the personnel of all four would walk or run, as their temperaments directed, down to a basement room which had, by the addition of a little timber, been converted into a shelter. Each small group occupied a separate corner and had provided their own chairs or benches. Some attempt was made to carry on work. Carter staggered up and down with Elizabeth's typewriter, but there were too many people in a confined space for much mental concentration to be possible. Joan frankly enjoyed the opportunity to slack and read a novel. Carter had to be perpetually restrained from darting out into the square to report on the dog-fights overhead. Miss Lewis had a habit of "turning faint", which necessitated opening the first-aid satchel to administer sal volatile and caused a lot of enjoyable flap among the rest of the shelterers.
And one of my favorite descriptions in the book is the following. It's well known, if you've read much about life on the home front, that Tube stations became makeshift bomb shelters during the Blitz (though, in typically British fashion, order seems to have been established very quickly). But this passage, in which Elizabeth is a passenger on a late train, really brings it to life:
Up and down the platform, women in a gay uniform of green overall and scarlet bandeau walked with steaming enamel jugs of tea and trays of buns and chocolate. But the passengers could not buy, however thirsty or hungry they might be. From an hour determined by the black-out, the passengers were incidental, must stand waiting for their trains at the extreme edge of the platform, lonely and self-conscious figures on the fringe of other people's home lives. The white-faced children still awake whimpered or strained their eyes to read or darted with shrill cries from one group to the other. Their tired mothers slapped them, without effect. An argument broke out and someone quelled it. A Red Cross nurse was greeted with appreciative smiles. The doors slid open and slid to, and the train moved on.
Like many Londoners who habitually and defiantly slept in their own beds throughout the air raids, Elizabeth had a slight contempt for the Tube shelterers and needed to remind herself that many of them were homeless or had suffered damage to their nerves in proportion to the damage to their backgrounds.
Noble's brilliance at portraying psychology also comes to the fore in this passage about the game Elizabeth makes of survival:
The click of her latchkey in the front door was the last move in a game Elizabeth often played on raid nights. It started at the office. If she stopped to wash her hands before she left, it might make all the difference to whether she were killed or not. If she walked to the Underground by way of Cambridge Circus and Charing Cross Road or by way of Greek Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, it might make all the difference. If she waited for the escalator to carry her or walked down it to the bottom, thus possibly catching an earlier train, it might make all the difference. This game pleased her very much. It added a perceptible spice to the general mixed flavour of life. It also nourished her inherent fatalism.
Can't you just imagine yourself playing such a game? It's that sort of passage that makes it clear that Noble herself lived through the Blitz.
But always throughout, there are reminders like this one of how mundane the whole thing became for some residents of London:
October passed and November passed. A number of Londoners met violent death in the night, a still larger number suffered varying degrees of injury, the largest number of all suffered nothing more than inconvenience and nervous strain.
(Squeamish readers might want to note that there's a rather gruesome—if completely realistic—scene in the hospital where Elizabeth, like Noble herself, spends some evenings and weekends nursing. It's a stark reminder of the horror and tragedy of the Blitz.)
I'm always a little torn when reviewing novels like this. On one hand, it's not great literature by any means, with its enjoyable but fairly run-of-the-mill plot. On the other hand, what a wonderful social document of a fascinating time! I could bury myself for days and days in books like this. The same could be said of Barbara Beauchamp's similarly hyper-obscure Wine of Honour, which I reviewed recently (here), and indeed of Josephine Kamm's Peace, Perfect Peace, which I reviewed a couple of years ago here—both of those being amazing records of the immediate postwar days.
How do you, dear readers, feel about books like these? Is the story itself all in all for you, the background merely a backdrop, and without a brilliant plot and loveable characters there's just no point? Or is a vivid and unique background enough to make it all worth your while? I don't ask for entirely frivolous reasons, since I always sort of bear in mind whether books like these could possibly make viable future Furrowed Middlebrow titles…