"I have told Rose that there will be a chauffeur for dinner," she ended, frowning slightly at the cannibalistic sound of her sentence.
I've had Nothing to Report flagged as a potentially interesting World War II-themed novel ever since Jenny Hartley mentioned it in passing in her book Millions Like Us about women writers in wartime. "In passing" is almost an exaggeration, actually, as the sum total of Hartley's attention to the novel was as follows:
the chapter titles are all dates, following the characters on their domestic rounds through the months of 1939 up to 'Midsummer 1940.'
But it was only in my recent renewed obsession with World War II fiction (surely you've noticed this, based on my recent reviews) that I finally got round to tracking it down via interlibrary loan—from no less prestigious source than Yale University. And of course Hartley's mention doesn't begin to reflect just how delightful the book really is.
Carola Oman is best-known for her historical novels and her biographies, and also for being a close friend of the far more famous Georgette Heyer. But as war loomed, she must have felt the urge to write a humorous fictionalized version of village life, to lift the spirits of her readers and, perhaps, to lift her own as well. And she pulls it off wonderfully well, along the lines of the Provincial Lady or the Henrietta books, if perhaps just a bit rougher around the edges.
Quite different from the Provincial Lady, however, is the fact that we are very much among the upper crust here—hardly a non-U to be found, though our protagonist, 43-year-old Mary Morrison, unmarried and nicknamed "Button" by her friends, is what might be referred to as a (very mildly) distressed gentlewoman. She no longer resides in her family home, which has been placed in the hands of a girls' school and then, in the course of the novel, placed on the market. But she assures her friends she is perfectly happy at Willows, her current home, which is comprised of two converted 17th century cottages and which, numerous impracticalities and inconveniences aside, sounds like every American's naïve fantasy of what a home in the English countryside should be like:
"Everyone's sorry for me, living in a hovel almost in the shadow of my ancestral hall," said Mary Morrison. "They can't think how I can bear to do it. Actually I chose it, but I wallow in their sympathy. Even if I could keep five gardeners nowadays, I shouldn't want to go on living at home, like the last sardine in the tin."
And indeed Mary seems to be so centrally involved with the social life of the village (the apparently fictional Westbury-on-the-Green, described as near a cathedral town called Went, not far from London, and the cathedral has a particularly lovely spire—which made me think of Salisbury, but I don't think the other pieces fit?), as well as with the first-aid training she's taken up in preparation for the war, that one imagines she could hardly find time to regret her old home. We meet a dizzying array of Mary's friends and relations, with Ladies and Sirs galore and even a few non-U residents—I actually made a few notes to keep track of them all—and it seems that no one can move without consulting this practical, logical, sympathetic woman.
Most importantly, there's her oldest and dearest friend Catha, Lady Rollo, who is just back from India with her husband Tim (Sir Daubeny) and sets up lavish housekeeping at Crossgrove nearby. There's Catha's three children—son Tony at Oxford, with clear socialist inclinations, son Crispin, definitively presentable, and daughter Elizabeth, who is just preparing for her coming out and being presented at Court. There's Marcelle, Mary's widowed sister-in-law, with whom she has an ambivalent relationship, and Rosemary, Marcelle's challenging daughter, both of whom may soon be planting themselves on her to escape the threat of London bombs. And the list could go on.
The title of the novel is probably meant to evoke the uncertainties of the months before war begins, with people waiting anxiously for developments (as Hartley noted, we move from February of 1939 to the declaration of war, followed by an epilogue set in the summer of 1940). It's also true that, in some ways, there is little enough to report about the novel's plot. But, just as in real life—and in many of my favorite novels—both nothing and everything happens. It's a humorous, sometimes daft portrayal of an English village cheerfully progressing from being more or less oblivious to the approach of war to pulling together (again, more or less) for the war effort. And the point is really the wonderfully silly humor.
Of course I shall give a few examples to convince you. How's this for starters?:
Mary had Mrs. Bates to tea to meet Catha, and Mrs. Bates discovered that Elizabeth was going into a nursing home to have an impacted wisdom-tooth removed, which reminded her of the case of another debutante, also an only daughter, who had perished under the ancesthetic. Catha, however, thought Mrs. Bates a nice cheerful woman, and did not seem at all moved by the information that no housemaids would stay at Crossgrove because of the bus service, and that the little room which she had chosen as her sitting-room was the one in which a previous owner had qualified for delirium tremens.
And despite the distinctly posh status of most of this novel's characters, Mary is always comfortably down-to-earth and likable. For example, I love the way Mary spends a portion of her time among the elites at Ascot:
"Now I'm going to spend ten minutes more in here before strolling slowly in front of your railings while policemen say, 'Keep moving, please.' You see, Mrs. Bates, in our village, reads all the Ascot fashion notes, and gets terribly distressed when one paper tells her that a Royal Duchess was wearing the new cornflower and another says palest turquoise. She was so sorry for me coming on a year when there's no Royal Procession, and I promised her to notice the hats particularly, as she is waiting to order her new one. Considering that she is practically immobile from rheumatism and never moves five miles from the Green anyway, it sounds rather odd, but this is the sort of thing that makes life so interesting."
Then there's this delightfully zany tale of the vicissitudes of war preparations, as told by the (distinctly non-U) Sheilah Hill:
Lord Merle's letting us practise driving vans in gas-masks with no lights, after dark, in his park. Rather decent of him."
"How are you managing?" asked Mary.
"Better than you might expect," said Sheilah. "Puggy Blent got into a corner of the garden, by mistake, the other night, and drove over Lady Merle's 'Friendship's Border,' including a lead Cupid. The really funny thing was that she mistook it for a human child, and being slightly flurried, put the van into reverse and went back over it again. Lady Merle was a bit unpatriotic on the telephone, and said it was late eighteenth century, and had been given her by a dear Italian nobleman. I really joined my corps because I had heard that in the event of an air raid, our duties included tethering loose horses to lamp-posts."
There are dozens of other passages I could quote, all of which inspired chuckles or outright guffaws, but you get the idea. It's delightful, it's hilarious, and it's even rather poignant on occasion, with just a touch of possible romance?
Although nearly everything here is played for laughs, and nothing ever gets too serious, one thing that works well is that Oman shows Mary's evolving attitude toward the rather feckless Catha, whose dedication to war work decidedly takes a back seat to her own convenience and comfort. When Mary tells her of her plans to organize a "gas chamber" to allow volunteers to experience the effects of gas, Catha responds, "I'm so glad that you're not asking me … because going into a penthouse full of gas is one of the things I could never do. I can't stand heights and the smell of rubber makes me ill." One gets the sense that Mary will continue to love her old friend, but has faced up to her limitations.