"Has something more happened in the international situation?"
"Yes, Miss Lacey. There is to be an evacuation rehearsal and those teachers concerned have to report back to their schools. The announcement was made by wireless."
"What a shame! Then you won't be able to come to Land's End"—her voice broke in the wrong place.
"Land's End?" he echoed. "It's more likely to be No Man's Land."
Kit gave a sudden shiver.
Kit and Dinah are two young women enjoying summer holidays in Cornwall. Summer, 1939, that is. They're frolicking quite happily (and we're treated to some of that enjoyable frolicking against a lush Cornish backdrop), oblivious to the state of the world—Kit blithely certain that another war would be impossible. But alas, of course she is wrong, war is declared, and their entires lives change instantly. Kit, because she owns a car and can drive, goes as a chauffeuse to a cranky retired businessman (hard to see for sure how this would have been "war work", but this was early days and I suppose the logic was that she was replacing his regular man who had went off to service), and Dinah joins the Land Army. We mostly see Kit's experience, though Dinah does reappear now and again and tells of her work as well.
For the most part, Woman at the Wheel is quite a run-of-the-mill romance, albeit with an odd shape (the main romance is accomplished by about the halfway point, so the second half, though eventful in some ways, feels a bit off-balance). The romantic scenes are handled in rather mundane fashion, and the book's appeal is also lessened by the fact that Kit's happy ending is with a man who can only be described as a male chauvinist pig:
"You look much better in that than in your uniform," he observed. "Then to my mind women in uniform are a mistake."
"Don't you think it makes us more efficient?"
"Is that so essential? A girl should aim at being attractive and not try to hide whatever figure she may have in ill-fitting clothes of mannish cut. As for those caps with a bit of hair poked out of either side!"
There's more along similar lines. Then there's Kit's rather strange attitude towards a German spy, who happens to have been dating Dinah the previous year. She determines that she will play no role in having him caught, and this nearly threatens her newly-dawning romance with the male chauvinist pig. I mean, I can understand the shock of finding that a man you knew slightly and your friend had dated is actually a German spy, but I found myself siding with the chauvinist here—if he's a spy, he should be caught, sentiment aside. Feel sad about it later.
Apart from the fact that the romantic scenes are routine and the romantic leads need to have their heads knocked together, there are some extraordinary moments here. Mackinlay would presumably have been writing the novel very soon after the beginning of the war (it's dedication is "To the good companions who shared those unforgettable moments of Sept. 3rd"), with all her thoughts and feelings about it fresh in her mind, and there's a very considerable you-are-there sense in her descriptions of the girls' shocked reactions, and the encroaching reality of evacuations and blackouts. For example, their drive back to London effectively conveys how quickly things changed:
Next morning they proceeded to London almost non-stop, passing lorryload after lorryload of men and munitions. The boom of target practice went on intermittently in the distance. Aeroplanes wheeled and whirled above them, even as the seagulls had done such a short while earlier. Here and there they would come across groups of militiamen. The London they approached was changed indeed. Policemen and "specials" paced about in new blue tin hats. Sandbags were piled against buildings, the windows of which were often boarded up altogether or else covered with criss-cross strips of sticky paper. Traffic lights were reduced to a single cross of colour. People were walking and driving with gas-masks on their backs.
This wartime detail fades into the background once Kit reaches her new job, though Mackinlay is good at conveying a sense of place—when she describes the grand old house in which her employer lives, one might almost think one was reading Mabel Esther Allan—but again toward the end of the book, we get another very striking moment. Kit and Dinah are in a hotel as the former is about to be married, when the chauvinist calls from his factory and says there may be an air raid—he has had an early warning. I'll quote at some length, as it's hard to imagine this book getting reprinted and it's difficult to come by:
They moved to the window which overlooked the main thoroughfare. They were amazed at the completely ordinary aspect of everything. But then—the general public did not know as yet. If they had done so, they would not have walked so casually along the pavements. Kit noticed a woman wheeling a pram and reflected that as soon as the sirens went the mother would abandon the pram outside the nearest shelter and descend with her child to safety. Behind her strolled a young man with lips pursed to a whistle, hat stuck on the back of his head, and no gas-mask across his shoulder. At another point a woman heavily laden with shopping-bags was talking to a neighbour. At the corner was a tobacconist's shop and an elderly man emerged, waiting a moment by the beacon before attempting to cross the road.
Kit continued staring out, seeing a blind man tapping his stick laboriously on the kerb and a hospital nurse hurrying past him, her red cape lifting in the breeze. Two unusually smart girls in W.A.A.F.S. uniform contrived to look attractive as well as efficient as they swept along the street in an evident hurry. A grocer's boy swung his bike dexterously in and out of the heavy traffic. A couple of horse-drawn carts lumbered along with aggravating slowness, a baby car fretting and fuming behind them in an effort to overtake. The policeman on point duty held up the stream of vehicles at the crossroads, while a tri-column of soldiers in rust-coloured boiler suits and tin hats marched along with swinging arms. They caused no excitement whatsoever.
Traffic moved on again, headed by a bus. A big car flying the yellow flag of Civil Defence pulled up for a moment while a man in overcoat and trilby went in for cigarettes. Kit saw that his driver wore the green greatcoat of a member of the W.V.S. A taxi-trailer belonging to the fire brigade rounded the corner. A postman appeared from a block of offices across the way. A messenger was handing a parcel of flowers to the commissionaire at the Grand Hotel. The newsvendor outside the subway entrance was flaunting a placard, concerning the R.A.F. over Germany. A smart young woman with a Borzoi dog paused to admire a frock at Maison Latouche. Kit could imagine her considering the price. Eventually the girl moved on, a little of her self-assurance dimmed by disappointment. One of the latest police cars sped up to the lights and stopped with a jerk. The milkman returned to push the horse-drawn wagon on once more. Northeaton's A.R.P. Utility van came into sight. The workman drilling road blocks stopped to rub his back, then bent over his task again. Two or three scrubby children stared at the cinema posters. Their gaze was quickly transferred to the youth kneeling on a pile of green-sprayed sandbags and whacking them into shape as he built higher. A wizened old man appeared in the doorway of the jeweller's for a breath of air. On the steps of the hotel a cat licked daintily at its forepaw. A woman in a quaint hat joined the policeman in an island of traffic to ask the way. Life went on as if nothing were happening.
As it turns out, the early warning is a false alarm, so no sirens sound. This time. Indeed, when this book was written, the Blitz had not yet begun in earnest, so real raids were rare. But knowing what was to come, I found this description of the ordinary lives that would soon be disrupted (or ended) by real bombs surprisingly effective.
One wonders how many more such powerful moments lurk undiscovered in unremarkable novels like this one. As often as I'm disappointed by randomly sampling romantic novels from this period, it's this wondering that makes me still give it a go every now and again. Perhaps one could do a compilation of high points from otherwise forgettable wartime novels?
[As so often before, I have to give my thanks to Grant Hurlock, who kindly shared his scan of this book with me.]