Jingling his spurs

P.N. Furbank

  • Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War edited by Ronald Blythe
    Viking, 310 pp, £16.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 670 83204 9

The Second World War, writes Ronald Blythe in the Introduction to Private Worlds, precipitated the ‘last great avalanche of private correspondence’. Thanks to the Education Act of 1918, it was greatest such avalanche there had ever been, and went with the most furious appetite for books – any kind of books, but Penguins for preference – and with the greatest impulsion to try ‘writing’ in the other sense too. For dozens of good reasons, cultural as well as military, that kind of war is not going to happen again. But the letters and diaries and efforts at fiction it inspired have survived in huge quantities; and from private sources, and the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, Ronald Blythe has assembled an expressive collage, which is at the same time a meditation – just ‘one look’ at and ‘one assessment’ of, he says, an inexhaustible subject.

Ronald Blythe is a very good writer – and not just in his books, for every now and then one comes across a review of his which startles one by going straight to the heart of some matter of feeling. All the same, I think there is something wrong with his new book. One asks oneself, to begin with, what genre or discipline it belongs to. It is, fairly evidently, not archaeology nor social anthropology: but neither is it a sentimental severing of ribbon round yellowing pages, for Blythe has gone in search of his material in proper professional-researcher fashion. I suppose we might be tempted to think it meant as a work of art, a ‘period piece’ in the style of a literary era notoriously preoccupied with making fragments cohere. (One can observe a ‘line’ or succession stretching from The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos through Auden’s ‘montage’ poems down to Mass Observation.) There could be such a book, but Blythe’s is not it.

This leaves us with social history, but actually I do not feel that this book, unlike Akenfied is social history either. Why not, is suggested by a phrase in Blythe’s Introduction, about private letters and diaries ‘providing social history’ in public libraries. Of course one knows what he means, but it is a wrong way to talk, for documents do not ‘provide’ social history. To produce it you need to ask questions of your documents, construct hypotheses and test them, let your mind run on causal explanations, or, if you are that kind of historian, try to elicit a story. Unless I have obtusely missed it, Blythe does none of these things. He does not clearly substantiate any theory beyond the initial one that this was a peculiarly ‘literate’ war, and the only significant plot element one can discern concerns the reception of the Beveridge report, and even that comes in only glancingly. It is as if Blythe did not want to be distanced from his material by the rules of art, or of some discipline, and wished for some more friendly and intimate relationship with it. If so, he has trouble in finding the relationship, and perhaps he was under an illusion in supposing that he might. (A similar illusion dogs a certain kind of political writing.) The consequence is, that something is wrong with his tone. It goes astray, I think, in two ways.

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