For a Lark

Patricia Beer

  • Hearts Undefeated: Women’s Writing of the Second World War edited by Jenny Hartley
    Virago, 302 pp, £12.99, May 1995, ISBN 1 85381 671 X

We have just lived through nearly two years of vox populi. The 50th anniversary of VE Day and, to a lesser extent, VJ Day provoked a massive assemblage of what people had actually said in the course of the Second World War. It was as though these voices had been held back for half a century and were now bursting out. Martin Gilbert in The Day the War Ended, a recent account of the year 1945, showed how inexorably this could happen. In appealing to the public for material from those times, he had imagined that such replies as he might receive ‘would provide an interesting if essentially minor element to the book; a sideline to history’. He was wrong. In the end he had to change the balance of the whole work to accommodate the hundreds of relevant contributions sent in.

Jenny Hartley, compiler of Hearts Undefeated, did not pause to feel her way. With no frippery about sidelines to history, she set out to quote the voice of the people, the whole voice and nothing but the voice, except for a few editorial passages. She saw no need to canvass but simply helped herself from the glut of autobiographical material produced during the Second World War and accessibly preserved in the Imperial War Museum, the archives of Mass-Observation and the publications of presses great and small over the years. She has surveyed the entire period of the war (starting as early as 1938 in order to include Munich) and so has constructed a substantial anthology. It is substantial in spite of the fact that inclusion was limited: a few exceptions were made but, in general, to qualify you had to be British, middle-class, apolitical and, of course, indomitable. Above all, you had to be female.

As can be seen from Hartley’s scrupulous seven-page list of Acknowledgments and Sources, there was a great demand for female writing during the war. Women readers enjoyed having women writers pass on wheezes about how to cope. On the other hand, literati, illuminati and eggheads could not bear it. After four years of war, Cyril Connolly, editing Horizon, printed a comprehensive explanation of why he (and other editors) did not welcome contributions from women. There was a strong tide running against them. According to him their subject-matter was too familiar, usually petty in itself and seldom presented with any degree of skill. It is surprising that Hartley should quote his remarks. She cannot have been hoping to refute them. Any reader of this anthology is bound to admit that he had a point.

With regard to subject-matter, the journalists, both professional and occasional, represented in Hearts Undefeated were totally exempt from Connolly’s strictures. Martha Gellhorn wrote about Dachau, Mavis Tate about Buchenwald. Laura Knight and Rebecca West covered the Nuremberg trials as Fleur Cowles had covered the Nuremberg rally eight years previously. But the women who described themselves, persistently and irritatingly, as ordinary, unimportant, even simple, did tend to write as though they really were those things. For a lark they went to tea at the Dorchester (‘So garbed in my best I stepped forth’), but the filling in the sandwiches had no flavour and the cakes (only two each) were awful. At the big stores they went up and down in the lift enjoying ‘the flash registering the progress of its journey in rapidly changing lighted figures’. Nobody then or now would grudge them such recreation. Now, in the mid-Nineties, however, so many books have been published to coincide more or less with the anniversaries – books of the calibre of Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man with its account of wartime torture – that we are in no mood to hear about inferior sandwiches, fun in the elevator, or Barbara Cartland fussing about finding secondhand wedding dresses for brides (who were of course ‘pathetically grateful’) so that on the great day each one might be ‘a woman, lovely, glamorous and enticing, a woman to be wooed and won’.

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