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’.

In everyday life women had to be regular sunbeams, as some of them ruefully admitted, but in their writing, when they could have taken liberties, they rarely shone into the deepest social and political corners. There were exceptions, of course: Nesca Robb, a temporary civil servant, wrote a strong piece about the difficulty of finding serious employment in wartime for middle-aged, middle-class women who, in keeping with the convention of the time, had never been trained for anything and now needed the money. Margery Allingham chatted her way through an account of the evacuation of town children to the country which was usefully perceptive about class. When it came to politics, hardly any of them seemed to notice that at times of the country’s greatest danger the British workforce, producing armaments and ships, repeatedly went on strike, or to have spotted that Churchill’s VE-Day speech was blatantly economical with the truth when referring to the contribution of our allies. The Hearts remained staunch about what side they were on; guided by popular comedians, they referred to Hitler as Old Nasty. But they rarely discussed the reasons for the war or the possibilities of its outcome. Notably, one of them did. To Beatrice Webb the question of who was going to win the current war was immaterial. Her tone was both royal and prophetic; it catered for what might go on beyond the tomb. ‘As we happen to believe in the rightness and eventual success of Soviet Communism, we are not despondent about the future of mankind.’

Connolly’s disparagement of women’s style could also be backed up by this collection. Jenny Hartley presents us with a great deal of thoroughly bad prose. It is obvious from the start that her principles of selection have nothing to do with literary standards. The theme is the thing and it overrides all other considerations. But there is more to it than that. She genuinely believes that in the outpourings of the Hearts she has come across a cache of ‘extraordinary literary talent’. In fact, the best that could be said of all too many of them is that they would have done well in the days when Composition was a school subject. Letters and diaries do not constitute formal genres, I suppose, but if they did, the following extract describing Churchill’s speech, mentioned earlier, could be regarded as representative of the lower reaches of the diary. ‘A Glorious Day ... What a squash! ... That Voice ... What a lad! ... He was cheered to the echo, God bless him! We were glad to get to the flat for a cup of tea!’

Apart from the journalists, the professionals – novelists, biographers, travel writers, playwrights – did not set much of a standard. This was not entirely their fault. They gave themselves airs, certainly. Virginia Woolf considered her musings about the war to be a ‘whiff of shot in the cause of freedom’. Elizabeth Bowen was even more grandiloquent: ‘Wartime writing is in a sense resistance writing.’ But in fact their subject and the attitude they were required to adopt forced them along paths which were not familiar to them, and often not congenial. E.M. Delafield could not be at her best when exhorting us, in Time and Tide, to display a sense of humour in wartime. By the nature of her brief she could not be too funny herself, and she was nothing if not funny. Dorothy Sayers was clearly ill at ease in advocating forgiveness of the enemy, as she did in the Fortnightly; she was happier with the implacability of Lord Peter Wimsey. In 1940 Virginia Woolf was asked to supply ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’ for an American symposium on current affairs concerning women. She had to fall back on rambling and padded reflections which she hoped might help in years to come the descendants of the men who at that moment were fighting to the death overhead: too long-term a train of thought to be persuasive or comforting.

Many of Hartley’s contributors show comparable signs of strain, connected probably with fears that we might not win. But once again there were exceptions. Lily Montagu, writing about forgiveness, not as an assignment but as a matter of course to the members of her Jewish Girls’ Club, brought it off beautifully by her unaffected expression of her beliefs. Beatrice Webb, confronting the Blitz in her eighties, endowed the cups of tea drunk by herself and Sydney at the height of the bombardment with a sort of virility that eluded all the other cups of tea which with almost satirical frequency slop through the letters and diaries of Hearts Undefeated. The majestic common sense which came naturally to her made her comments, if perhaps not edifying, irresistible. She saw no need for look-outs or patrols anywhere near her property. ‘If a fire bomb falls on the house and goes through the roof, we should hear it.’ Occasionally the editor herself sabotages her writers’ work. Stevie Smith’s article ‘Mosaic’, which came out in Eve’s Journal in 1939, was not given the title for nothing. It consisted of small pieces meaningfully put together. Hartley, however, insensitive to everything but her point that at the time of Munich nobody knew where Czechoslovakia was, has cut out and used a fragment to that effect; not a good way to treat a mosaic, and it has ruined this particular one.

It is significant that no poetry is included. The popular outcry for suitable poems during the war must have heaped up an absolute Parnassus to pick from. The editor is certainly not against poetry. She turns to it for her epigraph, of which her title is part: lines written by a woman, F. Tennyson Jesse.

Here there are homes, burnt homes
But hearts undefeated to meet each day.

She does not, though, look to poetry for anything other than comfort, consolation and support; she links it specifically with prophecy and prayer; and as she has no wish to comfort and console us, the current readers, but to inform and enlighten us, it is natural that she should leave it out. It is relevant, however, to quote the opinion of Philip Larkin about poetry in wartime as it throws light on the weakness of much wartime prose. He certainly did not mean to comfort or console us either. He speaks harshly of poets whom we may have admired in our time: ‘A period which can laud the poetry of Keyes is no period for me.’ But he does take care to explain:

A war poet is not one who chooses to celebrate a war but one who reacts against having a war thrust upon him: he is chained, that is, to an historical event, and an abnormal one at that. However well he does it, however much we agree that the war happened and ought to be written about, there is still a tendency for us to withhold our highest praise on the grounds that a poet’s choice of subject should seem an action, not a reaction.

This seems to me a very valuable comment. It certainly applies to the prose-writers here.

In her Introduction Jenny Hartley discusses motivation, not her own so much as that of her contributors, and only a section of them: the amateurs. It was perfectly natural that those whose lifelong career had been to express themselves in writing should go on doing so when something happened. But why did women who invariably described themselves as nonentities and who had no reason to suppose that they had any literary talent suddenly expose themselves in such a wanton way? Hartley does not mention the wish to be published; indeed she rather suggests that her team thought they might disappear when the war ended, making them sound like the knitting-women who presumably went home when the guillotine was dismantled. I feel convinced, however, that the writing-women had their collective eye on being snapped up by publishers, and so sooner or later most of them were. This explanation would fit in with that of their editor, who emphasises that, for the first time in many cases, women could feel they were somebody. It is depressing to think that between the two world wars a great many women endured lives of such invisibility that they cheered up at the notion of being targets for bombing, but they said as much themselves and unless we suspect that they were being disingenuous we have to believe them.

Then there was the recording-angel syndrome, which reached epidemic proportions at that time: a natural human instinct which could in the circumstances be comfortably regarded as a duty. Perhaps most significant of all (though Hartley does not mention it) there was the superstitious hope of immortality that had nothing to do with being published, a state of mind deftly explored – though only to be exploded – by Pat Barker’s protagonist in The Ghost Road. His regiment was leaving for the Front the following day (it was the First World War) and he and all the others were getting their diaries up to date. ‘Why?’ he wrote. ‘You have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.’ Unfortunately the Hearts, for obvious reasons, could not benefit from these vigorous comments.

Jenny Hartley’s motivation as compiler was both straightforward and creditable: to show how marvellous women could be, given half a chance. At points she seems to be exploiting the war to get her message across, but in fact things do not turn out altogether as she intended. In her Introduction she points out that many people ‘hoped the war would break down class barriers’. In that case many people must have been disappointed. It did not, and this anthology shows how thoroughly it did not. And but for this book we should never have known the extent of the failure. Most of the Hearts were appalling snobs. Barbara Pym’s image may now have been dented by her gale-force sighs of relief at finding when she joined the WRNS that she was sharing a cabin with a girl of her ‘own class’. The next few days, however, did not go so well: ‘I don’t think there are really any of our own kind though there are one or two pleasant ones.’ On going out to drill she was shaken to see ‘a curious crowd of women’. One toys with the riposte Aunt Ada Doom eventually got: ‘Did it see you?’

The contributors obviously thought they were dab hands at rendering the speech of those less fortunate than themselves. A mere corporal addressed Vera Brittain as she was seeing her children off to America: ‘I’m sending the wife and kid. She don’t want to go but I tells her ...’ And so on. Hilary Wayne of the ATS made the preposterous statement: ‘Before I joined up I took my voice for granted and I suppose I did not give the question of Class a thought from one year’s end to the other.’ She was enlightened when she heard another recruit say ‘Naow’ instead of ‘No’, and from that moment started evolving a code (for use among equals) ‘to differentiate those whom former generations would have labelled upper and lower classes respectively’. When Marghanita Laski offered to lend her land girl a book, the girl replied: ‘Oi’m that fond of reading. ‘Ave yer got one about spois? I don’t want no politics nor jography,’

Snobbish criteria often included physical appearance, especially when kindness was being shown. Esther Terry Wright, hearing that her husband had been shot down, was ungracious to her ‘little landlady’, who offered sympathy with ‘a nervous grin’, and scathing about the officer at the hospital, ‘a little bald North Country man with protruding eyes and a grocer’s confidential manner’. Had they been tall and imposing, one feels she might have responded differently to their concern.

It was quite the fashion to be supercilious about the Women’s Land Army. (I should mention my own interest here: a student for most of the war, I spent all my vacations as an auxiliary land girl on a large farm in Devon.) The doyenne of the detractors was Vita Sackville-West. She organised a large area for the Land Army and had a wider knowledge of it than Sissinghurst alone could provide, but that did not stop her from being patronising and inaccurate. I was intrigued by her account of ‘us’. Apparently before the war we were shop assistants, hairdressers and shorthand typists. We had worn high-heeled shoes, dressy blouses, costume jewellery and jaunty hats. Under the healthy influence of the country we tossed back our short curls and laughed as we picked plums, looking prettier than ever in our lives before. As we have been described en bloc I can only say that ‘we’ were not, had not and did not; and I cannot help wondering how many of the other accounts in this volume were equally unreliable.

At least Hearts Undefeated shows that there was a Second World War, which I gather will be news to some young citizens; and the brief introductions to the various sections will, when read chronologically, give a clear, if sketchy, idea of what form it took. But a really good novel set in the period would have been more illuminating. Philip Larkin was right. Simply being there at the time, reacting rather than acting, does not make a writer. The feeling of immediacy which Jenny Hartley was hoping to present has never meant going round with a diary strapped to your wrist, in Larkin’s excellent words: ‘“The Wreck of the Deutschland” would have been markedly inferior if Hopkins had been a survivor from the passenger list.’