Rosemary Hill

  • The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel
    Bloomsbury, 519 pp, £25.00, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 4088 3044 4

On 31 August 1939 Alan Cameron was at his desk at the BBC, where he was secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting, when he heard that the British fleet was mobilising. This meant that war with Germany was imminent and Cameron telephoned home to give his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, the news. She received it without apparent emotion and with an awkwardness of tone that made an impression on the Irish writer and occasional IRA gunman Sean O’Faolain, with whom she was in bed at the time. He made a joke about it, which she considered in poor taste and there was a subsequent cooling in their relationship. It was to be his last visit to her house and the first change of partners in a frantic dance of infidelities, ménages à trois and other more complex triangulations among writers in London that lasted like an epic ‘excuse me’ throughout the Second World War. Bowen later remembered it as the ‘most interesting period of my life’.

Lara Feigel unravels the tangled web, concentrating on the experiences of six novelists: Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke (who wrote as Henry Green), Rose Macaulay, Rosamond Lehmann and the Austrian émigrée Hilde Spiel. The combination of danger and novelty made the times ‘an absolute gift to the writer’, as Yorke put it to Lehmann: ‘Everything is breaking up.’ Amid the physical and emotional ruins cracks opened in the social fabric and with them opportunities for romantic release. Danger has always been a noted aphrodisiac, but this particular situation was new. Never before had war come so close to civilian life in London.

The First World War, which cast a livid shadow over the experiences of the Second and was a constant point of comparison, had for the most part taken place far away. The fighting was done by soldiers and involved men almost exclusively. This time men and women, services and non-combatants were in it together. The home front was as important and at times more dangerous than the battle front. Evelyn Waugh, who was in the Marines, found himself in Gibraltar in the autumn of 1940 at a loose end while he waited for a ship home and wrote of the change as something amounting to the roles of the sexes being reversed. Speculating that in London Yorke was ‘no doubt fighting fires day and night’, Waugh reflected that ‘the armed forces cut a small figure. We are like wives reading letters from the trenches.’

The usual situation of wives was one of the many things breaking up for the duration. Macaulay for one was glad. ‘How to be useful though married’ is a question put but never satisfactorily answered by Neville, the wistful middle-aged woman in her prewar novel Dangerous Ages. Now women of all kinds were thrown into action fighting fires, monitoring the blackout and getting hurt. ‘It is no worse that women should be killed than men,’ Macaulay, who drove an ambulance, noted. And with equal danger came equal opportunity. This was the first time that a substantial body of what might be called war writing was produced by women. It took the form mostly of novels and journalism. Another contrast with 1914-18 was that this was to be a war more of prose than poetry.

Feigel might have made more effort to develop some of these themes. As it is, despite its considerable incidental interest, her narrative doesn’t cohere. The writers she has chosen mostly knew or were aware of one another, but they didn’t form anything like a group. Nor is the scene confined to London, or even to the war, which ends about halfway through the book. It is hard to see why Spiel, who had virtually no contact with the others and whose work is not widely known, is in when Waugh is out, and among literary ARP wardens with complicated love lives, T.S. Eliot is surely as noteworthy as Greene. For all of which the first part of the book tells a good story and casts sharp sidelights on the mythology of the Blitz, to which the writers were not always inclined to subscribe. Macaulay’s article for Time and Tide describing one raid as ‘a sample corner of total war’ barely made it into print. Censors had requested that journalists should not be ‘too vivid’ about that sort of thing and Macaulay’s report of a rescue worker wondering out loud ‘How long will people stick it?’ was cut.

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