Reviewed by Harriet Devine
For the past couple of years, I have been fascinated by the events of WW2, and have found myself drawn again and again to novels written during or about this period of history. These have been many and varied, some excellent, some less so. But if I had to choose my top favorites, they would certainly include Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day and Henry Greene’s Loving. I was also impressed by a recent reading of Rose Macaulay’s The World my Wilderness, which I enjoyed very much for the picture it painted of war-torn London, and I have been getting into Graham Greene recently as well. So I honestly felt as if this impressive book could have been written specifically for me, as it focuses on the wartime experiences of these four novelists, plus the Austrian Hilde Speil, who spent the war living in Wimbledon.
The journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge, a contemporary of these writers, described the wartime blitz on London as a time of “protracted debauch, with the shape of orderly living shattered, all restraints removed, barriers non-existent”. If I’d read that quotation before I enountered this book I might have been a bit sceptical, but not so now. I was actually amazed at first at the amount of adultery and general sleeping around that went on, but it’s clear that, rightly or wrongly, people were so aware of the possibility that they might be killed at any moment that all the barriers were simply allowed to drop — a case of eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die, I suppose. As the autobiographical hero of Henry Green’s Caught puts it, “all that was real to him was his death in a matter of days”.
In any case, what is so impressive about this book is the way Lara Feigel has so effortlessly combined history, biography and literary criticism. I’ve read quite a few novels set in wartime London, including Sarah Waters’ wonderful The Night Watch, and very recently Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, both of which certainly made the period seem extremely real, but I don’t think it has ever been so vivid to me as the sometimes day by day accounts of the bombing and its aftermath given here.
As for the group biographies, they bring these people wonderfully to life. Thanks to their letters and diaries, Fiegel has managed to piece together an accurate picture of where they were and what they were doing throughout the whole period. All four of the British novelists in the book were involved in war work — Bowen and Greene were ARP wardens, Rose Macaulay drove ambulances, and Henry Green was a fireman — while Hilde Speil lived quietly and unhappily in Wimbledon, knowing that the bombardment of her adopted city was being carried out by her German husband’s fellow countrymen. And outside of work, all of them lived life with an extraordinary intensity. Bowen fell in love with a Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, who became the centre of her world for the rest of her life. Henry Green had a passionate affair with beautiful Mary Keene, who gave birth to his child. Graham Greene spent all his free time with his mistress Dorothy Glover, and later with her replacement, Catherine Walston, though all three novelists were married to other people. Rose Macaulay, meanwhile, who for me emerged as the most tragic figure of the group, was grappling with the imminent death of her married lover and later with the complete destruction of her home, and with it the loss of twenty years worth of his love letters to her. She became completely fascinated by the ruins of blitzed London and was often to be seen exploring them almost obsessively.
And, of course, out of all this came the novels. And really this is one of the most striking things to emerge from this book. It’s often rather a mixed blessing to read about the lives of writers you admire, as you may find you go off them. I actually got rather sick of Bowen’s supposedly grand passion for the obviously rather unworthy Ritchie and wished she’d give up on it and get a life — but instead, she transformed it, and her experience of wartime London, into the great creation that is The Heat of the Day. As for Greene and Green, their endless stream of adulterous affairs came to seem to me rather shoddy, as neither of them behaved at all well to the women they supposedly loved. And yet Greene’s The End of the Affair directly transforms his love for Catherine into what many people think is his greatest novel, and Henry Green’s wonderful Loving, written at the height of his passion for Mary Keene, whom was to he abandon once he found she was pregnant with his child, is full of what are clearly tributes to her and her beauty:
the dark eyes she sported which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water
In the light from the open window overgrown with ivy her detached skin shone like the flower of white lilac under leaves
Certainly there’s something to be said here about art transmuting life into something more beautiful and admirable, but I’m not going to go down that road. So there’s not much more to say, except that as I’ve obviously made quite clear, I really loved this book, which is just out in paperback, and it is highly recommended.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Laura Feigel, The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury: London, 2014). 978-1408830901, 528 pp., paperback.
This review is Harriet’s revision of an original post on her blog.