Reviewed by Helen Skinner
It’s 1941 and Britain is at war. Emmeline Lake has always wanted to be a journalist and is thrilled when she sees an advertisement in the newspaper for a job at the London Evening Chronicle. This could be her opportunity to become a Lady War Correspondent. How exciting! To her delight, Emmy is offered the job and arrives at the Chronicle offices ready to:
sniff out Political Intrigue, launch Difficult Questions at Governmental Representatives, or best of all, leap onto the last plane to a far-off country in order to send back Vital Reports of resistance and war.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that there has been a misunderstanding. Emmy isn’t going to be a War Correspondent – she won’t even be working for the newspaper at all. Her new job actually involves typing up letters for Mrs Henrietta Bird’s problem page in the weekly women’s magazine Woman’s Friend, which happens to be based in the same building as the Chronicle. Emmy does her best to pretend that Everything Is Absolutely Tip Top (as you can see, she likes to think in capital letters), but really she is devastated. This is not what she had expected at all!
Trying to make the best of things, Emmy begins sorting through the letters, picking out some for Mrs Bird to reply to. She quickly discovers, though, that Mrs Bird has a whole list of words and topics which she considers unsuitable for publication in the magazine. Any letters which mention love, marriages, pregnancies, affairs or romantic relationships of any kind – almost all of them, in other words – must be rejected and thrown away immediately. Emmy can’t bear to see so many readers’ problems being ignored; if only there was something she could do to help…
Dear Mrs Bird was an absolute joy to read from start to finish! I loved Emmy from the beginning and her friendly, enthusiastic narrative voice pulled me straight into her world. She’s such a kind-hearted, well-meaning person, yet she doesn’t always say or do the right thing, which makes her feel very human. The language is perfect for the time period too and I could easily have believed that I was reading a much older book – and as I usually complain about language feeling too ‘modern’, that’s high praise from me!
At first, much as I was enjoying following Emmy’s adventures at Woman’s Friend and meeting the other characters in the story – who include her best friend Bunty, her fellow typist Kathleen, and the formidable Mrs Bird herself – I thought this was going to be a very light-hearted, cheerful novel despite the wartime setting. However, in the second half of the book there’s a noticeable change in the tone, as the bombing raids on London become more frequent and more ferocious. There’s drama, there’s tension and there’s heartbreak…but there’s never too much of any of these things and the book never loses its charm and its warmth.
Dear Mrs Bird is a lovely book and I was pleased to discover that there is already the possibility of a television adaptation. It will be perfect for a Sunday evening, I think. Meanwhile, I highly recommend finding yourself a copy of this book and getting to know Emmy and her friends.
Helen blogs at She Reads Novels.
A J Pearce, Dear Mrs Bird (Picador, 2018). 978-1509853892, 320pp., hardback.
Buy at Blackwell’s, now in pbk, via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)