Reviewed by Harriet
If you’ve heard of, or read, Margaret Kennedy at all, it’s likely to be her 1924 novel The Constant Nymph. Written when she was 28, it made her an almost instant celebrity, and stage and film adaptations soon appeared. It wasn’t her first novel – that was The Ladies of Lyndon (1923) – and it was followed by many more, written before and after WW2. During the war itself, though she did a bit of writing, she was bringing up a young family and, like many mothers who had the means and the ability to do so, she moved them out of London, first to Surrey and later to Cornwall. Her account of one eventful early year of the war – the bewilderment, the terror of invasion – was written in journal form and sent to America, where it was published by Yale University Press in 1941 as Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry. This is the first time it has been reprinted.
Writing in her Foreword before the book was sent off to the US, she describes the public mood following the invasion and collapse of France in May/June 1940:
Many of us were more frightened than we had ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be. We discovered unexpected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most.
Looking back just a year later, she acknowledges that ‘the hardest part of it is yet to be endured’, but she believes people have moved out of the ‘fog of illusion’ and are ready to face the future with equanimity.
Her story begins, not with the declaration of war in 1939, but with a radio announcement in May 1940 that the British army in Flanders was in a situation of ‘ever increasing gravity’
Those three words banished for ever the comfortable delusion that we were ‘certain to win’. And from that moment the war took on a new character in our lives….We had believed that Hitler could not win, that time was on our side, and that we had plenty of time. All but a very few of us believed that. The idea that we could possibly be beaten was something for which our minds were totally unprepared. It took our breath away. Never before in all its history had this nation been so profoundly shocked as it was that evening in May.
In May 1940 Margaret, her barrister husband David, their three children and a temporary foster child were living in comfort in their Surrey house, surrounded by a number of employees and servants. She tells at length how hard it was, after that announcement, to continue with everyday life – sheltering the children from the news, reading stories to them with her mind elsewhere. Even the next, unbearably beautiful, day, takes her mind across the channel to where so many people are experiencing a ‘hell of suffering and terror’.
The coming days only exacerbate this feeling of overwhelming fear, as the country prepares as best it can for what almost everyone believes is now a certainty – Nazi invasion of Britain; Hitler himself announced that he planned to broadcast from Buckingham Palace in August. The government is ordering barricades on the roads, obstructions to prevent landings in the farmers’ fields, and notices telling people what to do if they spot a descending parachute. The King asks everyone to pray, but Margaret is aware that ‘a great many people do not think it right to pray for victory, since the Germans are undoubtedly praying for it too, and we might put the Lord in an awkward position’. It doesn’t take long for Margaret and David to decide that she and the children will be safer in Cornwall, where friends have offered them a place to stay. So, shedding the servants (‘we won’t have any maids. Hurrah! They’ve been the bane of my life, ever since I married’) they set off for the seaside town of St Ives, which Margaret calls Porthmerryn in the book. Getting ready for her departure, she makes plans about what they will do if the invading army gets as far as Cornwall: stay put and hide food, or, if told to evacuate, take an emergency backpack for everyone with money, stout shoes, warm clothes, compressed food – and ‘Remember gas masks, ration books, and identification cards’.
Once in Cornwall, she realises that nobody there is taking the invasion threat seriously. The streets are full of tourists, and a holiday atmosphere prevails at first. But then evacuee children start to arrive, and slowly the mood changes. Margaret is still desperately afraid. She can’t sleep and goes to the doctor, who tells her not to listen to the wireless. Her greatest anxiety is the children. As she watches them happily paddling in the sea, ‘we sit knitting, and we have no power, no power, to save them from a most hideous fate’. She can almost imagine a situation in which she could ‘almost think it better to kill mine’. She and David discuss the possibility of sending the children to Canada, but decide the dangers at sea are greater than those of staying home (they were proved right when a ship carrying evacuates was sunk). Bombing raids start, and surprisingly soon everyone is used to the sirens. Then the Blitz on London that everyone has been expecting finally starts, and David is there, doing his bit.
I’ve made this sound as if it was just a fascinating account of a little remembered period in British life. It is certainly that, but it’s much more besides. Margaret also records her thoughts and opinions about what is going on, both around her and in the world in general. She recounts at length conversations about the war with friends and neighbours, people with a wide variety of politics and opinions most unlike her own, to which she gives serious consideration. She ponders over France and the French, veering between sympathy and a worry that they are giving in too soon and possibly collaborating. She records the reactions of children, quoting a postcard written by her little daughter – ‘The waw is getting really bad and we are lerning to nit’ – and of a ‘little servant’ who reacted to the news that Hitler was planning an invasion with ‘Eh! The cheeky monkey’. She’s interested in the evacuee children (known locally as the Vackkies’), some of whom are so dirty and damaged that they can’t be placed with families but have to be kept in separate accommodation. She is drawn to the inhabitants of the poorer part of town, noting that they are more willing to take the children into their homes, and are kinder to them, than are her own class in their grander houses at the top of the town. So the reader learns as much about Kennedy herself as about the overall circumstances in which she is writing.
Beautifully produced, as always, by Handheld, with excellent explanatory notes, this is a really valuable reprint both for anyone interested in the history of WW2 in Britain and for the views of an intelligent and literary observer. As Faye Hamill points out in her useful introduction, written in the summer of 2020, the extreme anxiety of the 1940s has been mirrored in our own time, though with a different cause – a time when, as she says, ‘British people began to move about, to work, and to relate to one another, in new and unprecedented ways’.
Read also: Shiny reviewer Hayley Anderton’s take on this book here.
Harriet is co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books.
Margaret Kennedy, Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (Handheld Press, 2021). 978-1912766383, 280pp., paperback original.
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