Archive for November 14th, 2012

November 14, 2012

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War

From this weekend’s column:


I’m not sure why it is that books published in the year of my birth should exert such a fascination upon me. For absolutely no logical reason I find myself feeling more kindly towards a book when I realise that we are in some way the same age.

1985 was the year of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, Carl Sagan’s Contact, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It also, somewhat improbably, marked the publication of Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys, an account of life on the Home Front during the Second World War.

Henrietta’s War takes the form of a collection of weekly letters written by a doctor’s wife in a small seaside town to “My Dear Robert”, a childhood friend who is stationed at the front. In reality these letters were a series of columns for Sketch magazine during the war. In the 1980s Dennys discovered the columns while spring cleaning and had them published. Dennys was born in 1883, which means that she was over a hundred years old when the book came out (she died in 1991). I wonder if that’s a record.

As a result, Henrietta’s War feels like something of an anachronism. It’s very much of its time – but its time is the early 1940s. Yet the book begins with an introduction written by Dennys herself. It’s disorienting, this strange telescoping of history. I realised recently while watching the film Argo that I’m still young enough for things that happened in my lifetime to be rarely presented to me as “history”, but it’s only a matter of time.

Henrietta writes of the terrible privations experienced by English people during the war – blood donations, reduced supplies of things like meat and sugar, and the difficulties of doing one’s hair at night without accidentally breaking blackout. There are fewer garden parties, and awful government forms have to be filled if one wants to do something as basic as keep chickens so that one can have eggs. The bathing huts on the beach have been taken away, so that the enterprising Mrs Savernack has taken to changing “under a large sheet with a hole in the middle for her head to poke through”.  It’s not clear how much of this is autobiographical, but it’s always well observed and funny.

In tone, Henrietta’s War often sounds rather like E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. The two books deal largely with the same class, and both employ similar self-deprecating humour. There are important differences, though. Delafield’s book was written in 1930, years before the war. Henrietta’s letters to Robert may adopt a tone that is light and frivolous, but there’s always an undercurrent of seriousness. The Henrietta who feels guilty about enjoying herself while there’s a war on, who breaks down during Christmas carols and who worries about the effects that a reduced meat diet will have upon her dog is not the carefree creature that most of the book would seem to suggest. Occasionally we’re reminded that her son is in the army, and that she worries about Robert (and how nice for a seemingly platonic friendship between a middle-aged man and woman to be the centre of a book).

Of course the war brought with it much larger tragedies than Henrietta’s inability to cook interesting desserts or the looming threat of porridge for breakfast. Most of the characters here have the privilege of being able to regard the war as an inconvenience rather than a life-shattering event. Henrietta herself acknowledges this, but as a reader it can feel uncomfortable to care about the dog’s diet or the necessity of new coats in the face of the larger, horrifying context. But then, this context is vital to appreciate Henrietta’s War for the bright, funny thing that it is.