Last week, Simon at Stuck in a Book mentioned that he had a weekend of nothing to do but church on Sunday and that he was going to dedicate the whole weekend to novellas. I realized that this past weekend was exactly the same for me, so I decided to polish off at least a couple of novellas, too. (My immersion in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall kept me from making it a complete novella weekend, however.)
Because Simon was among the first people to bring the Bloomsbury Group series of early-20th-century classics to my attention, I thought it was appropriate to make my first novella of the weekend one from that series: Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939—1942. by Joyce Dennys. The book is an epistolary novel (drool!) composed of letters from the titular Henrietta, a doctor’s wife in a Devonshire village, to her childhood friend Robert, who has gone off to war. These letters, along with Dennys’s illustrations, which also appear in the book, were first published as a regular feature in Sketch magazine during the war.
Henrietta fills her letters primarily with comic anecdotes about village life during the war:
When the war started, practically everybody, in the most laudable way, rushed off and began doing the thing they hated most. Faith forced her way into the Cottage Hospital, and stayed there for nearly a fortnight, doing ward-maid’s work; Mrs Savernack bought a book called Brush Up Your French; and Lady B, not to be outdone, bought a book called Brush Up Your German, which some people thought rather unpatriotic. Practically everybody who owned a car began driving somebody else’s and Colonel Simpkins, as a protest against ‘all this tomfoolery’, took lessons in ballroom dancing.
The humor in this book is slightly on the wicked side with Henrietta making sly fun of the people in her Devonshire village, and even sometimes of the war effort. There’s the flirtatious Faith, who when going to get a shot in her leg, doesn’t just roll down her stocking, she takes it off entirely because “she thinks that a stocking hanging over the edge of a shoe looks sordid.” There’s the imperious Mrs Savernack, who goes from door to door demanding aluminum for the war. When a frazzled housewife says she needs her saucepan for making coffee, Mrs Savernack tells her she should be using a jug. The humor works partly because Denys also makes Henrietta a figure of comedy, albeit a likeable one, with her penchant for a Day in Bed and her ineffectual interest in the garden. And I must admit I totally agree with her views on a Day in Bed:
…what luxury is a day in bed, even with lumbago! To appreciate it to the full it is a good plan to wake up several times during the night and say to yourself: ‘I haven’t got to get up in the morning.’
But perhaps the most exquisite moment of all is when you sink back on your pillows and listen to everybody else getting up. It is madness to spoil this enchanted hour by getting up yourself to brush your teeth. You must lie where you are, relaxed, happy, and dirty, calling weakly for your letters, the morning papers, and another hot-water bottle.
The other thing that makes the comedy work is that Henrietta says the things people think but don’t always say. She doesn’t consider the war a sacred cow at all, always to be treated with solemnity. Here, she writes about talking to London evacuees:
It isn’t that we aren’t sorry for them, for indeed, indeed we are. The first three Bomb Stories I heard moved me nearly to tears, and I lay awake all night planning how we could help them to forget. But one Bomb Story is very like another, and after a time one comes to the end of one’s exclamations of horror, and the attention begins to wander. And when we try to tell them our Bomb Stories, they say, ‘Pshaw!’ ‘Pshaw!’ they say, with superior smiles, and make no attempt to listen.
See what she’s doing there? She’s giving us a chuckle while showing how we deal with pain and terror. We become inured to it, or we make one terror real and the other a figment. So there’s a real-life point.
And that brings me to the final thing that impressed me about this book. Dennys doesn’t just tell silly stories. There are a few surprising moments where the people look out for each other or celebrate together in touching ways. A favorite of mine was when Mrs Savernack, tears in her eyes, brings a package of horse meat to Henrietta for her little dog Perry. I’m prickly when it comes to this kind of thing, and it doesn’t take much for sentimentality to cross over into soppiness in my mind, but Dennys stays on the right side of the line here. It’s a fun little book, and at only 158 pages, it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time.