Between the Wars

When I was a junior in high school, and good grief, that was a long time ago now, we did a unit on poetry that most people groaned over. Now, to be fair, the vast majority of my classmates groaned over just about everything, and I suspect our teacher was used to that and just carried on, hoping that one day something would inspire us–or at least make the groaning stop. That day came for me when she handed us typed handouts that contained several poems written by soldiers during or directly after WWI. One of them was “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

In 1977, WWI was long past, and I grew up during a time period that tended to teach American history starting at Christopher Columbus, lingering lovingly over the Revolutionary War, and, if we were lucky, getting past the Civil War and into the Restoration. Thus my fellow classmates and I knew virtually nothing about WWI except the very basics—who fought whom, who won.

That poem struck some chord in me, though. I don’t know why, it just did—lingering feelings about Vietnam, perhaps. I read it over several times, then went to the library and borrowed a book on WWI (that I did not finish because it was very heavy on battles and not so much on causes) and another that was a collection of WWI poetry by English poets.

Thus was born an interest that has never really gone away. Over the years I’ve read more about WWI, the period between the wars, and, to some extent, WWII. My focus has always been on England—logically, American didn’t enter WWI until near the end, and it’s in many ways a forgotten war in this country. Its impact on England was much bigger, and so over the years my interest in that time period has mostly been focused across the pond.

To Serve Them All My Days

To Serve Them All My Days

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that one of the kinds of books I love to read are books set during or between the wars in England. Here are a few of my favorites:

To Serve Them All My Days, R.F. Delderfield: David Powlett-Jones takes a post in a boys school at the advice of his therapist just before the end of the first World War, the idea being that he’ll be able to help the headmaster out of a jam while taking advantage of the country atmosphere to help his emotional healing. As it turns out, the boys are just as helpful as the country air. Lest you think this sounds somewhat maudlin, it’s not—Delderfield takes in the sweep of the entire generation between the two world wars and discusses a number of events often ignored by other writers who use this setting, including the General Strike and the Great Depression. Davy’s an able leading character, and the women in his life are all remarkable, but the real gem is Ian Howarth, an irascible English master. If I had to make a list of just five books I could take with me when I die, this one would be on there.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers: All of Sayers’ Wimsey novels are set between the wars, and Peter Wimsey, former Major, Rifle Brigade, opens the series by taking up detective work as a means of keeping his still shattered mind occupied. By the time this, the 4th Wimsey novel, happens, the War is several years past, but when an old general is found dead in a chair at his club after the moment of silence on Remembrance Day, it all comes rushing back to Lord Peter. Sayers, married to a WWI vet herself and familiar with the issues these men faced, uses this particular book to, among other things, explore the different ways veterans were affected by their experiences in the trenches. And the mystery part isn’t bad either.

Coming Home

Coming Home

Coming Home, Rosamunde Pilcher: Set primarily in Cornwall, this is the story of Judith Dunbar who, at 14, is left behind in boarding school while her mother and sister return to the Far East, where her father works. Judith becomes friends with the daughter of local gentry and is gradually absorbed into their clan. Eventually, WWII breaks out after one last golden summer, and Judith’s life is turned upside down. What I especially like about this book is that Pilcher shows a variety of experiences during the war—Judith’s work in the WRENs, her aunt and uncle’s military family experiences, and the Carey-Lewises coping on the home front and the consequences for British families trapped in the Far East. But mostly, it’s just hard to resist her formula of romance and adventure and family.

Black Out/All Clear, Connie Willis: these are kind of cheating because they’re actually time travel novels, but they’re oh so good. Three time travelers are trapped during The Blitz. They have to cope. There are also other periods during WWII covered (time travel rocks, seriously)—the ARPs, who are virtually never used in fiction, the Doodlebugs, etc. I adored both of these when they were released and I’ve reread them since. Still lovelovelove them. They’re a bit verbose, but it’s really hard to care. As a bonus, fans of Agatha Christie and Oscar Wilde will love all the references to them.

And, if you’re wondering what started my fascination with this time period, you can always pick up a copy of the book by the guy that started it all for me—The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. Even if you don’t like poetry as a rule, Owen isn’t your typical poet: his work is moving without being overly sentimental. Even 35 years after I first encountered “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, I am still moved by it in ways I cannot describe.

The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

Comments

  1. says

    Coming Home is new to me – I’ll look for it directly. Thank you!
    Another vote for To Serve Them All My Days. I read it when it was first published and I really should read it again. First rate storytelling.
    If you enjoy mysteries, I recommend Charles Todd’s Inspector Rutledge series, which takes place right after WWI. Rutledge has a terrific case of PTSD and tries to hide it from his Scotland Yard superiors. The first two or three books are gems.
    Have you read Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain? It’s a memoir and it broke my heart.
    Thank you for sharing the poetry of Wilfred Owen. It’s been many years since I read it, and I see I must read it again. I had forgotten how good it is.

  2. donna says

    I love Charles Todd’s books, yes. My favorite mystery series ever. They do such an outstanding job with the ptsd issue, as well as the varying welcomes the men who made it through got when they came home.

    I have read the Brittain indeed–it and her Letters From a Lost Generation are staggering in their heartbreak.

    I hope you enjoy Coming Home. Rosamunde Pilcher is, like Delderfield, a first rate storyteller. And thanks for commenting!

  3. Sarah says

    I like your whole list! I have a large collection of R.F, Delderfield novels. I read and re-read the “God is an Englishman” trilogy, and “To Serve Them All My Days” was a much richer reading experience than “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”. BTW, there was a lovely BBC/PBS adaptation back in the early 80′s on Masterpiece Theater.
    I’ve read a lot of Rosamunde Pilcher, but I couldn’t tell you for sure whether I’ve read “Coming Home”. All of her books have sort of merged together in my head. They’ve always been the light, vacation-read for me.
    I have always meant to read “Testament of Youth”. Again, Masterpiece Theater has come to my rescue, and I am at least familiar with the work. Another dramatization they did, based on a WW1 novel called “The Duchess of Jermyn Street” and “Rosa Lewis: An Exceptional Edwardian”, is Duchess of Duke Street (starring Gemma Jones, also Madam Pomfrey of Hogwarts). I haven’t read the books yet, but the dramas almost make me want to.

  4. Catherine says

    Dear Donna, I loved To Serve Them All My Days. As a matter of fact, that novel made me want to be a teacher. And, I am one and I teach, for three weeks spanning October to November 11th (Remembrance Day in Canada) the poetry of the Great War, including this very sonnet, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”! I recommend Pat Barker’s novel trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker) as the best fictional thing ever written about the Great War. In the first volume, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon appear in it amongst the fictional characters. It is based on the papers of a historical figure, the psychiatrist who treated Owen for “shell shock” and at whose hospital Siegfried Sassoon had his wrist slapped for writing an anti-war letter to the Times of London and where Owen and Sassoon met and formed a friendship! And the best non-fictional book written about the Great War, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (the illustrated edition, out recently, is wonderful) looks at the war as a major shift in the mindset of the West, largely echoed in poets such as Owen.

  5. donna says

    I’ve read most of Delderfield’s books–I like The Avenue too, although it’s so big I don’t reread it as often as I do the others that I own.

    Thanks for telling me about The Duchess of Jermyn Street. I shall have to hunt a copy down. It sounds like just my thing.

  6. donna says

    I’m a big fan of the Pat Barker books–they’re on my “reread soon” pile. I will definitely hunt down the Fussell–thanks!

  7. says

    Paul-my-husband really likes Paul Fussell. I remember reading his book Class when I was college and, it has been pointed out to me, that we still have a copy. I think we would be more than happy to loan you any of his books that we have that you’d like to read (apparently that consists of Class and Wartime, so it’s not much of an offer).

  8. Merrian says

    WW1 dominates WW2 in Australian cultural history not least because it engendered an independent view of ourselves as a nation not just a colony of the mother country. You have to remember how small the Australian population was at this time. I think our war casualties – KIA & wounded, were something over 50% of all who served in the conflict. The men & women who served added up to about 8% of our total population at that point.

    Somme Mud was written by Edward Lynch in pencil in school exercise books in the early 1920s and has been described as a non-fictional All Quiet on the Western Front. Lynch was 18 yrs old when he enlisted, serving at the Somme which saw the most bloody and costly fighting of the war. In just eight weeks, there were 23,000 Australian casualties.

    Just found this tumblr which also looks at films & books on WW1 http://one-great-war.tumblr.com/post/34114800902/wwi-obsessionversary

    I would also highly recommend Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books. They are set in the late 1920s and have incredible WW1 backstory (Maisie was a nurse) showing how the effects permeated British life following the war. This is present in all the books and some tackle the war as part of the main mystery story. Maisie is a Psychological Consulting Detective. ‘The Mapping of Love and Death’ addresses the war explicitly and won the 2011 Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award. It is also based on the fighting at The Somme & Ypres.

  9. donna says

    Oh thank you so much! I will check out that tumblr just as soon as I’m done geeking over election results!

    And thank you for the information about Australia and the Winspear books–I’m getting so much new reading material from this post thanks to all of you kind people!

  10. says

    And then there’s me over in the corner who comes to this time period through the Robert Graves side of things. “Good Bye to All That” is one of the most moving memoirs about that time I’ve read. And some of his war poetry is fascinating. And then there’s the Tolkien connection to the Great war. So many people try to view Lord of the Rings through WW2 because of when it comes out, but Tolkien’s writing much more about his experiences in WW1. There’s also Sayers…I love me some pop culture novels in the period between the wars, but the “literary” stuff-bleah.

  11. dichroic says

    I haven’t read To Serve Them All My Days, but it soujnds wonderful. (I do have God is an Englishman in my TBR folder.

    But unless you’re talking about the Civil War with the Roundheads and Cavaliers, I think you mean Reconstruction rather than Restoration!

  12. donna says

    Well, given that my history teachers got that far exactly once and I was probably 12 at the time, I’m forgiving myself for using the wrong word.

  13. Kathryn says

    As a couple of others have mentioned — WWI had a greater effect on countries of the British Commonwealth than it did on the United States. The causality rates for Canada (and Newfoundland -which was not yet part of Canada) were appallingly high like Australia. Some Canadian fiction that deals with the war and its aftermath are Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (looks at the effects of war on two Cree men) and Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery. Rilla is the (final chronologically speaking) novel by Montgomery about Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) and her family. Originally published in 1921, the focus is mainly on Rilla, the youngest of Anne’s children. It’s not my favourite Montgomery, but it is of interest because it shows a picture of the Canadian homefront from a female perspective. The narrative has at times a naively patriotic tone because Montgomery and her characters have not yet assimilated all of the costs and consequences of the WW I.

    And of course one of the most famous WWI poems was written by a Canadian, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”.

  14. donna says

    I am vaguely familiar with the Montgomery, although it has literally been 40 years since I’ve read those books. Definitely time to revisit them. The Boyden is now on my “find and read” list–thanks so much!

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