VINE VOICEHALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERon 21 January 2013
This is the fascinating account of the Second World War seen through the eyes of five famous authors: Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke (Henry Green), Graham Greene and Hilde Spiel. The book begins in London during the Blitz, a "makeshift present in which pre-war morality seemed less relevant" and the threat and danger of imminent death made people want to grab every experience and relish every moment. Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene were both ARP wardens, enforcing the blackout, Rose Macaulay drove an ambulance and Henry Yorke was an auxiliary fireman. These four authors shared experiences and friends and met socially. Hilde Spiel shows the war from a different perspective - that of an exiled author, who suffered depression and homesickness, as well as struggling financially and having a small child and her parents to care for during wartime.
During the time period of this book the author discusses novels written, love affairs undertaken and where the war takes the five authors. Both Graham Greene and Henry Yorke had evacuated their wives and children to the country, allowing them the freedom to have affairs. Greene's lover was Dorothy Glover, while Henry Yorke met Mary Keene; a young girl who tended to pilfer from houses they visited together. Rose Macauley's long term lover Gerald O'Donovan was seriously ill at the beginning of the war and Elizabeth Bowen met Charles Ritchie, during the war years, who was to become the love of her life. As well as affairs of the heart, the author discusses how they were affected by the bombs themselves - the Blitz not only created a world of freedom and intimacy, it also, of course, destroyed homes, lives and personal possessions. When Rose Macauley's flat was destroyed she mourned the loss of her books and love letters which were irreplaceable. Hilde Spiel's mother was terrified by the bombings and it is illuminating to read how few of those people involved actually had somewhere safe to shelter during the air raids.
The novels written, or set, during this time period are also examined, with reference to this book. Elizabeth Bowen's "The Heat of the Day", which looks at her affair with Charles Ritchie; Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair" and "The Ministry of Fear" which deal with wartime love affairs and the Blitz and Henry Yorke's "Caught", which is about firemen and the civil defence services, were all directly inspired by wartime London. Henry Yorke, in fact, feared when he heard the German's were intending to translate and publish "Caught" as he felt it could be used as propaganda. While, undoubtedly, Londoner's showed immense bravery and strength during the war, there were those who were not so self sacrificing or stoic, of course, and the continual fear did wear people down. This book tracks the five authors throughout the war years and, indeed, follows Spiel back to Europe at the end of the war.
Overall, this really is one of the most interesting books I have read about wartime and, as a book lover, it is always excellent to have such stories told from the point of view of authors themselves. While, for some, the war opened new worlds and experiences, new freedoms and new loves; for others it was a difficult time of feeling isolated and not belonging. Wonderfully written and highly recommended, this is a book to savour and will, hopefully, also lead you on to explore the work of the five authors mentioned if you are not familiar with them already.