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British Writers and the Approach of World War II


Steve Ellis


Cambridge: University Press, 2014

Hardcover. x+249 p. ISBN 978-1107054585. £60


Reviewed by Natasha Periyan

Royal Holloway, University of London



The years 1930 to 1939 were horrible both publicly and privately […] it was appalling impotently to watch the destruction of civilization by a powerful nation completely subservient to a gang of squalid, murderous hooligans.

Leonard Woolf*


The 1930s was a decade that hurtled towards war with all the inevitability of the executioner’s descending sword, and all the finality of the full stop at the end of a sentence. It is a decade that is treated as a distinctive historical, literary and cultural entity in both recent publications such as Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age (2009) and Lara Feigel’s Literature, Cinema and Politics, 1930-1945: Reading Between the Frames (2010), and in studies such as Valentine Cunningham’s compendious British Writers of the Thirties (1988) and Samuel Hynes’s The Auden Generation (1976). More recently, attention has focussed on the final moments of that decade, the period of time in which war was most inexorable and the sense of impotence noted by Leonard Woolf was enshrined in the government’s policy of appeasement. Finn Fordham’s forthcoming study The Outbreak of World War II and the Suspension of Culture will join the present study by Steve Ellis, British Writers and the Approach of World War II ­– a rich and acute analysis of the historical and cultural forces in play as Britain succumbed to war.

Ellis’s 1939 is not a calendar year, rather ‘The 1939 State’ starts from September 1938, with the signing of the Munich agreement, and ends not in September 1939, with the declaration of war, but in May 1940, with the end of the phoney war and the start of sustained military engagement. Ellis suggests that this period of time has ‘to some degree a unitary character in the peculiar emotions and responses resulting from the war of nerves’ [6]. In this usurpation of neat calendar bounds, Ellis not only defines a particular atmosphere, but also challenges neat, teleological categories of decades. Where Hynes suggests that the decade has an ‘overwhelming sense of an ending’ [10], Ellis insightfully notes that while the pressure of historical circumstance signalled the end of modernism, ‘the ideas and writing of 1939 […] fed into the social and political reconfigurations of the post-war settlement’ [11]. Ellis draws attention to ‘an older generation […] who dominate the stage as this ‘final scene’ approaches’ [9]. Eliot, Wells, Priestley and Virginia Woolf are Ellis’s main players, relegating the younger writers of the 1930s to bit parts: Henry Green’s autobiography, Pack My Bag, a masterpiece of suspended doom, is notably absent. Some of the ‘older generation’ of modernists are also excluded, on the basis that the immediate political and cultural scene did not inform the workings of their texts: Finnegan’s Wake is notably not discussed, as 1939 was an ‘arbitrary date of publication’ [11]. In this act of exclusion there is a sense of the limitations of history in understanding the period in question, as much as the possibilities Ellis’s approach provides.

Ellis’s study is, nonetheless, rich and expansive. The chapters, while predominantly author-centred, draw correspondences across authors and texts to create a sense both of the specificity of individual author response, and the cultural networks in operation on the eve of war. Chapter One, ‘Post-Munich I : T.S. Eliot and the Spiritual Revival’ focusses on Eliot’s response to the post-Munich ‘spiritual revival’, christened as such by Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons’ ‘Post-Munich Debate’. In a particular focus on The Idea of a Christian Society, published in October 1939, Eliot is found to be in dialogue with contemporary debates surrounding moral rearmament and soil erosion. Familiar charges against Eliot as a ‘Nazi sympathiser’ are sensitively addressed: Ellis notes Eliot’s ‘wilful blindness’ in his charges of ‘Germanisation’ [50] at home. Ellis suggests that Eliot used such an epithet to encapsulate his disgruntlement with ‘elements of the modern world’, while acknowledging its effacement of the ‘religious and racial extremism’ in Nazi Germany [50]. Rather than rendering this a manifestation of fascist tendencies, Ellis suggests that this is the perspective of a man whose gaze is poised from the ‘transcendental height’ of ‘Christian teleology’ [52] where the eternal trumps the ephemeral and worldly.

Secular responses to the Munich crisis are discussed in Chapter Two, Post-Munich II : Literature of the Crisis’, with a particular focus on the ‘Munich crisis novel’. Ellis invokes this genre as more symptomatic of ‘the literary voice of Munich’ [70] than MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, which is more typically associated with the period. Ellis suggests that Cyril Connolly’s rendering of the poem as exuding ‘post Munich depression […] in every line’ [66] situates the text ‘too absolutely as a knowing pre-war text’ [69], while also suggesting how ‘love rather than war’ and the ‘infiltration’ of the two, preoccupied MacNeice in this period [70]. A range of lesser-known novels are discussed, including Ruth Adam’s There Needs No Ghost, Mary Borden’s Passport For A Girl and W. Townend’s And Now England. These novels’ ‘very lack of hindsight intensifies the sense of suspense […] in their attempt to plot […] a narrative through the unknown outcomes of history’ [71-72]. They provide an ‘interesting commentary’ on later works by Sartre, Woolf and Patrick Hamilton, which had ‘longer to look back on the post-Munich situation’ [72]. Thus the Hamlet-like procrastination of George Harvey Bone, who repeatedly defers killing Netta, the cruel, come-hither temptress with fascist sympathies in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941), is discussed as ‘an anti-appeasement allegory as the nation finally goes on the offensive against the enemy both at home and abroad’ [85].

In Chapter Three, ‘H.G. Wells and the New World Order’, Wells is assessed as ‘truly one of the nodal points of the “1939 state”’ [131]. Ellis highlights Wells’s flurry of activity between 1939 and 1940 as he published various works that promoted his ‘new world order’. His publications of this period are perceived as ‘often repetitive’, with a focus on a reformed education system and world collectivism, yet their ideas are distinctive, most notably the ‘World Brain’, Wells’s conceptualisation of a ‘universal system of knowledge’ [116]. For all his visionary polemics, Wells’s gender politics are found to be conservative: Ellis critiques Stella’s role in Babes in the Darkling Wood as ‘ancillary throughout’ [124]. Orwell’s Coming Up For Air is found to be a ‘tribute’ [163] to Wells’s novel, The History of Mr Polly. Where Wells’s hero can get lost in the greenwood, Bowling’s rural escape remains elusive. Indeed, Ellis’s discussion in Chapter Four, ‘Orwell, Forster and the Role of the Writer’, unites Orwell and Forster in their dearly held concern for individual autonomy in the face of an all-encompassing modern state. George Bowling’s state of ‘alert passivity’ is further positioned as akin to T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and valuable comparisons are also drawn between ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ and Priestley’s Let The People Sing in a discussion of their shared interest in the spirit of ‘the English people’.

Ellis finds a rare moment of contiguity between Orwell’s ‘My Country Right or Left’ and Woolf’s ‘The Leaning Tower’, both of which appeared (back to back) in the Autumn 1940 issue of Folios of New Writing, a journal that Ellis suggests is a ‘further illustration of the cultural productivity of the […] “1939 state”’ [175]. Woolf forms the basis for discussion in the book’s final chapter, ‘Virginia Woolf and the Theatre of War’, which explores Woolf’s sense of the duality between duties to the self and the community. Ellis opposes arguments that Woolf sought ‘a more inclusive model of community’, noting instead that ‘there is a powerful counter-strategy of private reading running through her work in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and one which […] offers a more convincing resolution of the problems of the relation between the community and the individual’ [199]. Ellis depicts a fiercely individualistic Woolf who avoids ‘plan[ning] a way out of the 1939 state’, as historical circumstance seems to prompt an abandoning of communal claims – a point that holds weight for Between The Acts, but does not acknowledge ‘The Leaning Tower’s’ hopeful vision of a ‘classless’ and ‘towerless’ post-war world. The novel’s ambivalence, its ‘conflicted and problematic outlook’ [224] is found to be ‘a tribute to the possibilities of readerly freedom’ and ‘the most heroic literary product of the 1939 state’ [221].

Ellis warns us that ‘literature is not history’ in the final pages of British Writers and the Approach of World War II. This bracing and absorbing study of the literary and cultural configurations of the ‘1939 state’, and the exciting array of ideas it generated, is indeed at its most rewarding when historical context and literary form meet most closely, in Ellis’s assessment of the perspective of Four Quartets as informed by Christian teleology, for instance, or in discussion of the megaphonic properties of Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts. It is then that Ellis’s analysis of the writers he assembles at this moment of crisis is at its most complex, nuanced and intriguing.


* Woolf, Leonard. Downhill All The Way : An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939. London: Hogarth Press, 1967 (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1967 : 248).


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