The Second World War in British Fiction and Film
Edited by Petra Rau
Evanston (Illinois): Northwestern University Press, 2016
Paperback. vii+309 p. ISBN 978-0810133280. $34.95
Reviewed by Steve Ellis
University of Birmingham
World War II and immediate post-war literature has, as Petra Rau says in the Introduction to these essays, come to ‘renewed prominence in the academy’ [8-9] in the last twenty years, partly due to a combination of the momentous historical events it registers plus the copious cultural record the war has left behind. This record constitutes an ‘unplumbed complexity’ , as Rau adds, and her wide-ranging Introduction to this book gives a clear sense of the richness of the material assembled here, even if Long Shadows limits itself, without explaining quite why, to fiction and film, and excludes poetry and drama. Sometimes the wealth of resources leads to a slippage of focus, as in Gill Plain’s opening essay ‘Escaping 1945 : Popular Fiction and the End of the War’, which spends a lot of prefatory time on film before getting onto its ostensible subject, the ‘escapist’ fiction of Georgette Heyer and Nancy Mitford, though, as Plain stresses, such escapism is always ‘critically engaged’ with its own historical moment . Other essays, like that by Richard Farmer, ‘ “Remember the Torrin” : Positioning In Which We Serve’, focus much more on a single work, in this case the film of the essay’s title, though the historical ‘positioning’ here is a bit skimpy and there seems too much space in the essay for anxious reiteration of the fact that ‘history is a living thing, told in the present about the past, with knowledge of today’s events constructing anew an understanding of yesterday’s’ . The final paragraph of the essay returns to labour somewhat the idea that ‘films are fully realised only at the moment of consumption …’ . These two essays, the opening two in the collection, are nevertheless detailed, engaged and perceptive, setting a standard that the remainder of the volume maintains; there is not a dud essay present here.
A major emphasis in the volume is indeed that today’s understanding of the war shows a fuller knowledge than that of yesterday’s and is therefore more accurate and reliable; thus Michael Perfect in his essay on the novels White Teeth and Small Island argues that the former work ‘suggests that the events of the war are often totally misunderstood by those who actually took part in them’ , a position many of the essays in effect endorse. Petra Rau, in her Introduction, promises that the volume will be concerned to challenge ‘sanitised’ notions of national unity current in wartime and since, which are peddled by government propaganda, and that the uncovering of alternative and often discomfiting narratives concealed by the ‘received tradition’, with its blind spots, clichés and omissions, is what this volume is about [6-7, 28]. Thus we have Perfect’s essay, referred to above [241-262], on the way two modern novels draw attention to the part colonial soldiers played in the war effort, a fact hitherto obscured so as to constitute an ‘act of violence … against history itself’ . We have Petra Rau’s own essay on ‘The Strategic Air Offensive in Rhetoric and Fiction’ [197-220], which looks at post-war texts that discuss the hideous Allied bombing of Germany, silenced during the war itself. Sue Vice’s essay on ‘The Nazis in Britain : Representations of the Wartime Occupation of the Channel Islands’ [263-286] looks at recent fictional writing that uncovers incidents of collaboration and betrayal uncomfortably close to home which, as in Rau’s essay, expose any claims to what the latter calls ‘high-minded propaganda myths’ of Britain’s ‘moral exceptionalism’ . In the volume’s final piece, Margaret D. Stetz’s essay on ‘Women’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs’ [287-305], we have a redressing of the situation whereby specifically female experience has not as of yet been ‘integrated into the metaphorical fabric of the Holocaust’ .
This final essay explicitly addresses the fact, implicit in many of the other essays, that what has frequently been silenced or submerged, in wartime and since, has been the voice of female experience, and accordingly there is little in this volume on prominent novelists of the 1940s like Greene, Orwell and Waugh (or well-known retrospective novels like McEwan’s Atonement), but much more on, for example, Elizabeth Taylor and Storm Jameson, the subjects of two valuable essays by Paula Derdiger and Elizabeth Maslen respectively [129-150, 151-176], though whether the analogy between literature and architecture is more marked in the immediate postwar years than in other periods  is something the former essay leaves unconsidered. Taylor’s 1945 novel At Mrs Lippincote’s is indeed possibly the novel referenced most often throughout the book (the absence of an index, which is something of a flaw given the spread and detail of the essays, prevents one from doing a rough check on this). One male author who has already received a fair amount of attention, Patrick Hamilton, is however discussed in Eluned Summers-Bremner’s fine piece on The Slaves of Solitude, with its subtle examination of the self-alienated consciousness that is a further casualty of war [81-102]. The collection of essays is completed by Allan Hepburn’s ‘Facing the Future : Children in Postwar Britain’ [103-128], which risks over-generalisation at times: children ‘have a diminished probability of survival in postwar British fiction’ —what, in all of it?, Adam Piette’s ‘Postwar Espionage Fiction’ [177-196]—which makes the persuasive case that the Cold War thriller, the James Bond novels and other similar fiction replay the wartime fight against fascism—and Victoria Stewart’s ‘Letter-Writing in Fictions of the Second World War’ [221-240].
This last essay raises most conspicuously the issue of present and past understandings of the war. It was only once the war ended that perspectives on it became available that were ‘only partially accessible during wartime’ [229-230] because of things like censorship and various other State controls. According to Stewart, only ‘in more recent fiction [is] a fuller assessment … possible of the wider ideological and social divisions and struggles, particularly as regards gender roles, of which wartime letter-writing is emblematic’ . On the other hand, she acknowledges that, in returning to Elizabeth Taylor, writers of the 1940s were aware of ‘the corralling of private life towards the war effort … but expressed this awareness in more covert, perhaps more subtle ways’, and that the freedom of invention more recent novelists can avail themselves of need not be at the service of ‘a realistic sense of wartime experience’ . There is at times an air of complacent presentism in this volume, a kind of ‘we know better’ tone which is happy to rest in part on recent fictional reconstructions rather than making use, for example, of the delayed release of documentary records. While Long Shadows provides many suggestive insights into the literature of World War II, both contemporary and retrospective, there are issues to do with its own project that could have been fruitfully discussed. How far you can draw a cordon round British experience in a world war is one of these; several essays (particularly Stetz’s) range in any case beyond the national frontier established in the volume’s title. Another issue is the irony that the ‘sanitised’ national unity of wartime tends to be replaced here with a ‘unity’ of critical agreement: previous scholarship is referenced throughout only to support the case being made in these essays, and their approach to the very varied subject-matter seems to be in a complete harmony. The fighting, upheavals and dissensions of wartime paradoxically make for a very comfortable academic collaboration.
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