Book review: Millions like us: British women's fiction of the Second World War by Jenny Hartley

Long obsessed by the 1930s and the 1950s, criticism of the mid- century English novel has recently begun to shift attention towards the Second World War. Welcome as much of this effort has been - for example, Alan Munton's English Fiction of the Second World War (1989) or Adam Piette's War and Imagination (1995) - Jenny Hartley is entitled to feel that women's writing has tended to take second place in books largely written by and about men. Millions Like Us is a comprehensive, and for the most part successful, stab at redressing this imbalance.

Most of the great male novels of the Second World War - notably Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy and volumes seven to nine of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time - were produced 15 to 20 years after the events they purported to describe. Written from the political right, they work by way of a retrospective teleology that carries back current ideas about the debased state of post-war England to the wartime crucible in which, presumably, they had been forged. The fiftysomething Evelyn Waugh, to take a notorious instance, genuinely did believe he inhabited a kind of socialist holiday camp, and looked to the 1940s to explain the onrush of national decline.

The response of women novelists, as Jenny Hartley shows, was both more immediate and more piecemeal (if nothing else, they had the leisure to write). While the notion of a People's War filled every compartment of artistic life, women's writing - nearly all of it written from the Home Front - took a variety of forms. Solidarity was much in evidence, but so was upper middle-class gentility trying to fend off threats to its status. Whether set in factories or on the street corner, nearly all of this writing advertised the prospect of social change. Even something as outwardly recherche as Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them, set in a 14th century nunnery, can be read as an oblique commentary on the advantage of the communal life.

Inevitably, Millions Like Us has a habit of devolving into categories: novels about evacuees, the Blitz, refugees and so on. One or two suggestions are a touch fanciful - in particular the idea that male refugees tend to be wise, older figures, perhaps as a consequence of Freud's arrival in England in 1938 - and the jargon sometimes grates, but in general this is a spirited and well-aimed exercise in reclamation. Judging by the case Hartley makes out for them, Townsend Warner, Inez Holden, Monica Dickens, Laura Talbot and Mollie Panter-Downes at least should be on every self- respecting period reading list. All the more discouraging, then, that most of them - and many more writers covered here - are irreclaimably out of print.

Virago, pounds 14.99

DJ Taylor

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Systems and Network Administrator

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: We are recruiting for a Systems and ...

    English Teacher

    £120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

    Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

    £10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

    History Teacher

    £60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album