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

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