When I was a junior in high school, and good grief, that was a long time ago now, we did a unit on poetry that most people groaned over. Now, to be fair, the vast majority of my classmates groaned over just about everything, and I suspect our teacher was used to that and just carried on, hoping that one day something would inspire us–or at least make the groaning stop. That day came for me when she handed us typed handouts that contained several poems written by soldiers during or directly after WWI. One of them was “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
In 1977, WWI was long past, and I grew up during a time period that tended to teach American history starting at Christopher Columbus, lingering lovingly over the Revolutionary War, and, if we were lucky, getting past the Civil War and into the Restoration. Thus my fellow classmates and I knew virtually nothing about WWI except the very basics—who fought whom, who won.
That poem struck some chord in me, though. I don’t know why, it just did—lingering feelings about Vietnam, perhaps. I read it over several times, then went to the library and borrowed a book on WWI (that I did not finish because it was very heavy on battles and not so much on causes) and another that was a collection of WWI poetry by English poets.
Thus was born an interest that has never really gone away. Over the years I’ve read more about WWI, the period between the wars, and, to some extent, WWII. My focus has always been on England—logically, American didn’t enter WWI until near the end, and it’s in many ways a forgotten war in this country. Its impact on England was much bigger, and so over the years my interest in that time period has mostly been focused across the pond.
This is all a very roundabout way of saying that one of the kinds of books I love to read are books set during or between the wars in England. Here are a few of my favorites:
• To Serve Them All My Days, R.F. Delderfield: David Powlett-Jones takes a post in a boys school at the advice of his therapist just before the end of the first World War, the idea being that he’ll be able to help the headmaster out of a jam while taking advantage of the country atmosphere to help his emotional healing. As it turns out, the boys are just as helpful as the country air. Lest you think this sounds somewhat maudlin, it’s not—Delderfield takes in the sweep of the entire generation between the two world wars and discusses a number of events often ignored by other writers who use this setting, including the General Strike and the Great Depression. Davy’s an able leading character, and the women in his life are all remarkable, but the real gem is Ian Howarth, an irascible English master. If I had to make a list of just five books I could take with me when I die, this one would be on there.
• The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers: All of Sayers’ Wimsey novels are set between the wars, and Peter Wimsey, former Major, Rifle Brigade, opens the series by taking up detective work as a means of keeping his still shattered mind occupied. By the time this, the 4th Wimsey novel, happens, the War is several years past, but when an old general is found dead in a chair at his club after the moment of silence on Remembrance Day, it all comes rushing back to Lord Peter. Sayers, married to a WWI vet herself and familiar with the issues these men faced, uses this particular book to, among other things, explore the different ways veterans were affected by their experiences in the trenches. And the mystery part isn’t bad either.
• Coming Home, Rosamunde Pilcher: Set primarily in Cornwall, this is the story of Judith Dunbar who, at 14, is left behind in boarding school while her mother and sister return to the Far East, where her father works. Judith becomes friends with the daughter of local gentry and is gradually absorbed into their clan. Eventually, WWII breaks out after one last golden summer, and Judith’s life is turned upside down. What I especially like about this book is that Pilcher shows a variety of experiences during the war—Judith’s work in the WRENs, her aunt and uncle’s military family experiences, and the Carey-Lewises coping on the home front and the consequences for British families trapped in the Far East. But mostly, it’s just hard to resist her formula of romance and adventure and family.
• Black Out/All Clear, Connie Willis: these are kind of cheating because they’re actually time travel novels, but they’re oh so good. Three time travelers are trapped during The Blitz. They have to cope. There are also other periods during WWII covered (time travel rocks, seriously)—the ARPs, who are virtually never used in fiction, the Doodlebugs, etc. I adored both of these when they were released and I’ve reread them since. Still lovelovelove them. They’re a bit verbose, but it’s really hard to care. As a bonus, fans of Agatha Christie and Oscar Wilde will love all the references to them.
And, if you’re wondering what started my fascination with this time period, you can always pick up a copy of the book by the guy that started it all for me—The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. Even if you don’t like poetry as a rule, Owen isn’t your typical poet: his work is moving without being overly sentimental. Even 35 years after I first encountered “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, I am still moved by it in ways I cannot describe.