Right, I know it’s only March, but ‘Henrietta’s War, News From The Home Front 1939-1942’, by Joyce Dennys will definitely be on my Books of the Year List. Like The Traveling Parnassus, or Miss Hargreaves, it is charming, delightful, and very, very funny. I read this while I was feeling really sorry for myself, suffering from a cold and sore throat, and it was the perfect antidote for a bout of the blues. I chuckled, and chuckled, and chuckled as I curled up on the sofa with Henrietta, her friends and family, and some ‘two-slice cake’ ( so-called by The Man of the House, who cannot resist a classic Victoria sponge, with buttercream and jam in the middle, and glace icing and hundreds and thousands on the top). I enjoyed it so much that when I got to the end I wanted to go back to the beginning and start reading all over again.
The book is written in the form of a series of letters from Henrietta, a middle-aged doctor’s wife, to Robert, a colonel serving on the Western Front in France during the Second World War. She aims to raise his spirits and allay her own fears by writing about inconsequential day-to-day events in the seaside Devonshire village where she lives – and she does so with warmth and humour, always signing off as ‘your affectionate Childhood’s Friend’, which is somehow something more than a childhood friend, I think, conjuring up a shared past. That unassuming apostrophe makes a very subtle difference.
To some extent Dennys covers the same ground as Mollie Panter-Downes as people strive to maintain a degree of normality while struggling to cope with changes brought by the Second World War. But her characters are not as isolated, and action is not as internalised, revolving instead around village events, for Dennys has a keen eye for the absurd, highlighting strange situations and focusing on the villagers’ foibles and idiosyncrasies. She may poke gentle fun at the village, its residents, and the powers that be, but she is never unkind and laughs with them, not at them.
It is the women who stand out: doughty and courageous, I am sure they would have seen Hitler off with no problems whatsoever. Kind-hearted and well-meaning, they are wonderful organisers (in fact, I would go so far as to say some of them are awfully bossy) and can be pretty scary when the occasion demands.
Henrietta herself, who once attended art college, doesn’t quite seem to fit the mould of a well-heeled middle class woman, and is an unlikely candidate for a country doctor’s wife. She seems to be regarded by everyone (including husband Charles and their two grown-up children) as rather vague, thoroughly impractical, and capable only of looking after her husband, who is a ‘key man’. She is terrified of loud bangs and being blown up, gardens with a hot water bottle strapped to her back (Digging for Victory gives her lumbago) and gets taken to court for ‘showing a Chink’ during the blackout. And talking of the blackout, in the earliest days of the war, when people pasted strips of material over their window panes, she aims for a colour co-ordinated effect, and uses her husband’s nicest pyjamas because they match the décor in one room.
Her friends and neighbours are equally idiosyncratic. There is glamorous Faith, who likes to be ‘in the mode’ and has an eye for the men, especially the Conductor (of singing, not trams). Then there is fierce Mrs Savernake, whose enthusiasm for gun strikes terror into all who meet her, and Lady B, who writes to Hitler every night, telling him what she thinks of him, but is always cheerful and serene, with a unique method of dealing with crises.
“I don’t always feel calm,” said Lady B. “But When I begin to want to scream I do this.” She took me by the arm and led me though the little alley-way which runs beside the ironmonger’s to the sea. “I stand here,” said Lady B, “and look at the sea, and then I take six deep breaths and say, ‘Thank goodness there’s enough of something’. Then I go back and finish my shopping.”
Beneath the laughter, however, are serious issues. Rationing is introduced ; food, clothes and make-up are in short supply; aluminium kitchen utensils are hidden so they cannot be taken for the war effort; women stitch nightshirts and bandages; a bomb falls in a garden, and there are gaps in the street scene when Henrietta visits a friend in London.
Like her heroine, Dennys lived in Devon, attended art school, married a doctor, and admitted to being frustrated by her domestic and social duties. She created Henrietta for an article in ‘Sketch’ magazine, and was asked to continue writing throughout the war. Later she said: “When I stopped doing the piece after the war, I felt quite lost. Henrietta was part of me. I never quite knew where I ended and she began.”
‘Henrietta’s War’ is beautifully produced by Bloomsbury, with the trademark ‘Ex Libris’ illustration by Penelope Beech perfectly matching the style of the author’s own illustrations, which are an integral part of the book., and have not reproduced as well as I hoped because I forgot to alter the settings on the camera after I tried to take photographs of the planets… but I do feel it’s the kind of mishap that might have happened to Henrietta herself, so I’ve left it.