Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and ‘Peace’, by Gill Plain, Edinburgh University Press, 300 pp, £70, ISBN 978-0748627448
Gill Plain’s first line, “There are many ‘1940s’”, is an illustration of not only the complexities of the decade, but of the difficulty of dividing history into arbitrary digestible ten-year periods. Despite this difficulty, Plain’s study offers an accessible, engaging overview of the decade’s literature. By placing texts parallel to historical settings, she allows for a greater understanding of the ways in which they overlap, and offers succinct insights that could be subjects for further studies in their own right. Take for example this observation: “The horror of 1945 is both anticipated and avoided by literature.” This paradoxical viewpoint, which many authors of the 1940s adopted, is a useful starting point in understanding the tensions apparent in the literature of this decade, when combatants and non-combatants were facing a Second World War within the great shadow of the First.
The general preface to the book, written by series editor Randall Stevenson, advises that, “history in the twentieth-century perhaps pressed harder and more variously on literary imagination than ever before, requiring a literary history correspondingly meticulous, flexible and multifocal”. It was because of this felt need that Edinburgh University Press began its History of Twentieth-Century Literature in Britain. Plain’s new monograph is Volume 5 of this series, and as its subtitle suggests, it divides the 1940s into three separate sections, with each further subdivided into themed chapters: “Documenting”, “Desiring”, “Killing”, “Escaping”, “Grieving”, “Adjusting”, and “Atomising”. This organising principle lends itself to a closer reading of Plain’s choice of texts, and a fuller understanding of the decade as a whole.
“Lucid abnormality”, as proposed by Elizabeth Bowen in Collected Impressions, is the basis of Plain’s characterisation of the decade. In the first section of the book, “War”, Plain outlines “the problem of déjà vu” for those writers who had lived through 1914-1918, or been directly affected by it, and explains “the fear that the writers of the First World War had somehow had the last word on the horror of war”. This fear is exacerbated by the increasing media attention on the writers of this period, and the call for them to respond to mounting tension in Europe. Writers turned to documentary form to bear witness to the events of the decade; this was the only alternative when there was an obligation to say something, but nothing to say. Stephen Spender, for instance, wrote “September Journal”, because “I cannot accept the fact that I feel so shattered that I cannot write at all.” Frances Partridge kept diaries that speak “to the pressures of war as much through what they fail to record as through what they include”. The simple fact that there were politics at work in the omission of information in a private journal speaks volumes to the complexities of forming a coherent response to war. Plain details the ways in which ostensibly “objective” documentary was in fact a transgression of “the boundaries between public and private, historical and quotidian”. This dissolution of the boundaries between different spheres of understanding is reflected in the collapse of self-belief in literary practice, a direct consequence of the Republic’s defeat in the Spanish Civil War: “disillusionment haunted writers […] who had invested hope and belief in the cause”.
This sense of defeat and disillusionment seeped from national causes to interpersonal relationships and back again. Subsequent to Freud’s publication of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905, the structures of desire inevitably affected the perceptions of gender at work during wartime, especially in the endless calls to women to occupy traditionally “male” employment, particularly in factories, but to simultaneously remain true to the established norms of femininity. It is here that Plain’s critical feedback reaches its apex; through textual examples ranging across writers such as Joyce Cary, Graham Greene, Henry Green and Elizabeth Bowen, she forcefully exposes both the misogyny and fear for national security operating during wartime, while also implying a connection between female subjectivity, violence and treachery:
Desire, like war, threatens the annihilation of the self, while yet paradoxically offering the possibility of a physical intimacy that stands as the ‘real’ in a world cut adrift from the normative parameters of life and death.
Sexuality and society were interlocking ideas, which ensured that even private matters were viewed from a public perspective, and personal betrayal was as severe as a national threat. (This perception is compellingly reinforced by the “Hello boyfriend!” propaganda poster, which illustrates a grotesque skull, wearing a lady’s hat, warning that “The ‘easy’ girl-friend spreads syphilis and gonorrhoea, which unless properly treated may result in blindness, insanity, paralysis, premature death.”)
The anxiety concerning sexuality and death is augmented by the “significant change in the focus of combat literature from the canonical works of the First World War”. Writers such as Roald Dahl and Keith Douglas wrote directly about the experience of killing in combat, and the godlike power of mechanised warfare. The dominant mode of writing death and killing lay in understatement, detachment and voyeurism. From textual references including George Orwell and Richard Hillary, Plain observes that “Patriotism and grand gestures belong to the last war, not to this one, which presents itself instead as pragmatic and reluctant.” Rather than pass judgement or give a coherent response to combat and combatants, writers such as Hillary felt that “If I could do this thing, could tell a little of the lives of these men, I would have justified, at least in some measure, my right to fellowship with my dead.” Again the dominant motive in writing lay in bearing witness and documentary. The inability to comprehend this second war directly led to the sense of postwar – “a beginning rooted, psychologically, in the impossibility of an ending”.
Postwar, when acting as a shift in focus, promotes detachment from the conflict through an increasing need for escapism. There is a fascination with the past as “a site that enables the examination of contemporary issues through a safely distancing lens”. Here, as in the rest of her monograph, Plain gives helpful summaries of the appropriate texts before demonstrating their significance, thematic resonance, and emblematic qualities, notably in her discussion of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, published in 1941, “a fiction that reaches for the past to escape from the present, while simultaneously interrogating that past for its role in bringing about the unbearable now”. This is the postwar dilemma: nostalgia tempered with resentment. Plain further explores this in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945, a novel which “displaces war to the margins and self-consciously constructs a ‘virtual zone of safety’ in the past”. Its popular appeal was due to its tone, “its uncertainty about the future, and its pervasive note of personal and cultural mourning”. This sense of instability and need for consolation culminated in the postwar effort to escape the present. Plain makes a direct connection between this escapism and the denial of grief by many Second World War writers. By analysing Dylan Thomas’ poem, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London”, Plain points out the revealing questions of postwar literature: “How many times can death be mourned? Can any death signify as profoundly as the first? Later deaths accumulate, but they cannot replicate the intensity of bereavement’s first pain.”
This is further echoed in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, first published in 1943, which “seems to question poetic articulation and offer consolation by way of quietude: a paring down of poetry, spectacle, emotion, into a ‘condition of complete simplicity’”. Plain discusses the numerous and dissenting interpretations of Eliot’s work with clarity and acumen, while also offering alternative insights into his “grief riddles”: “Mourning, once considered, is consigned to the past in a manner absolutely typical of constructions of British national identity.” The present grief was too excessive to fully grasp, and so literature evaded it in an effort to adjust. Through discussing JB Priestley’s Bright Day, Plain further points out that once the war was over, the greatest threat was “the ghost of the 1930s and the rejection of the war’s embryonic meritocracy”. The responsibility of shaping the future was of course an opportunity, but after democracy failed to win in Spain, a sense of futility was omnipresent – Cyril Connolly maintained that defeatism was the writer’s “occupational disease” – and the indeterminacy of hope pervaded literature “in a series of ambivalent prescriptions for the future”.
It is through this need to look forward that the rhetoric of war continued: a Vote Labour poster from 1945 bearing the caption “And now – win the Peace” is placed over a small cluster of cosy houses with a huge ‘V’ in the centre of the image, clearly evocative of Churchill’s iconic “V for Victory”. The election of the Labour Party in 1945 spoke to “a widespread desire that after six years of sacrifice, ‘Right’ should be done”. This ethical axiom is repeated in Terence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy, a drama, Plain argues, which “personalises this enormous abstract concept through a blatant abuse of institutional power”. The Winslow Boy, written in 1946, is set in 1910, and the story at first does seem a storm in a teacup, a courtroom drama based over the dubious theft of a five-shilling postal order; however, the play focuses on an underdog, fighting the powers that be in a seemingly hopeless struggle for what is right, an easily understandable metaphor in postwar Britain: “As Arthur Winslow reads of the ‘liberty of the individual menaced … by the new despotism of bureaucracy’ he voices a genuine strand of contemporary anxiety.” Plain weaves the thread of this anxiety through Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Margery Allingham’s Coroner’s Pidgin, concluding that even in attempts to escape the influence of war, writers’ works “remained permeated with the conflict they sought to evade”. Even a story as benign as The Winslow Boy, with its focus on a teenage naval cadet in Edwardian England, is saturated with overtones of the Second World War and its aftermath.
The telling quotation marks around ‘Peace’ as the final section of Plain’s book pre-empt the tone of the literature that attempted consolation after the struggle of the century’s second global conflict: “Britain was exhausted and bankrupt, Europe was devastated, its infrastructure destroyed and its national and cultural legibility erased.” The recourse to documentary form, and bearing witness in some way, was even more necessary as the Holocaust moved from rumour to reality, but the recording of events was “simultaneously powerful and inadequate”, and the instability of home and state meant that “Peace” was not such a relief. The breakup of knowledge and understanding is reflected in “the literature of ‘atomising’”:
It moves away from the idea of a common purpose to respond to the psychological wounds of war and modernity, and it turns its attention once again to divisive cultural and political issues shelved for the duration of the war.
Unfortunately, in the ashes of the Second World War lay the origins of the next twenty years of conflict: the Berlin Blockade of 1948-9, the Korean War of 1950-52, the Vietnam War from 1955-1975, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All of these events were aspects of the Cold War, the stalemate between countries vying for superpower status. In addition to the ongoing armed struggles, there was a distinct feeling that “winning the war had been achieved at the cost not only of imperial power and international authority, but also of any coherent sense of a national identity”. Through a discussion of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Plain points out the postwar search for “a lost homosocial ideal”, the subversion of a symbolic fulfilment in the elusive racketeer Harry Lime, who represents “an unwelcome manifestation of modernity”, and a Cold War narrative, “imagined as a third force independent of both America and the Soviet Union”. Plain also illustrates the power of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in its postwar claim that “war and peace are indistinguishable”. Stevie Smith echoes this confusion in The Holiday: “I do not know if we can bear not to be at war.”
Literature of the 1940s concludes with the assertion that the end of this decade heralded modern Britain. Considering the ways in which the Second World War and its repercussions dominated the remainder of the century, this claim is easily supported, and clarifies the decade’s significance, both culturally and historically. Plain’s monograph is a comprehensible, absorbing examination of the art of the 1940s, replete with summaries of her chosen texts and illuminating interpretations of each theme. It is an ideal introduction for those who are not yet familiar with the writers of this decade, but it also offers exemplary research and analysis for those interested in further study in this period of literary history: “optimism and the possibility of building anew jostled uncomfortably with nostalgia for a lost pre-war world, and a post-traumatic uncertainty about the future”. The 1940s were the years in which writers looked backwards and forwards in a search for stability, and the publication of Gill Plain’s book demonstrates the value of explorations of this period, as well as how much research still needs to be done.
Eadaoin Lynch is an MLitt student at the University of St Andrews specialising in poetry of the Second World War. Her own poems have been published in the Ofi Press Magazine in association with the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network. This essay was first published in December 2013.