On 31 August 1939 Alan Cameron was at his desk at the BBC, where he was secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting, when he heard that the British fleet was mobilising. This meant that war with Germany was imminent and Cameron telephoned home to give his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, the news. She received it without apparent emotion and with an awkwardness of tone that made an impression on the Irish writer and occasional IRA gunman Sean O’Faolain, with whom she was in bed at the time. He made a joke about it, which she considered in poor taste and there was a subsequent cooling in their relationship. It was to be his last visit to her house and the first change of partners in a frantic dance of infidelities, ménages à trois and other more complex triangulations among writers in London that lasted like an epic ‘excuse me’ throughout the Second World War. Bowen later remembered it as the ‘most interesting period of my life’.
Lara Feigel unravels the tangled web, concentrating on the experiences of six novelists: Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke (who wrote as Henry Green), Rose Macaulay, Rosamond Lehmann and the Austrian émigrée Hilde Spiel. The combination of danger and novelty made the times ‘an absolute gift to the writer’, as Yorke put it to Lehmann: ‘Everything is breaking up.’ Amid the physical and emotional ruins cracks opened in the social fabric and with them opportunities for romantic release. Danger has always been a noted aphrodisiac, but this particular situation was new. Never before had war come so close to civilian life in London.
The First World War, which cast a livid shadow over the experiences of the Second and was a constant point of comparison, had for the most part taken place far away. The fighting was done by soldiers and involved men almost exclusively. This time men and women, services and non-combatants were in it together. The home front was as important and at times more dangerous than the battle front. Evelyn Waugh, who was in the Marines, found himself in Gibraltar in the autumn of 1940 at a loose end while he waited for a ship home and wrote of the change as something amounting to the roles of the sexes being reversed. Speculating that in London Yorke was ‘no doubt fighting fires day and night’, Waugh reflected that ‘the armed forces cut a small figure. We are like wives reading letters from the trenches.’
The usual situation of wives was one of the many things breaking up for the duration. Macaulay for one was glad. ‘How to be useful though married’ is a question put but never satisfactorily answered by Neville, the wistful middle-aged woman in her prewar novel Dangerous Ages. Now women of all kinds were thrown into action fighting fires, monitoring the blackout and getting hurt. ‘It is no worse that women should be killed than men,’ Macaulay, who drove an ambulance, noted. And with equal danger came equal opportunity. This was the first time that a substantial body of what might be called war writing was produced by women. It took the form mostly of novels and journalism. Another contrast with 1914-18 was that this was to be a war more of prose than poetry.
Feigel might have made more effort to develop some of these themes. As it is, despite its considerable incidental interest, her narrative doesn’t cohere. The writers she has chosen mostly knew or were aware of one another, but they didn’t form anything like a group. Nor is the scene confined to London, or even to the war, which ends about halfway through the book. It is hard to see why Spiel, who had virtually no contact with the others and whose work is not widely known, is in when Waugh is out, and among literary ARP wardens with complicated love lives, T.S. Eliot is surely as noteworthy as Greene. For all of which the first part of the book tells a good story and casts sharp sidelights on the mythology of the Blitz, to which the writers were not always inclined to subscribe. Macaulay’s article for Time and Tide describing one raid as ‘a sample corner of total war’ barely made it into print. Censors had requested that journalists should not be ‘too vivid’ about that sort of thing and Macaulay’s report of a rescue worker wondering out loud ‘How long will people stick it?’ was cut.
Not every writer was thrilled by the first wailing of the air-raid sirens and, as Feigel makes clear, many of those who were alert to the artistic possibilities of war engaged with it on their own terms. Greene, an energetic air-raid warden, was disgusted by the ‘faint susurrus’ of intellectuals dashing for desk jobs. Stephen Spender, he sneered, had ‘feathered his young nest in the Ministry of Information’. Just months later Greene, who embodied in his own tortured personality as many contradictions, deceptions and hypocrisies as the other five combined, avoided being called up by taking a post at the ministry, where he worked on propaganda with Malcolm Muggeridge. Thus he secured the time he wanted for his own writing. Yorke was in the Auxiliary Fire Service, which he had taken the precaution of joining in 1938 so that if war came he would not be conscripted and have to give up his normal London routine which consisted of working himself ‘silly’, after which he would ‘go out … about once a week and get blind drunk’. Macaulay, an enthusiastic but erratic driver who had recently caused an accident in which her married lover Gerald O’Donovan was badly injured, careered around in her ambulance with the potential for doing more harm than good.
The comedy of it was caught with cruel economy by Waugh in the opening of Officers and Gentlemen. It is a scene Feigel might have quoted at more length, in which Guy Crouchback and Ian Kilbannock stand in Piccadilly during an air-raid, arguing about whether the night sky, riven with fire and the beams of searchlights, is more like a Turner or a John Martin. Further down St James’s Street, on the opposite pavement from where a club that is more or less Brooks’s has been bombed, ‘a group of progressive novelists in firemen’s uniform were squirting a little jet of water into the morning room … “It was never much of a club,” said Ian, “my father belonged.”’
Where Waugh was sharp about the ridiculous aspect of aesthetes at war, it was Bowen who invented the sublime. Her novels and essays are alive with the erotic tensions of the blackout, the Blitz and the heightened pleasures of sex in the proximity of death. Preternaturally sensitive to colour, light and detail, she caught the nuances of the unnameable new sensations Londoners experienced. She wrote about the eerie white light that came through canvas put up in place of broken windows and the accidental picturesque of architectural fragments after a raid: ‘A pediment has fallen on a lawn.’ Later she recalled the way ‘walking in the darkness of the nights for six years (darkness which transformed a capital city into a network of inscrutable canyons), one developed new bare alert senses, with their own savage warnings and notations.’ The Heat of the Day, one of her best novels, is the product of these years and is redolent of that heightened perception generated by a civilians’ war in which the domestic and the familiar were constantly transformed into strangeness and danger. By day the sunlit roses in Regent’s Park glowed with unnatural brightness and in the blackout every woman became mysterious and provocative: ‘Nature tapped out with the heels on the pavement an illicit semaphore.’
Most of the writers Feigel discusses were already accustomed to irregular love lives. War merely brought new opportunities and quickened the pace. Bowen, whose marriage to Cameron was celibate, had for some time taken lovers, one of whom, Goronwy Rees, she had lost to Lehmann in the course of a disastrous weekend house party. By 1940 Lehmann thought that Rees was losing interest in her. Her remarkable, statuesque beauty, combined with a complete lack of judgment when it came to male character, propelled her through a succession of marriages, affairs and brief encounters, all of which ended unhappily. Now she was drifting towards the minefield that was the Yorkes’ marriage. Yorke and his wife Adelaide (known as ‘Dig’) stayed together despite his many affairs, including one with Dig’s sister. They seem to have been bound on her side by a sense of propriety which she concealed, according to one of her husband’s mistresses, behind ‘the most brilliant feyness’, while for him presumably a divorce would have removed his excuse for not marrying anyone else.
Yorke’s fling with Lehmann was brief and he soon moved on. On the wartime merry-go-round he was one of the merriest, passing from woman to woman with apparently few of the heartaches, jealousies and guilts that were the constant shadows cast by adventures of the others. Lehmann with her usual capacity to idealise cads called him ‘a disinterested affection giver’. Such extreme ‘disinterest’ looks much like brutal indifference. If there was suffering to be done in his relationships he usually made sure it was the woman who did it. In 1943, when the novelist Mary Keene told him she was pregnant with their child, he wrote her a characteristically self-serving letter in which a steely abnegation of responsibility came wrapped in the flannel of warm concern. He said that he hoped that once the baby ceased to be too preoccupying they would meet again, adding: ‘Being yours I shall love it and I only hope it will not make any fundamental difference to you.’
For a time Keene contrived to stay with her husband Bunny while completing the Yorke triangle by entering into an edgy friendship with Dig. Then early in 1945, sick of the war and of Bunny, she went with her daughter to stay in Wales with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas. After a brief period of peaceful country life, during which Dylan took her ‘very much under his wing’, a neighbour with more conventional views of sexual propriety, annoyed by Thomas’s flirtatious behaviour towards his wife, broke into the cottage with a machine gun and sprayed bullets liberally all around. ‘My dearest darling,’ Dig wrote to Keene when she heard the news, adding, perhaps with some ambivalence: ‘You might have been shot.’
Meanwhile Greene was making a more agonised progress than Yorke through a smaller number of women. In his nihilistic state of mind at the time, the separations inevitable in war were welcome. War itself ‘was good for someone like me who has always suffered from an anxiety neurosis’. He expected, indeed hoped, to be killed and when his house in Clapham was destroyed in October 1940 that too came as something of a relief. ‘It’s sad,’ he wrote, ‘because it was a pretty house, but oddly enough it leaves one very carefree.’ He was more cheerful from then on, free not only of possessions and a large mortgage, but also of his wife Vivien, who decamped to Oxford, where she stayed at Trinity College and was miserable. Greene’s dutiful monthly visits were, she suggested, the equivalent of ‘the termly tea out with relations’. In London he led ‘a chequered and rather disreputable life’ going to the Windmill Theatre with Muggeridge, who was less taken than Greene with the seedy spectacle of wartime nudes, looking ‘pinched and ravaged in the footlights’ glare’.
Greene continued as an ARP warden through the thick of the Blitz. The terrible night of 16 April 1941 found him in the Horseshoe pub in Soho, drinking with his mistress Dorothy Glover. Shortly after two in the morning he was at Malet Street where a parachute mine had landed on the Victoria Club and the 350 Canadian soldiers who were sleeping there. The efforts to rescue the wounded and dying while more bombs fell were exhausting but also, like losing the house, a kind of freedom. ‘One really thought that this was the end, but it wasn’t exactly frightening – one had ceased to believe in the possibility of surviving the night.’
His marriage did survive, but only just. It came to an end in 1947 when Greene encountered the love of his life, the American socialite Catherine Walston, who had converted to Catholicism under the influence of his writings. Neither their faith nor their marriages stopped Greene and Walston from conducting a passionate and barely concealed relationship. For Vivien the last straw came when the conventional and unconventional sides of her husband’s life collided at a party he gave in Oxford, supposedly for François Mauriac but actually to introduce Walston to the most glittering of his circle of literary friends. Vivien was delegated to provide food, which meant eking out the two-ounce weekly butter ration, and she found herself ignored, handing round inadequate canapés while Greene gave his entire attention to his new mistress. Shortly afterwards, in an all too rare gesture of defiance, she went to mass and dropped her engagement ring into the collection.
If it was an equal opportunities war for writers, the women who had no such outlet and who tried to uphold more traditional roles as wives and mothers seem, from their brief appearances, to have accounted for most of the collateral damage. Feigel further strengthens the writers’ upper hand by indulging in long plot summaries of the novels which make dubious assumptions about the extent to which literature can be treated as biographical source material – for example that The End of the Affair ‘describes’ Greene’s relationship with Walston. More research would have helped, and some of the critical readings are oddly blunt. Among other things, she suggests that Rupert Brooke’s burial on Skyros meant that his death ‘failed to ennoble’ because he was deprived of the hope he expressed in ‘The Soldier’ of a grave in England’s ‘rich earth’. But the whole point of the poem is that it would be, as in the event it was, some corner of a foreign field that would be made, by his remains, forever England.
With so much lying, deceiving and double-crossing going on in their private lives it was not surprising that some of the writers became keen spies. Any novelist, Greene said, ‘has something in common with a spy: he watches, he overhears, he seeks motives and analyses character, and in his attempt to serve literature he is unscrupulous.’ When after the Blitz there was a lull as the war moved again, as Bowen put it, ‘from the horizon to the map’, Greene was bored. Impatient to get back into some danger, he had himself recruited into the SIS – the Special Intelligence Service. In December 1941 he set sail for West Africa. By March 1942 he was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the guise of a Special Branch CID officer, gleaning as much information as possible about the condition of the Richelieu, the battleship that the Vichy French had been using to attack Britain and the Free French to prevent them from taking Dakar.
At the same time Greene was laying the foundation for many later stories, both novels and exaggerated reminiscences in which the lying he so much enjoyed could be elevated above even the service of literature, into a patriotic duty. Bowen too combined writing and sex with a little light espionage. For her the question of patriotism was more complicated. She was Anglo-Irish and neutral Ireland, where Bowen’s Court, her beloved family home, was, divided her loyalties as much as any lover. Sometimes it came to the same thing. In July 1940 she made her first report back to London from Dublin, where her investigations into the state of mind among the Irish people involved a renewal of relations with O’Faolain, who in return published one of her articles in the Bell, a new literary magazine he was editing.
The extent, however, to which writers made reliable spies is questionable. Feigel gives some spectacular examples of their political naivety. Yorke was joking when he told Waugh that he had to fight the Nazis because the alternative was ‘domination by Hitler and the Mitfords’, but Greene seems to have been perfectly serious when he wrote, about a satirical review, that it demonstrated how thoroughly this was a ‘people’s war’ and that Edith Evans playing a bombed-out hop-picker with the ‘unembittered humour’ of the Cockneys and their ‘silly simple smile’ was close to that ‘heroic truth at which the world is beginning to wonder’. After the war he was disappointed to find the Labour Party was not much like Dame Edith and told his mother he had decided to vote Conservative. Bowen too, who had been thrilled in 1940 to discover that ‘for the first time, we are a democracy. We are more, we are almost a commune,’ was horrified by Labour’s postwar election victory which left her in a state of ‘terrific psychic shock … I felt sick, and shortly afterwards was.’ From now on, she decided, she felt more Irish than English. Waugh, who had never been keen on democracy, also contemplated buying a castle in Ireland as ‘shelter from the Attlee terror’.
The end of the war was an anti-climax for the writers as much as a relief. Afterwards reputations shifted again. Lehmann’s declined; Bowen, though her best work was generated by the experience of the war, maintained hers. Yorke’s novel Caught, of 1943, had been slightly better received than Greene’s The Ministry of Fear of the same year, but peace reversed the critical balance. Much of Greene’s best work still lay ahead of him. All of them had been changed as writers, even Macaulay, the oldest of them. The sense of place and of places lost pervades her later work. Pleasure of Ruins and her last novel, The Towers of Trebizond, were among her most successful books. For all of them the dangers and privations had been so liberally laced with pleasure and excitement that Macaulay, like Bowen, could not regret the past and the opportunities it brought to behave, as she put it with typical frankness, ‘dishonestly and selfishly’ in pursuit of the artistic spoils of war.