Friday, March 26, 2010

Joyce Dennys – Henrietta’s War

I’m very late to the party on this one – but better late than never. ‘Henrietta’s War’ was a charity shop find last year, and something I was particularly pleased to get my hands on. I’ve wanted it since it came out, but when I’m broke and choosing between a thin book and a thick book somehow the thick books win; more words per pence which is a ridiculous way to think but there you have it (I apply the same logic to biscuits which is probably why I should diet).

‘Henrietta’s War’ is quite a slim volume so I by passed it in favour of the rather plumper 'Mrs Tim of the Regiment' (also from Bloomsbury), wrongly assuming that they were much the same thing, and that both were essentially more of the provincial lady. It seems that despite reading plenty about ‘Henrietta’s War’ I didn’t actually pay much attention to what people were saying – something I’m slightly ashamed to admit, but again; better late than never.

Henrietta is a letter writer, a subtle but significant difference to being a diarist; comparisons to Delafield’s ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ led me astray but a few pages in and I was on the right track again. The letters addressed to Robert; a childhood friend, (with I think just the suggestion of old romance) detail Henrietta’s everyday life back on the home front. She doesn’t expect replies and the ‘letters’ are chatty, honest, and funny. I can see that they would have worked perfectly as a weekly serial, and think they work almost unusually well as a novel – Henrietta certainly compares very well to Mrs Miniver in this respect (this may be because of excellent editing; Henrietta is one of the rare occasions when I really want to know what the editor did and how much of the credit they deserve).

Henrietta herself was redeemed for me by showing her fear as well as humour. Confounded by forms and instructions, falling foul of blackout laws, paralysed into inaction when faced with a possible sea mine, and afraid of BANGS at times she’s seems almost unbelievably incapable, and yet... Henrietta conjures up an image of pre war housewifery when a middle class household, complete with two daily maids and a gardener, could be supported on a single wage albeit that of a Doctor. Her job is to run a household in a way that few of us could now imagine or aspire to (not in my circle anyway) but despite the anachronisms of her position she really does keep the readers sympathy which is a real tribute to Joyce Dennys. She makes me feel the fear of being bombed far more effectively than anything I’ve read about the blitz and without a single person being blown up.

It’s a further testament to Dennys’ skill that a collection of stock characters are brought to life so remarkably well. They really don’t feel like clichés at all and yet on examination the whole cast is there, if I could put my finger on precisely how she does it I could make a fortune (Or at least write a damn good book). I think it’s largely due to the affection between the characters – the sense of a husband and wife i proper accord and of peoples strengths and weaknesses held in equal affection.

I’m longing to say that if you read only one book about the war this year... but that won’t do because Bloomsbury are bringing out ‘Henrietta Sees It Through,’ so if you haven’t already read ‘Henrietta’s War’ then there are at least two books about the war you must read this year, or at least take the time to pick up and browse through properly. If the second instalment is as good as the first (and I’ve every reason to think it will be) it should be a real treat - the balance between funny, poignant, and evocative is both flawless and endearing.


  1. I agree with you. I loved Henrietta although she's different to the PL. She has a similar humour though, more than Mrs Miniver. I'm looking forward to HSIT later this year.

  2. Funny, I have seen comments posted on other reviews of this books, where readers have taken exception to the supposed frivolity of tone and the light subject matter as trivialising the awfulness of WWII etc etc. I would beg to differ - like you said Henrietta is very often fearful. Also I think the peculiar British humour of keeping 'jolly' in the face of adversity might have been mistaken for frivolity. I had no problem with this book on that score and see it as one of a whole collection of WWII homefront novels that help me understand this era. I would rate Henrietta's War equally with the Provincial Lady - perhaps not as literary but loved it just as much. Thanks for your excellent review.

  3. The, British do like the idea of themselves as keeping a stiff upper lip and laughing at adversity. I liked the book because the letters besides being funny had a real feel to them, I found the mentions of ww1 interesting too - a hint of real anger about it which was unusual enough to make me notice it.

    Regarding stiff upper lips I gather that anyone who made it through the private school system would need one. My father and grandfather both went through it and it sounded awful, but in their day it was the done thing.

    I can't help but think that as awful as the war was in the uk it offered a lot of opportunities which would hardly have existed without it, especially for the young and previously class bound.

  4. This is still on my list - waiting to be read - so you are not quite the last. Now that everyone else has had so much to say about it - I am so looking forward to the read myself!

    thanks for sharing


  5. Another one here who has yet to read this book. I am still saving it for a rainy day or the right mood :-) Thank you for your lovely review.