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.