Monday, March 22, 2021

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry - Margaret Kennedy

It's turning into a bit of a theme for me with Handheld Press titles - books by authors I have a stack of titles by in old green Virago covers, but have never got round to reading. Margaret Kennedy is definitely in that sisterhood and for no better reason than that there's always been something else to read first. Judith at Handheld press is also really good at following up review copies with an email about when I might write about their books - so they don't end up buried in a pile of other things not to surface anytime soon. (I appreciate Judith and her gentle deadlines).

Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is a memoir of Kennedy's experiences from May to September 1940. It's written as a journal and covers the period of the Battle of Britain to the beginning of the Blitz. It was definitely created with the intention that it would be read by her family, and probably always with an eye towards publication. Publication came in 1941, but only in America, where it was well received.

It's unlike anything else I've ever read about the War. Kennedy was a successful and well respected writer at this point, decades into her career, she clearly knows her business, and I gave up underlining things because there was something noteworthy on every page. It also seems remarkably candid and personal to someone used to the current pressure to filter yourself that an age of twitter spats and attacks has created.

Margaret can borrow houses for her family to stay in when she feels London is too dangerous, the children have ponies to ride, they have well connected friends, and no shortage of money or places to go when they decide Surrey is to close in case of bombing raids on the city. There are nannies and nurses as needed; leaving Surrey is a relief because apart from Nanny it means no more servants to deal with, and when she ends up in Cornwall it's lunch every day at the local hotel to save on house work. 

She's also writing, caring for her own young children as well as a friends daughter whilst her husband has to remain in London, engaged in war work, involved in the local community, and still doing a hefty amount of housework. It's an unexpected mix of things which are easy to relate  to, and things which are not, Kennedy seems to be both aware of her privilege and to take it for granted, and tells us a lot about the world of well to do, successful, Europhiles with liberal but not socialist leanings in 1940.

Given her liberal ideals occasional displays of class consciousness, or a description of a group of gypsy women as having eyes "Bright and sharp but not quite human" kept shaking me off balance. In 2021 we would definitely think along very similar lines, reading things like this remind me that 1940 is quite a long time ago. 

It's even more of a shock because there's a lot in Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry that feels like it could be being written now. The same surprise at feeling ourselves living history, not knowing what's coming, wondering if it will be a social leveler, if something better can be built on the ruins of the old normal, growing awareness of social disparity and anger at the visible effects of poverty on children's bodies. There's plenty about fear, isolation, and fifth columnists (which seems appropriate after last nights riots in Bristol) too. Margaret's fears for her children are quite hard to read. Deliberately shocking in a way that resonates down 80 years as if they were nothing.

It's these moments, both candid and calculated, that make this such a powerful book to read and which feel most out of sync with a modern world. I can only imagine the response some of what she says would get from a contemporary audience, and have no idea how it would have been read in 1941 - but it leaves no doubt as to how desperate things felt to her in Britain's darkest hour. 

To balance that darkness there's plenty of humour, along with Kennedy's general observations about Europe, America, and national characteristics which are interesting - fluctuating feelings about the French again seem really relevant against a Brexit background. Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is described in the blurb as being like Mrs Miniver with the gloves off, which for anybody who has read Mrs Miniver, or indeed the War time stories of Mollie Panter-Downes and their like should make you want to read this immediately. Kennedy is much better for being gloves off even if it's sometimes brutal.   


  1. Wonderful review. I read this last year in the early days of Covid and it was all-too-familiar and strange then to read Kennedy's thoughts on living through history. Her doctor's advice about not reading the news too often - generally ignored by all his patients - also felt like a very appropriate contemporary prescription!

  2. It's such a powerful mix of stuff - I can imagine it was good propaganda for getting American women to back joining the war. The discussions about sending her children to America or keeping them in the UK and how much she misses her husband, and just how bewildering it is to see Europe getting swallowed up (feels a lot like my emotions around Brexit) and realizing that your liberal, artsy, intellectual, bubble is just that...