Sunday, 21 September 2014

How could I possibly have resisted this cover? (Southern England 1944, Spitfires Attacking Flying Bombs, by WT Monnington.) I came across it a few weeks ago for £1 in the secondhand bookshop at Ham House.)

I haven't been able to settle with a book recently, but still managed to enjoy it - and I suspect that I'd have enjoyed it even more if I'd been able to bury my head in it uninterrupted for a whole afternoon. It reminded me rather of Elizabeth Taylor's At Mrs Lippincote's. On the Side of the Angels, first published in 1945, centres on two sisters whose lives are peripheral to a WW2 military hospital in Gloucestershire. They seem to be mere satellites of the men who have a more important role in the serious world of conflict. Honor is married to (and still besotted with) Colin, a dapper, overbearing  little man who was a small town GP in civilian life. Army life (although he has never seen action) has given him more masculine status than he ever commanded before ... but, equally, it leaves him thin-skinned and vulnerable to losing face as he obsesses over his standing with his commanding officer.  Claudia is engaged to Andrew, who is deprived of any status/desirability now that he has been invalided out of the Army with a dodgy heart.

Honor sighed: a moment later she said, unexpectedly "This isn't a war for mothers with children ... It's all right for young girls - they can go into the Waaf, or make munitions - do something - but the married women get the rough end of it. Trailing round in furnished houses, resented by the locals, snubbed by the trades-people - and on top of it all, cold-shouldered, seeing their husbands only on sufferance -"

Claudia flashed her an ambiguous glance. "The CO, my dear, doesn't like rivals," she said. 

Betty Miller is wonderfully perceptive about 'male pirouetting' and fragile self-esteem, and all the petty vanities and jostling for position that are part of army life ... and the ending came as a complete surprise to me. (She said it was an almost exact picture of the military hospital where her husband served under a very peculiar CO during the war.)

I wasn't terribly keen on Miller's earlier novel Farewell Leicester Square, which was interesting in the way it addresses insidious English anti-semitism between the wars - but was rather dull as a novel. I can see why Virago chose this one instead as a better read. Seems impossible, though, to track down any of her other novels. Not on Amazon/Abebooks/eBay ... or has anybody struck gold in a secondhand book shop?


kristina said...

Will add to my to-read list! And I really must check out the secondhand bookshop at Ham House--I had no idea... xx

mary said...

It's tiny, Kristina. But worth a look if you're there.

lyn said...

I have the Capuchin reprint of this on the tbr shelves but I do love the Virago cover. Thanks for the review.

mary said...

Nothing to beat an old green Virago, Lyn. I do wish they'd bring them back.

GSGreatEscaper said...

Love my green Viragos - and some black covered ones too - which were collected with some difficulty here in the US back in the 80s. Luckily, those were flush years when I had a great job. Found my copy of this one with a pencilled "$1.49" on the inside! I'll read it again, thanks to you.

mary said...

They must have been hard to get hold of in those pre-Amazon days. Oh for the well-paid 80s! Although I hated the job I had then.