The literature of the 1940s

Plain fronts.inddThis month, Professor Gill Plain talks about Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and ‘Peace’, her groundbreaking new book on the literary response to this decade of trauma and transformation, published by Edinburgh University Press.

What made you want to write on the 1940s?

I’ve been interested in the 1940s for a long time. It was the decade that shaped my parents, and like many people I grew up watching Second World War movies on TV. Indeed, the particular circumstances of the war generated what is commonly recognized as a ‘Golden Age’ of British cinema. But I was struck by the fact that while we know what the 1940s looked like, we have very little idea of how people wrote about them, or indeed, what they wrote about in this period. For example, if you ask people to name a war poet, most will be able to come up with Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. But a Second World War poet? I wanted to find out why the Second World War wasn’t seen as a literary war, and how writing responded not only to the conflict, but to its complicated aftermath.

What did you discover in the course of your research?

That the 1940s was packed with famous writers, both highbrow and popular, but that we seldom see them as being part of this decade. It’s not like the 1930s, where you get a sense of the Auden generation, or the 1920s, when modernism takes hold. But in the 1940s we have T. S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Georgette Heyer, Evelyn Waugh, Nevil Shute, Dylan Thomas, Terence Rattigan, Stevie Smith, Noel Coward, Mervyn Peak, Nancy Mitford, Graham Greene – all producing important work – but we do not think of them as contemporaries, and they do not form a coherent group or movement.

I also discovered that the British do not have a language of the emotions, and that attempts to write about the war and its impact are endlessly displaced, euphemized and symbolized. To a certain extent it’s typical of constructions of national identity that took root in the 19th century and concretised into the middle classes of the mid-twentieth century: ideas of fair play, sporting behavior, loyalty, stoicism – being a man of few words is praise in this period, and fluency, especially in the emotions, is distrusted, associated with insincerity and with untrustworthy foreigners! There’s almost an embarrassment about emotion in the English middle classes – for both men and women – and most often, feelings are articulated through ‘banter’, calling someone a ‘silly old sod’ when you want to express your friendship. But in writing, where you might expect people to disrupt the forces of convention, the habit of restraint is exacerbated by the legacy of the First World War – this conflict seems to have exhausted both the rhetoric of romantic nationalism and the language of horror (what some critics have termed battlefield gothic). So in the Second World War, we find poets such as Keith Douglas writing about the war with ironic detachment. He is painfully aware of coming second, and always watching himself as poet, as well as bearing witness to what he sees. I think one of the most telling phrases I encountered – and the idea reoccurred in the work of many combat writers – is that war was ‘an important test, which I was interested in passing’ (Keith Douglas). There are no illusions here, and not much sign of patriotism, but men are still drawn to war as a means of self-fashioning, self-development, and indeed need to prove something to their father’s generation who had suffered in the First World War. But look at the language here: a test which I was ‘interested’ in passing. Could something so enormous and potentially deadly be rendered any more banal or muted?

What are the salient characteristics of the period?

A fascination with the quotidian details of everyday life emerges from a great deal of writing. There is a lot of straightforward documentary work, people describing London in the Blitz, or what it was like to be in the army, or in a village full of evacuees, but you also find a fascination with the texture of everday life in more creative work – Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, for example, is so richly textured, it seems to capture not just the sights of Blitzed London, but the sounds and the smells – even, in a very famous passage, the tangible presence of the newly dead; people ripped so unexpectedly from their lives that their ghosts still go about their daily business, invisible commuters, marked by their absence. She s acutely aware of how we build our lives, our identities, through things, and when those things are taken from us, we are cut adrift from memory and meaning. So, there is an astonishing attention to detail in the period, everything under threat is seen and written through new eyes.

Later in the decade, preoccupations become more internal, and a darker tone begins to surface. There’s an enormous amount of depressive writing in the latter part of the period, and a great deal of alcohol. Characters (and writers) drink themselves to death, there’s suicide and despair, futility – sometimes mitigated by a great deal of dark humour. These are the years of Nineteen-Eighty Four, The Heart of the Matter, or, more absurdly, Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, a very black comedy set in an American funeral home. Or, in poetry, I think of new voices like R. S. Thomas emerging, and his writing is so bleak, pared back, stripping humanity down to its bare bones. But whatever the writing of this period is, it’s not ‘modernism’ as the term is understood in the interwar period. So I’m keen to resist categorisations of the 1940s as modernist, or late modernist, or even post-modernist. They are something other, a curious liminal space in the century in which exceptional historical circumstances and unprecedented cultural change rendered writing different.

Was it a decade of peace or a decade of war or both? 

The division of the decade into war and after, a clear break in 1945, simply doesn’t work in terms of understanding the literature of the period. This is a problem that extends beyond the decade too: many studies of the twentieth century break off or start in 1945 – but wars do not work that way. In the case of the Second World War, the decisive breaks in public mood, and in how people were writing and what they were reading, can be found in the middle of the war – when the threat of invasion and immediate danger had passed, and people understood that the war would eventually be won – and towards the end of the decade when you can begin to identify new voices and new preoccupations. So, I think I would say that most of the decade exhibits the characteristics of the ‘postwar’. My sense of the term comes from the poet Stevie Smith, who captures perfectly the strange indeterminacy of the time: ‘it cannot be said that it is war, it cannot be said that it is peace, it can be said that it is post-war; this will probably go on for ten years’. That comes from a very strange novel called The Holiday, which she wrote during, and about, the war. It was rejected by her publisher – probably because most of the characters are in fairly advanced states of melancholy. After the war, she decided to have another go – but now the conflict was definitely not a popular topic for fiction – so she went through the typescript inserting ‘post’ in front of all the war references, an absurdly simple yet curiously effective strategy that results in her characters asking wonderful questions like ‘shall we win the post-war’? This is actually a very good question in terms of the politics and economics of the period, but it also demonstrates that signing an armistice is not enough to end a war. There’s a psychological recovery period, a time when the war mind is still in place and struggling to adjust, when people simply don’t know how not to be at war. So there is a degree of interchangeability between war and peace, and you cannot contain the Second World War within the limits 1939-45. People grieve before the battle is over, they mourn long after its conclusion. Many also seek to escape the war before it is over – you can only live in a state of heightened intensity for so long – and they yearn for books and films that will take them out of a drab, miserable reality. Others survive by planning for the future, imagining some reward, building the new Jerusalem before there’s even any certainty that there will be a recognizable world in which to build it.

By the end of the decade, what had changed?

Everything and nothing! Many of the same writers (Eliot, Orwell, Greene, Waugh, Bowen), same class of people in charge (even with a reforming Labour government, the mandarinate remains the unchanged product of public school and Oxbridge), same sense of national identity, much of the same Empire … but, India is partitioned in 1947, and from this point onwards, the process of decolonization would gradually acquire momentum; the Empire Windrush arrives in 1948, bringing the first of thousands of West Indian citizens to their country of citizenship – in many cases to discover that some citizens are more equal than others; the emergence of the Cold War, and an increasing fear, not so much of Communism, but of American cultural hegemony; technological advances of wartime have created the atom bomb, but they’ve also caused paradigm shifts that will effect how ordinary people live their lives: Penicillin and the jet engine, for example. By the end of the decade, we have tentative beginnings of affordable commercial flight, and we also have the Welfare state. People had access to medical care they could not previously afford, they had free eye tests and dental check ups – these were revelations for some people – and we had a new emphasis on youth. This is the era that sees the invention of the teenager, a being caught between childhood and adulthood, with a set of needs and desires that would become increasingly significant as the new decade of the 1950s progressed.

If you had to sum the decade up in a few sentences, what would these be?

I would use a phrase from Elizabeth Bowen, one of the finest writers of the period: she described the war years as a period of ‘lucid abnormality’, and this works for the decade as a whole. There was too much to grasp, and so people stared at the quotidian, at every day detail, and saw it anew, and they wrote what they saw in the tangible world with a directness they couldn’t apply to their emotions. Everything is crystal clear, and yet it hides the impossible, inarticulable trauma of surviving a devastating war and the birth of an era in which one single bomb can wipe out an entire city. Or, more succinctly I might say, from old war to cold war, and quote Louis MacNeice, who gets to the nub of the ‘hiatus’ that the decade represents. While the public world changed out of all recognition, and many writers produced magnificent work that has justifiably stood the test of time, for the private individual these were ‘the years that did not count’.

What can the 1940s teach us today?

The real meaning of austerity. Rationing, introduced in the war, got worse rather than better after the conflict ended – at one point even bread was rationed – and there were shortages of everything from coal to potatoes. It can also teach us a great deal about our priorities, our sense of belonging and our obligations to others. This is a decade in which events took place of unprecedented inhumanity. Millions were killed, both through war and genocide, millions further were displaced, refugees without home or family; cities that symbolised European civilisation were destroyed, the capability for previously unthinkable modes of warfare were developed, a new ideological conflict emerged that would shape international politics for the next forty years. Yet in Britain, remarkably, the immediate outcome was the creation of a welfare state. I don’t think we can ever learn too much about what happened, why it happened and how people responded. The literature of the 1940s tells us what it was like to live through these events, not by describing them necessarily, but by conveying the zeitgeist, by capturing the language, mood and imagination of a generation now nearly beyond us. The 1940s teach us about suffering, about hope, and about the value of the political process. They also teach us about ‘Britishness’ and the benefits of not taking yourself too seriously.

Gill PlainGill Plain is Professor of English at the University of St Andrews, and her publications include Women’s Fiction of the Second World War: Gender, Power and Resistance Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body, Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue: A Reader’s Guide and John Mills and British Cinema: Masculinity, Identity and Nation. Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and ‘Peace’ is published this month by Edinburgh University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *