Henrietta’s War: News From the Home Front 1939–1942. By Joyce Dennys. Bloomsbury USA, 176 pp., $14, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
During World War II, Joyce Dennys expressed her frustrations as the wife of a small-town doctor in Devon by writing a series of light, amusing sketches for a British tabloid. Her pieces took the form of fictionalized letters to a childhood friend, a middle-aged colonel on duty in France, and became so popular that a publisher collected some of them in Henrietta’s War and its sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through.
Bloomsbury USA reissued the first of the two volumes last year, and its timing couldn’t have been better. Henrietta’s War helps to satisfy an American hunger for epistolary tales fostered by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s 2008 bestseller. Dennys’s book also reflects the influence of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a modern classic that has had a modest revival since The New Yorker published an appreciation of its author in 2005.
But Henrietta’s War has a tone all its own, less sentimental than that of Shaffer and Barrows but gentler than the astringent Delafield’s. Dennys finds her alter ego in Henrietta Brown, the wife of a popular GP on a part of the English coast that is bracing for an expected German invasion by sea. As enemy bombers ply the skies, Devonians acquire gas masks, join air raid drills, and cope with meat and margarine rationing, all the while keeping up cherished rituals – jumble sales, garden parties, and drinking tea while listening to the click of croquet balls at the tennis club.
Henrietta and Charles have a son and daughter who are away helping with the war effort and appear occasionally, once when Bill returns unhurt from Dunkirk. In the children’s absence, the couple care for their eccentric dog, Perry: “A firm believer in warmth and a hater of fresh air, he sleeps, winter and summer, with a rug over his head.” The couple also live with the behavior of neighbors like Faith, the town siren, who insists on being vaccinated in response to the rumor that “the Germans are going to fly at great height over England and release thousands of minute parachutes laden with bacilli.”
Early on, Henrietta suggests the theme and tone of the book when she observes, “This is a belligerent community to make up for the extreme peacefulness of our surroundings, I suppose.” She is perceptive enough to notice her neighbors’ absurdities but too kind and cheerful to condemn them for it. Henrietta writes, after meat rationing begins:
“Mrs. Savernack, that woman of action, took out a gun-license. If she can’t get meat at the butcher’s, she will go out and shoot it. The rabbits which for years gambolled happily in the fields at the back of the Savernacks’ house have received a rude awakening, and Mrs. Savernack, flushed with success, has begun to turn her thoughts to bigger game. Farmer Barnes, wisely perhaps, has moved his cows to another field.”
Henrietta’s War brims passages that, if light-hearted and at times disjointed, give a piquant flavor to a time when the British were urged to stay “Bright, Brave and Confident.” Henrietta laments the underuse of the skills of her female neighbors, expected to aid the war through such unheroic tasks as making marmalade with saccharine instead of the rationed sugar. Men could join the Home Defense Corps, but “we married women still feel the part we have to play in this war is mundane, unromantic and monotonous.”
Henrietta doesn’t allow herself a stronger complaint, and her “musn’t grumble” approach is part of her appeal. Her lack of cynicism and self-pity may seem as far removed from the present as the sewing bees at which women make flannel hot-water–bottle warmers for soldiers. And yet, by the end of the book, Henrietta has revealed enough that you what she means when she says of a Christmas celebration: “We decided that we wouldn’t try to be too gay, because if we did, we would all end by being depressed.”
Best line: It’s a rare English book in which the heroine dares to say, even with tongue in cheek, that “gardening simply corrodes the character.”
Worst line: Henrietta’s War reflects common wartime ethnic stereotypes that would today be considered slurs.
Recommendation? My fellow worshippers at the Shrine of E. M. Delafield, this is for you. Also highly recommended to book clubs that liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, though Henrietta’s War is a better book.
Published: April 2010
About the author: Dennys studied at the Exeter College of Art and illustrated Henrietta’s War with witty line drawings in a style reminiscent of those of the New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson. An unsigned introduction to the book says that Dennys invented all the characters except Henrietta and her husband, her daughter, and her dog.
Furthermore: A sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through: More News From the Home Front 1942–1945, is due out from Bloomsbury USA on Feb. 1, 2011. Both books are part of the publisher’s stylish “Bloomsbury Group” series that revives light and entertaining 20th-century British books.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.