Do you ever have the inkling that a book might just be so completely and utterly ‘you’ that you actually put off reading it for quite some time as you are scared of being right? Now I know that sounds a little bit crazy but once you have read that book there are two outcomes. You may either hate it and end up being deflated and forlorn possibly never wanting to open a book again… ever! Or there is the possibility you will love the book so much you wish that you could un-read it and have the pleasure of that first read all over again? Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ is definitely the latter for me, utterly delightful. I think that any book that has the line “Dear Robert, I have a great urge to knit something for you” with in the first chapter (or letter in this case) is going to be a hit with me
Henrietta’s War actually started out as columns in Sketch. Dennys was an artist who has many successful collections though once married and a mother in the late 1920’s her life became a domestic one in the English countryside and so needed something to take her frustrations out on. Out came Henrietta’s wartime letters to her ‘childhood friend’ Robert who is ‘out on the front’ and eventually became published as a collection and a novel in the form of this wonderful book.
Henrietta is a ‘doctors wife’ (which all the local women think is very important in a slightly unconvinced way) to Charles and mother to Bill and Linnet living in Devon. As we meet her World War II is raging though where she lives the only real way that war is effecting them is the rations and ‘people are talking cockney up and down the high street’. Having home help she spends most of her time trying to join in the War Effort, joining local clubs, doing good, gossiping with her friends (wonderful characters like the bossy Lady B and Mrs Savernake and the flirty Faith who ‘The Conductor’ is in love with) sunbathing on her roof, writing letters to Robert and getting a lot of bed rest.
To have visitors during a Day in Bed is a grave error. It means getting out to do your hair, make up your face, and have your bed made. A little talk on the telephone with a sympathetic friend who is really interested in your symptoms is the only social intercourse that should be allowed. A good deal of pleasure can be derived from asking for your fountain-pen and notepaper, and then not write any letters…
For some people the war wasn’t all bombs and terror, for some in the middle of nowhere it must have felt somewhat removed in many ways and Dennys addresses this. She also looks at how these people lived, admittedly in a comical tongue in cheek way, when the greatest crisis they had was not having enough sugar to make marmalade for the villages ‘Marmalade Week’. We see how the villagers coped and in some ways continued as normal, or as normally as they could, having jumble sales to raise money, joining drama clubs and even at one point getting arrested as Henrietta does.
Most war novels focus on the awful things that happened during that time, what Dennys does with these fictional letters is try and see the light in these dark times and to look for a way to entertain people during the difficulties with laughter.
But now such is Hitler’s power, this evil influence has begun to effect even the residents, and it keeps breaking out in the most unlikely quarters. Miss Piper, the girl in the greengrocers, has gone into jodhpurs; Faith, our friend, looks quite superb in a pair of pin stripped flannels; Mrs Savernack, though I can hardly expect you to believe this, saw fit to appear in a pair of khaki shorts (we all consider her excuse she is digging her way to victory a poor one); and I tell you frankly, Robert, only my love for Charles has kept me out of a pair of green corduroy dungarees.
I haven’t smirked, giggled and laughed out loud at a book so much in quite sometime. A perfect and delightful book and if that wasn’t enough there is more… the lovely illustrations that Dennys also put into the letters.
If you love books by Nancy Mitford, or that show WWII from a different view point, or have you laughing out loud on public transport, or like books set in villages that house wonderful quirky characters (or all of these) then this is most definitely a book for you. I was also in many ways reminded of Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter Downes which I loved earlier in the year. I am so pleased that this gem has been brought back by Bloomsbury and into the mainstream for people to enjoy. I can think of three people instantly I will be buying copies for. I am only hoping, with everything crossed, that Bloomsbury decides to release ‘Henrietta Sees It Through’ which would just be wonderful.