A woman sips a cup of tea after her street is struck by a German bombing raid, 1940
Since the beginning of lockdown, I’ve sought refuge in sagas set during the Second World War. There is something deeply comforting about reading stories in which people are trying to live their lives against the backdrop of an intense global crisis, not least because it’s given me a much-needed sense of perspective. It’s so easy to become caught up in the myriad horrors of the contemporary moment, one sometimes forgets that the darkest days of the Second World War would have been just as depressing and desperate as the period we’re living through right now.
Of the many books on the subject I read, Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939–1945—a brilliant new compendium of extracts from wartime diaries compiled from the Mass Observation Archive by the anthologist, editor, and literary agent Becky Brown—has stuck with me. Mass Observation (MO) was set up in 1937 by the anthropologist and polymath Tom Harrison, painter and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, and poet and journalist Charles Madge. It’s aim, Brown explains, was “to tell a truer, fuller version of events than was available in the newspapers or recorded in the history books,” or, as the founders themselves put it, to collate an “anthropology of ourselves.” Central to the project was the five-hundred-strong National Panel of Diarists, volunteers from all walks of life living across the UK, who kept a daily personal journal that they then submitted each month. So many of the films and books from or about this period are, Brown explains, “bathed in the golden glow of ‘Blitz Spirit’,” yet this is nowhere near the full story. “This alleged wartime phenomenon has little space for twenty-first-century human frailties such as succumbing to unnecessary trips to the shops, or hugging your grandmother,” she continues, invoking the deprivations of the current pandemic. “We are used to hearing about ‘Blitz Spirit’ as psychological bunting that festooned the national mind, a one-size-fits-all utility suit that the nation donned for The Duration, allowing every person to dig their way to victory with a song and a smile.” Instead, she argues, what makes the MO Archive “so valuable and so poignant,” is that these are accounts written in real time and by real people, thus “riddled with fear and defeat.” Take, for example, this entry written by a widowed housewife and voluntary worker from London on September 1, 1941:
Life at present offers for my taste a damn sight too little active pleasure to set against the unaccustomed displeasure of work—what with friends scattered & busy, & the lack of petrol, & the shortage & monotony of food & drink, & now the beastly long blackouts creeping in again. Everything seems reduced to a vast, drab boringness.
Change a few minor details—swap rationing for quarantine and isolation, for example—and this could have been written only yesterday.
I’ve read some masterpieces on the period, Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s five-volume Cazalet Chronicles among them, but the one that mirrored the real-time realism of Brown’s Blitz Spirit most clearly was Bryher’s novel Beowulf, which its author wrote during the height of the relentless Nazi bombing raids on the British capital. “It is not difficult to write during a Blitz, there is nothing else to do, but merely uncomfortable,” she explained after the fact.
Although it was first published in France in 1946, and then in America in 1956, Beowulf is only now being made available in the UK, in a new edition recently published by Schaffner Press. In The Days of Mars: A Memoir, 1940–1946, Bryher describes her earlier book as “a documentary, not a novel, but an almost literal description of what I saw and heard during my first six months in London,” (Schaffner has given it a subtitle, A Novel of the London Blitz, perhaps to distinguish it from the significantly more famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same title). She arrived in the city at the end of September 1940, having reluctantly left her home in Switzerland, to rejoin her lover, the imagist poet H. D. In its commitment to verisimilitude, rather than that “golden glow” that Brown refers to, Beowulf is steeped in fear, danger, and, above all, absolute exhaustion. It’s the anti–Mrs. Miniver, if you will, which is precisely what made it unpublishable in postwar Britain. “The English refused to publish Beowulf,” Bryher explains in The Days of Mars, “they had had enough of war.” Yet reading the book today, it feels urgent and absorbing. Despite the glaring differences between a nation at war and one fighting a deadly virus, Beowulf makes for especially timely reading right now, proof of a surprising number of similarities, parallels, and echoes between the past and the present.
The book takes its title from the name that one of its protagonists, Angelina, gives a plaster statuette of a British bulldog—“almost life size, with a piratical scowl painted on his black muzzle”—that she buys in a salvage sale. She displays the bulldog in pride of place in the Warming Pan, the London tea shop that she runs with her friend Selina. This small, rather inconspicuous establishment, with its now “stinted and miserly” supply of cakes, is the hub around which the action of the novel takes place. It “fulfilled a need in the neighbourhood […] a cross between a village shop and the family doctor,” somewhere for people to meet a friend for a cup of tea, stop by for lunch during a day of shopping in town, where a shop girl can get a hot meal, or, in the case of Horatio Rashleigh—the elderly, impoverished painter who lives alone in a small, cold flat in the attic of the same building—just while away the long, lonely hours. The Warming Pan was a real tea shop, situated just around the corner from H. D.’s flat in Lowndes Square in London’s Belgravia, as were its proprietors. Bryher and H. D. frequented the Warming Pan for their meals, and they became extremely fond of the real-life Angelina and Selina, too. “My dear, dear Selina,” Bryher writes in The Days of Mars. “She was a symbol to me of the essential soul of England.” Beowulf, the ironically named bulldog statuette, takes on this role in the book: he stands in pride of place in the tearoom’s empty fireplace, a symbol of “common sense” and of the British people’s bulldog spirit, the tenacity and courage they display even during the country’s darkest hour.
Bryher and HD, Still from Kenneth Mcpherson’s film Borderline, 1930
Despite having published prolifically—Bryher’s work includes memoir, poetry, nonfiction, and novels—few of these volumes remain in print today. Instead, it is the author’s relationships with others for which she remains best known; as H. D.’s lover, but, more generally, for her association with other expat writers, artists, and intellectuals who made Paris their home in the twenties. She was friends with Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Sylvia Beach and her lover, Adrienne Monnier, who was also the proprietor of La Maison des Amis de Livres. (Beowulf is dedicated to Beach and Monnier.) Bryher had deep pockets—her father had made a fortune from his shipping business; on the occasion of his death in 1933, he was said to be the richest man in England—thus she acted as a generous patron to many other writers as well as publishing her own work.
Born Annie Winifred Ellerman in 1894, she later adopted the more androgynous-sounding Bryher, naming herself after her favorite of the Scilly Isles, that remote and beautiful archipelago off the Cornish coast. The wild isolation of these heath-covered islands spoke to her desire to reject convention, particularly its gendered norms. “Her one regret was that she was a girl,” explains Nancy, the protagonist of Development, the first of Bryher’s pioneering three-volume fictionalized autobiography—which continues in Two Selves and West—that details her gender dysphoria:
Never having played with any boys, she imagined them wonderful creatures, welded of her favourite heroes and her own fancy, ever seeking adventures […] She tried to forget, to escape any reference to being a girl, her knowledge of them being confined to one book read by accident, an impression they liked clothes and were afraid of getting dirty. She was sure if she hoped enough she would turn into a boy.
Bryher met H. D. in July 1918. From the get-go, theirs was an unconventional coupling. H. D., who was at the time married to Richard Aldington, was pregnant from an affair with the composer Cecil Gray, at whose Cornish home she’d fled to for comfort while Aldington pursued an adulterous affair of his own. As Susan McCabe explains in her introduction to the new edition of Beowulf, H. D. and Bryher “finessed their relationship by burying it in plain sight.” Bryher married Robert McAlmon in 1920, after which her father funded McAlmon’s Paris-based Contact Press, which published, among others, Joyce, Stein, Djuna Barnes, H. D., and Bryher during the twenties. Bryher divorced McAlmon in 1927, and married the filmmaker, photographer, and critic Kenneth Macpherson instead. Shortly after, the two of them legally adopted H. D. and Gray’s daughter, Perdita, whose care Bryher had been responsible for since her birth. Macpherson, meanwhile, was also H. D.’s sometime lover, and thus the four of them—Bryher, H. D., Macpherson and Perdita—forged a happy if unconventional family unit. Macpherson and Bryher built a house together in Switzerland, where Bryher remained after H. D. and Perdita returned to London in November 1939, after the outbreak of war. Bryher had begun to use her money and contacts to help Jewish refugees flee Europe as early as 1933, and she continued this work until she herself left Switzerland in 1940, making the arduous journey to London via Barcelona and Lisbon. She arrived at her partner’s flat at midday on September 28, while H. D. was out having lunch at the Warming Pan.
Beowulf recounts the happenings of a single day and night, and Bryher moves with ease among her assorted cast of characters, linked by their connection to the Warming Pan. There’s the rather pompous retired Colonel Ferguson, for example, who’s recently returned from living on the Continent, keen to get back into the fray and do his bit. There’s also the tea shop’s waitress, Ruby, who makes the long journey in from the East End, and then back again, by bus each day. The West End certainly suffered during the bombing, but it was London’s poorest neighborhoods—where the factories, the docks, and the workers were concentrated—that bore the brunt of the nightly assaults. As the bus that Ruby takes home draws closer to her destination, we’re told that the “air began to fill with the smell of wet dust and burnt brick that was peculiar to a badly bombed district.” Beowulf is full of similarly rich sensory detail, whether in Bryher’s description of the specific sights—“The sky was a soft velvet that flashes turned into a gala of exploding candles”—and sounds—“The noise was tremendous. It was not like thunder, it was angrier. Planes seemed to be directly overhead as if the whir of a mosquito had been magnified many times”—of an air raid, or her detailing of the aftermath. With its strange, spare, surrealist precision, this evocative description of Hyde Park echoes the wartime photos of Lee Miller: “A piece of parachute silk fluttered from a branch near the explosive circle of a new crater. Patches of grass were corroded as if by acid, a piece of broken railing stuck out of the earth.” Observing this barren, fragmented scene, Ferguson notes that the landscape has the “bare, haunted loneliness of the moors in Lear; only a fretful succession of necessary acts, eating, sleeping, getting warm, differentiated life from nightmare.”
This—the nightmarish reality of life during the Blitz—is something the book comes back to again and again. McCabe comments that Bryher’s characters are “everyday Londoners who were not always able to ‘keep calm and carry on’ (as the posters instructed) during horrific threats and massive changes.” This supports Brown’s reflections on what she discovered in the MO Archive: “lives experienced by the minute and the day, not the week or the year.” It’s surely no coincidence that Bryher chose to limit her portrait of the city to a single twenty-four-hour period: the nightly possibility of death forced people to live moment by moment.
“In wartime it was impossible to be gay or brave for long,” writes Bryher with an honesty that’s rarely found quite so unvarnished in other fiction from this period. A thick seam of despair runs through Beowulf. As with the pandemic-related hardships of today, those who are suffering the most are those who’d already had it hardest before the crisis hit. Rashleigh, for example, is a “lonely old man,” without a penny to his name, thus the war makes his already uncomfortable life one of even more misery and suffering:
If one were seventy-six, every moment counted. There were no brave words about death except when one was young. Suppose he were too ailing, when it stopped, to go to the National Gallery again? […] It was dreary enough to be an old man and have no soul to comfort him without these fiendish noises and the Government cutting down his butter.
Selina, meanwhile, struggles with her own financial worries. Between rationing and the exodus of so many of their regulars, it isn’t easy keeping the Warming Pan in business. “There are worse things than war, she caught herself thinking,” in an effort not to dwell on life’s hardships, “though this, of course, was the result of war,” she realizes sagely.
Perhaps most interestingly, just as many of us today here in the UK where I live question our government’s apparently incompetent handling of the pandemic, Beowulf is seeded with complaints about the failures and fiascos of those in charge. What scant plot there is revolves around Angelina’s efforts to obtain eggs—or dried egg powder—for the Warming Pan’s kitchen. Bryher emphasizes the privations of rationing, something that in the popular collective consciousness is more often synonymous with images of ruddy-cheeked Britons digging for victory, their back gardens devoted to luscious vegetable patches. The reality, as it turns out, was rather different. “It was said in England that we gave the children in England an adequate diet but that was propaganda,” writes Bryher in The Days of Mars:
The ones I met were always hungry and their parents undernourished. Of course this is not the picture that was presented to the world but it comes from direct observation and was for me a depressing lesson; control the Press and other methods of influencing public opinion and a nation can be persuaded into believing whatever a government wishes.
The Londoners we meet in the pages of Beowulf aren’t all unquestioning patriots, they’re ordinary people who are suffering, uneasy and distrustful of many of the decisions the government has made on their behalf. The war is described as both “a manifestation of governmental incompetence,” and a “triumph of bad organization,” something that’s rendered the citizens of London, who diligently troop into their uncomfortable and often rather perilous shelters each night, “victims of a vast, destructive bureaucracy.” As Beowulf draws to a close, in the early morning aftermath of yet another violent air raid, the sighs of relief breathed by those who’ve survived the night (and not all have made it) aren’t a match for the utter fatigue everyone feels. As Bryher puts it in The Days of Mars, as the war crept on and everyone’s patience was tested, the grim reality was that everyone was “too exhausted to care whether or not we survived until the peace.” This is one aspect of Blitz spirit that we don’t often hear about. And to learn more about Bryher herself—whom McCabe describes as “a pioneer, a model of personal and cultural defiance”—is to realize that she really couldn’t have written Beowulf any other way than with such candid, unromantic truth-telling.
“It may be that it is the artist rather than the historian who has the vision to give certain moments of the national chronicle their full and terrible value,” writes Bryher in The Days of Mars. Beowulf is testament to this; its “small,” but “resounding,” story—as The New Yorker praised the book in September 1956—is a strikingly authentic account of the conflict that Bryher summed up as “long dreary days that are full of hardships rather than valor.”
Read earlier installments of Re-Covered here.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.
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