Shuttling between London and the secluded village of ‘Eldbury’ in the early part of the Second World War, this novel concerns the plight of a single family as they retreat to the relative safety of the countryside, while outside events develop and gradually begin to impinge on their lives. References to the previous war, together with reflections on the ‘progress’ (or not) achieved in the intervening years, abound in the early chapters, while the contemporary conflict is kept somewhat at arm’s length, possibly (one suspects) because the author is still in the process of deciding how she wishes to approach it. The descriptions of a series of watercolour sketches by artist, Lynne Farron (daughter of family matriarch, Mabel: ‘Large figure, large voice, large manner’) do, however, provide an interesting and subtly self-reflexive view of the capital in time of war:
The first was a small canvas. It was Regent Street on a brisk winter’s day. A Regent Street that in its suggestion of movement and colour might have been pre-war, and yet was not, because of the small shop-windows within those windows that now were no more, and just in the middle distance a shadowy gap like a rent in the lovely fabric of a garment.
Her next little impression was of the bombed London terminus where she had arrived. Its glass roof open to the sky, workmen removing debris from a crater on the one hand and on the other the usual stream of passengers hurrying and taking no notice.
Here Tremayne implies a ‘before and after’ vision, while at the same time gently suggesting how the pre-war epoch – and indeed the fabric of the city itself – survives in memory where it has been destroyed in actuality. What is interesting here, I think, is the way in which Tremayne chooses to present war-time London indirectly, not in terms of a ‘realistic’ portrayal (as much writing of the period does) but through the visual imagination of the character, thus touching on the problem of ‘making real’ what was for many a profoundly unreal situation.
That said, perhaps more needed to be done more generally to bring alive and make real for the reader the particular dramas between the characters. There is no shortage of witty asides and trenchant insights (several of which are courtesy of ‘old’ Cyrinda Hoyle: ‘”Speed, pleasure, and palliatives – and now at last another war!”)) but there is perhaps less in the way of genuine emotional investment. Moreover, the extent to which these characters and their situations are ‘representative’ of the broader plight of the nation is certainly debatable. That the novel ostensibly offers itself as an account of how ‘ordinary’ men and women went on with their lives in spite of the war means that this can be a problem. At times the novel reads more like an account of the lives of a group of privileged souls lucky enough by dint of circumstance to have remained, for the most part, relatively unscathed by the century’s second global cataclysm. Indeed, it seems telling that the Great War is recalled at times in near-nostalgic terms (though this perhaps speaks as much of the fact that almost anything can be regarded with nostalgia so long as it is indeed past). Tremayne also suggests an almost sensationalistic craving for the violent spectacle of the blitz (evidenced, for example, by the palpable sense of disappointment at the lack of damage created by a German bomb accidentally dropped just outside of the village).
The sense of war as vicarious experience is dispelled somewhat at the end of the novel, however, when seeming enemy sympathiser Timothy unwittingly ends up shooting and killing actual enemy spy, Tino Mendoza (who has threatened the former’s sister, dancer Roselie). That this event proves something of a revelatory moment is clear (‘”you did it instinctively to save something of your own blood and kin. And it’s the same instinct that urges a whole nation of men to fight for its life…”‘), however one does feel it comes a little too late in the day to allow the author to make the most of its significance within the wider scheme of the novel. Such would have enabled the fuller exploration of themes suggested throughout but which remain only partly realised.