I've discovered an excellent collection of short stories hiding on my bookshelves. Heaven knows when I bought this, and I forgot I even had it, but it fits in perfectly with the sorts of books I've been reading lately. Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War edited by Anne Boston has a very Persephone Books look about it (am thinking of their new Persephone Classics). It is chock full of stories by excellent women authors: Beryl Bainbridge, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamund Lehmann, Doris Lessing, Rose Macaulay, Olivia Manning, Dorothy Parker, Babara Pym, Jean Rhys, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sylvia Townsend Warner to name just some of them. I've already decided I'm going to read the entire collection.
The stories are arranged chronologically (between 1939-1949) according to the events they describe and to a lesser extent the year they were written. The collection was first published by Virago roughly fifty years after the war was declared (I have a 1989 US Penguin edition). The anthology is meant to look at short stories written by women "when war was a way of life; for among the literature of guns and tanks and battle stratagems, their voices are too easily forgotten or ignored."
Happily for me this collection has an excellent introduction as well as biographies of the authors at the back of the book detailing (when possible) what the author's "wartime circumstances" were. It's made up mostly of British authors as well as a few Americans, though nothing by authors from Australia or New Zealand, though apparently the editor did try and track some down, but to no avail. I thought it was interesting to see how she went about choosing the stories.
"The best short-story writing, of course, is much more than the proverbial 'slice of life'; what turns it into art is the imaginative tension between surface, exterior events and the silent reality beneath; the dramatic insight implicit in the descriptive truth."
However, to balance things out she also chose authenticity over polished prose as "everyday human experience in wartime could be so extraordinary that it hardly needed to be embellished in fiction." Each story needed to have a vivid glimpse of these years during the war--not only the outward circumstances but also how people felt and thought during this period.
I read the first two very short stories that open this collection, but can I just quote one more passage from the introduction which I found so interesting, before mentioning the individual stories. In researching for this collection the editor describes this experience:
"I turned eagerly to Horizon, the leading wartime literary journal as the first source for this anthology, only to be rebuffed by its editor Cyril Connelly's celebrated denunciation of experiences connected with the Blitz, the shopping queues, the home front, deserted wives, deceived husbands, broken homes, dull jobs, bad schools, group squabbles...' as too close to ordinary life to be worth recording. Apart from revealing Connelly's disenchantment with his own civilian circumstances, his statement shows how easily it was (and is) to dismiss at a stroke virtually every aspect of women's lives as subjects worth writing about, especially the domestic and personal areas where women writers tend to excel."
I expect these stories to concern themselves particularly with that domestic sphere. In Rosamund Lehmann's story, "When the Waters Came", war is only in the background. It's given a cursory mention at the beginning of the story, but it still looms over the events Lehmann goes on to describe. The young men enduring the desperate conditions of war verged on the unreal, "as objects of pity frequently remain." The cold, the awful plumbing were the things that were foremost on most people's minds. When a freak snowstorm hits a small village it delights and discommodes everyone including a mother and her two young children.
""The children ran in with handfuls of things from the garden. Every natural object had become a toy: twigs, stones, blades of grass cased in tubes of ice. They broke up the moulds, and inside were the smooth grooved prints of stems and leaves: a miracle."
When the thaw comes however, torrents of brown snow-water violently pour down the hills into the valley. When one of the children is nearly swept away and drowned, a mother must contend with a near-disaster of her own.
Jan Strutter's "Gas Masks" is a very short story that describes one family's trip to the Town Hall to get fitted for gas masks. I believe this story was taken from her book of sketches, Mrs Miniver. As it is a change from routine the family looks on it with a small sense of excitement. Mrs Miniver recalls being a very young woman in the First World War and having been shut out of any knowledge of the War except the lunacy of the boycotting (down to the tiny puppies of a Dachshund).
"But this time those lunacies--or rather, the outlook which bred them--must not be allowed to come into being. To guard against that was the most important of all the forms of war work which she and other women would have to do: there are no tangible gas masks to defend us in wartime against its slow, yellow, drifting corruption of mind."
An interesting and patriotic story that gives the reader a sense of the stiff upper lip of the matron of this family.
I wish all short story anthologies were put together as nicely as this one is. It should be a pleasure to work my way through it!