The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War

The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War. By Lara Feigel. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 519 pp. $24.99 paper. 

Reviewed by Paula Derdiger, University of Minnesota-Duluth

Lara Feigel’s exhaustively researched The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War aims to illuminate the experience of the war through the lives and writings of four major British literary figures: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, and Henry Yorke (Henry Green). To this list she adds the Austrian writer Hilde Spiel, who fled from the Nazis with her family to settle in London, where her career as a writer began—notably in English as opposed to German. Feigel clarifies from the start that she chose these writers simply for their confluence in London during the war, and she notes that “They were of different ages and nationalities and did not form a clear coterie in the manner of the First World War poets or of 1920s Bloomsbury” (7). Her goal appears to be to write a book that literalizes Bowen’s 1953 observation about her contemporaries: that they were “the only non-groupy generation . . . seeing each other without being a group” (qtd. in Feigel 7). Indeed, what emerges through Feigel’s combination of biography, literary criticism, and military and political history is a distinctly “non-groupy group” defined not by political manifestos, explicit aesthetic commitments, or even regular meetings, but by the Second World War itself.

Day-to-day wartime life is the common ground that connects Feigel’s five writers, and the structure of the book prioritizes this historical experience. Instead of taking up one writer at a time, the book unfolds chronologically through the major phases of the war and immediate postwar period, from the Blitz to the emergence of the mid-century welfare state, and it moves freely among the different writers and their work. Through letters, diaries, and fiction, readers get to know how these writers perceived and responded to the dangers of the Blitz: Bowen and Greene as air raid wardens, Macaulay as an ambulance driver, Yorke as a firefighter, and all five as civilians. Readers are acquainted with Bowen’s complex spy work in Ireland for the Ministry of Information, Greene’s work with MI5 in West Africa, Macaulay’s struggle with pacifism, and Spiel’s fraught relationship with both her native Austria and her adopted home in England. The many threads introduced in the book intersect through the changing tempo of the times: from the intense—and, for Bowen, Greene, and Yorke, often exhilarating—threat of physical danger, to despair (especially for Macaulay, who lost her most cherished books and letters when her house was destroyed in the Blitz), to prolonged stretches of boredom and apathy (notably for Spiel, who found life in suburban Wimbledon to be dreary and often alienating). As the title of the book, taken from Greene’s wartime diary, suggests, one of the recurring motifs throughout the highs and lows of the war was love and its discontents. Indeed, much of the book focuses on this subject, suggesting frequently that everything else, from politics to prose, was colored primarily by affairs of the heart.

The Love-Charm of Bombs has a number of strengths and several basic limitations. Most significantly, Feigel has thoroughly plumbed the archives of these five writers, dealing with all manner of written material: letters, diaries, essays, and reviews. For Bowen, Greene, Macaulay, and Yorke, this archival work builds on an already substantial body of published primary sources and biographies. Feigel does include primary material from the most important recently published collections, such as Allan Hepburn’s edited volumes of Bowen’s essays, People, Places, Things (2008), and of her broadcasts, Listening In (2010), but much of the biography for these three writers is borrowed as opposed to offering a new critical intervention. 

Feigel’s choice to consider Hilde Spiel within this literary constellation is a notable and significant contribution. Bowen, Greene, and Yorke have received substantial scholarly attention in general and in relation to the Second World War in particular; Spiel is comparatively neglected; her memoirs have been published, but she does not yet have a published biography. As a foreigner and exile who was, in many ways, on the fringes of wartime literary London, Spiel offers a perspective that gives readers a more dynamic and diverse understanding of the London scene and the broader context of postwar Europe. Feigel explains her choice to include Spiel as offering 

a counterpoint to the more exalted lives of the other four protagonists; a reminder of the gloomy and often horrific reality of the war years and of the fact that the main events of the war took place outside London. [ . . . ] It was only after the war that Spiel came into her own and that the roles of the five writers were reversed. Bowen, Greene and Yorke all had a good war but a bad peace. Spiel, on the other hand, had the most exciting time of her life in post-war Berlin and Vienna, where she was sent as an Allied press officer.

Feigel’s attention to this “reversal” allows her to make another contribution in terms of periodization. By extending the timeframe of the book into the mid-1950s, she emphasizes both the war and postwar recovery as vital moments in literary history, a valuable rejoinder to the proliferation of biographical work on the Bloomsbury Group as central to twentieth-century literature and culture.

The loose, fluid structure of the book is mainly a virtue. It lets each writer emerge distinct from the “non-groupy group” but also highlights their shared responses to wartime; Feigel does not force connections among the writers that were not really there. The loose structure also allows for illuminating cameos by other writers and cultural figures—including Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann, John Lehmann, Storm Jameson, and Anthony Poole—who are important to Feigel’s story but do not directly connect all five of the main subjects. While some scholars who are already familiar with World War II scholarship may read the loose structure as disconnection and a failure to tie together the various strands in a more critically, as opposed to popularly, convincing way, these tangential appearances help to show how literary and cultural life in wartime London was vast, complex, and far from rigidly circumscribed. 

The loose grouping does become potentially problematic in terms of genre: while there is much to be said for biographical criticism, Feigel’s movements among biography, archive, and criticism frequently results in a weakening of all three; in other words, the book sacrifices depth for breadth, and not always to its credit. For example, Feigel often assumes, without direct acknowledgment, that fictional characters or narrators and actual people are one and the same, as when she maps Bowen’s relationship with Charles Ritchie onto the characters of Stella and Robert in The Heat of the Day. Occasionally she justifies this kind of reading, but more often than not, it feels like a less-than-careful slippage serving to establish that love and romantic relationships were the primary concerns for these writers. This emphasis on love is somewhat warranted, given the supporting documentation from the writers’ archives and fiction, but it can also be said that Feigel’s book sometimes feels more committed to revealing intimate details than to rigorous criticism. The scholarly value of the book is limited for these reasons, but also because much of its material has been covered previously (sections on Spiel are notable exceptions), and its criticism is not as rigorous as that to be found in scholarly treatments of the war and these writers.

On the whole, Lara Feigel has written a richly layered and readable book that emphasizes the effect of the Second World War on its subjects both as writers and human beings. Published by Bloomsbury Press, the book has an audience that extends beyond academia to the general public, and it is most successful as a popular book that tells a compelling story, one which Feigel argues somewhat troublingly “remains to be told” (3). Indeed, these writers’ wartime stories have been told, but not in such a popular register and not in concert. The popular style makes Feigel’s book accessible and often exciting, and for scholars and students beginning research on wartime literature, it will be both a useful and enjoyable starting point. Its range of archival material helpfully points to avenues for additional, more in-depth critical work, and it creates a provocative set of connections among the five writers that will surely be taken up more thoroughly in future projects.

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