The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Long Shadows:  The Second World War in British Fiction and Film

Long Shadows: The Second World War in British Fiction and Film. Edited by Petra Rau. Northwestern University Press, 2016. vii + 305 pp. $34.95 (ebook and paper); $99.95 (cloth)

Reviewed by Ravenel Richardson, Case Western Reserve University.

Petra Rau’s edited collection Long Shadows: The Second World War in British Fiction and Film interrogates how the Second World War has “developed such longevity” in British cultural memory and “retained such presence in contemporary culture” (Rau 3). A wide-ranging overview of the multiple registers and dislocations of the Second World War in British culture and popular memory, Long Shadows covers an astounding amount of territory with nuance and insight. Each essay, while primarily focused on literary and film analysis, is strengthened by historical context drawn from a plethora of sources including Mass Observation reports and diaries, wartime propaganda, military records, journalism, records of humanitarian organizations, government legislation, radio broadcasts, urban planning documents, intelligence reports, and political pamphlets. Read alongside one another, these essays demonstrate that the dominant British cultural memory of Britain “standing alone” at its supposed “finest hour” has always been unstable, and predicated on overwriting and eliding narratives that threaten to dislodge its potency. This collection intervenes in the field of Second World War studies in Britain to examine the “varieties of forgetting” (Vice 264) employed by the British public and government alongside the “blind spots” of British cultural memories of the war, often characterized by moral ambiguity, which more contemporary film and literature are starting to examine (Rau 25). Richard Farmer argues that “memories are not formed in closed systems” but are constantly reshaped by current historical contexts, a point continually underscored by the essays in this collection (76). New readings of canonical works interwoven with analyses of lesser known or hitherto ignored texts and films reveal the significance of the ever-shifting context of cultural production and its reception. Together, they signal how the myth of Britain’s stoic “bearing up” during “the War” has been marshaled and challenged across time to varying effects and with varying political consequences.

This collection complicates the notion of a universal British war experience or subjectivity, conveying the trauma, anxiety, de-individuation, and dehumanization experienced by British civilians and soldiers during and after the war. Allan Hepburn examines the case of traumatized and destitute children, who were hypocritically utilized for the purposes of war propaganda then largely ignored by the British public following the war. He argues that their absence in postwar fiction and film signals cultural anxiety around the massive losses of war, such as the loss of one’s entire family or future, losses that cannot be recuperated. Paula Derdiger highlights the permanent loss of individual privacy and property instituted by the Second World War, demonstrating that the realist representations in mid-century literatures of permanent homes under siege reveal the period of British reconstruction as a time of “unfulfilled promises and neglect” alongside its traditionally heralded transformation (147). Perhaps the collection’s most salient dismantling is of stoicism, (bearing up, the celebrated stiff upper lip), which is revealed to be either posturing or repression. The absence of affect is interpreted differently. For Gill Plain, literature of the 1940s—previously interpreted as “light fiction,” and characterized by avoidance—is better understood as a “literature of exhaustion” evoking a civilian experience blunted by trauma and war weariness (33). In her analysis of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude, Eluned Summer-Bremner argues that a lack of affect indicated an “absence of felt communal meaning” at best, and British civilians repressing violent hatreds that would eventually find destructive outlets at worst. This collection continually underscores Plain’s assertion that the anxieties and uncertainties of postwar Britain led the demoralized public to convince themselves that the sacrifices demanded of them by the state or war emergency were worth it (39).

As Victoria Stewart notes, while self-censorship haunts postwar literature and fiction, more contemporary cultural production displays a “franker” wartime experience than its mid-century counterparts (237). Through an examination of fictional treatments of war correspondence Stewart shows that war letters, widely conceived as largely private and ameliorative, are in fact an example of the gulf between men’s and women’s experiences of the war that signal “an increased awareness of the ways in which war invaded individuals’ privacy” (238). Contemporary fiction and film, while at a remove from direct temporal and often authorial connections to war available in mid-century literature, self-reflexively questions memory and representation in ways that show how the war has been “misremembered and misrepresented even by those who actively participated in it” (Perfect 244). As this study shows, such works are not interested in portraying veterans simply as heroes, but as more complex figures who could be morally questionable, traumatized, and racist. Rau argues that such works convey that “war turns living men—even the survivors—into the already dead” (213), while Michael Perfect suggests that works written from a postcolonial position examine how the powers, such as Britain, who led the fight against Nazi racist ideology, were racist themselves (252). Margaret Stetz’s essay on women’s Holocaust memoirs draws attention to the stories of war and postwar experience that continue to be minimized and ignored in Britain by using the example of women’s discussions of clothing, an “important carrier of both individual and communal identity,” which critics have shunned for not treating the war “with the serious and solemnity of historians” (300).

As Rau posits, there are, in fact, no “sharp moral lines” when we are discussing war and the legitimization of violence and mass surveillance (12). Elizabeth Maslen underscores this statement, demonstrating how Storm Jameson’s work shows that “boundaries of justice and vengeance were all too often crossed” (162). Jameson visited Warsaw and Prague in the fall of 1945, where she was haunted by the suffering and “propensity for cruelty within humankind as a whole” that she witnessed in the prison camps and bombed-out ruins (162). Jameson’s literary responses to the war, which addressed European civilian “brutalization”—even towards Germans at the hands of the British—is a striking example of the limit case of what British audiences and academics will give their attention (156). Jameson’s work, which continually argues that the Second World War was a “betrayal of humanism” and impoverishment of “cultural and moral values” in which Britain had a share, was immediately censored by publishers, shunned by the reading public, and continues to be ignored by academics despite its value and importance (156, 169). Adam Piette’s analysis of espionage fiction argues that its writers—many of whom worked in intelligence—used the genre to convey their fears that the moral bankruptcy and ruthlessness at the heart of fascism had merely taken a new form—even in Britain—in the Cold War era. This inheritance, both “material-technological and discursive,” includes unchecked capitalism, sanctioned surveillance states, weaponized bureaucracies, killing technologies, and lowered humanitarian thresholds (194). These fictional examinations culminate in the uneasy anxiety that “although the war is over, the world is not safer”; the legacy of the Second World War was an extraordinary inheritance of, and even inurement to, wartime violence (Rau 215).

On a representational level, this collection continually emphasizes Stewart’s claim that “the divide between fact and fiction is not an absolute one” (234). This blurring of boundaries arises partly from the practical fact that many of the authors discussed (such as Taylor, Jameson, Spark, and LeCarré) lived through the war themselves and were revisiting, and I would argue working through, aspects of their own war experience in their fiction. Sue Vice explores the more pernicious side of fictionalizing history, quoting a protagonist whose statement “what I like most about history is that you can change it,” reverberates through the volume (272). Such manipulations are high-stakes propositions when they involve deliberately hiding troubling histories such as the Channel Islanders “pragmatic and moral accommodations” with their Nazi occupiers, accommodations which significantly muddy the waters of Britain’s supposed moral exceptionalism during the war (Vice 264).

Two strengths of this collection include its unusually balanced examination of works produced by men and women, and its continual gesturing towards continental war experiences that effectively de-centers the monolithic British narrative. The latter falls short in one regard: its failure to compare British and German civilian responses and memorializations of their respective bombings, a comparison that is ripe for analysis. As Rau notes, “Overwriting bombing with being bombed in the hegemonic commemoration of the Blitz” has been a hallmark of British cultural memory of the war (206). While this is certainly true, and while I agree the British bombing campaign disproportionately affected civilians and demonstrated lowered moral and ethical thresholds, I think it’s important to note that British displacement of accountability with victimization was not an isolated phenomenon; it was also undertaken by the Germans to much more problematic effect. Not only did the Germans justify their bombing campaign in terms of retribution and self-defense, but historians such as Peter Fritzsche (Life and Death in the Third Reich, 2008) and Dietmar Süss (Death from the Skies: How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II, 2011) have shown how Germans’ postwar emphases on their own victimization through aerial bombing has precluded them from taking responsibility for the unprecedented civilian devastation wreaked by a war and genocide they started for imperialist gains.
The British state certainly gained more advantages from their role in the Second World War than the average individual, and consequently the British government has always had a stake in convincing its citizens that national gains in political capital was worth their significant personal losses. Long Shadows highlights fictional representations of war experiences and affective responses that have not been registered in cultural memory of “the War,” and in so doing provides a more nuanced picture of how the British population “endured” the war and its immediate aftermath. It demonstrates the self-censoring of those experiences in mid-century literature, alongside more contemporary cultural productions which examine the lacunae in Britain’s narrative of stoicism and of national and moral exceptionalism. Such nuanced interpretations and representations of the wide range of British war experiences aside, the question remains whether the rediscovery of “neglected aspects of the war” has been meaningfully integrated into British cultural memory (Rau 13). The power of the overarching myth of British exceptionalism and unity vis à vis Europe is still potent, and as Brexit has demonstrated can still be handily and expediently mobilized and tailored to current political agendas. In this way, this collection is a timely read, as the impending fallout from the Brexit mobilization of Britain’s mythical “standing alone” is likely to be one from which Britain never recovers.


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