Reviewed by Judy Suh, Duquesne University
This volume features Second World War fiction and nonfiction writing by the documentary realist author Inez Holden, whose unique voice and focus on class and gender in modern Britain deserve more attention in our own time. Blitz Writing contains Holden’s 1941 novel Night Shift and her diary from 1938 to 1941, entitled It Was Different at the Time, originally published in 1943. Well-regarded as a writer in the 1940s by her many famous literary colleagues and friends, including Stevie Smith, George Orwell, Anthony Powell, and H.G. Wells, and at times even featured as a charismatic character in their works, Holden has undergone a recent revival in literary critical discussions led by Kristin Bluemel, the editor of this volume.
Extended discussion of Holden appears in Bluemel’s monograph, Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain (2009), a work that has been crucial for foregrounding a fascinating array of politically active modern British authors in that period. In Blitz Writing, Bluemel’s endnotes illuminate Holden’s allusions, and her introduction situates Holden’s biography and career in various professional networks and literary movements. These contexts reveal Holden’s contributions to the writing of her time, the evolution of her style and writerly focus, and her innovations in representing wartime Britain. Bluemel’s approach usefully highlights Holden’s development from a “bohemian adventuress and party girl” to “the politicised identity of socialist writer” to help readers appreciate the value of Holden’s wartime perceptions and observations (xviii).
The novel Night Shift takes place over the course of about a week during the Blitz and is told from the first-person perspective of a factory worker at a military equipment manufacturing plant. With a conspicuous lack of plot, the narrative is composed of a chapter per day for six days. This quotidian focus enables detailed descriptions of interactions and dialogues between the narrator’s fellow workers at the plant. Many of these conversations—ranging in tone from solace and camaraderie to palpable tension and deep conflict—contribute to the overall sense of how significant relationships between workers and between strangers are in the midst of war. Holden’s narrator repeatedly points to dialogue as a resource for individuals and groups alike: “there’ll always be a conversation” (13). The novel draws many sensitive psychological portraits of workers coping as individuals and collectives in traumatic conditions.
The portrait of wartime England that emerges in these dialogues across both the novel and diary is fascinating, particularly in the variety of workers’ attitudes towards the official directives and myths of war, some of which persist in our own time. For instance, when one worker named Mrs. Lloyd declares that “We have to work to produce the arms for the airplanes to fight the Nazis,” her coworkers recoil from her since “there was a convention against easy heroical talk and pat-off patriotism in the workshop” (74). As Bluemel notes, Holden’s wartime writing offers a “quiet vision of a more just, more egalitarian Britain emerging from the noise of total war” (xviii). But Holden’s own limitations in imagining a more egalitarian nation appear in her characterization of Mrs. Lloyd as she is doubly othered as foreign—a “Spanish worker” (23), and, to the narrator, a worker reminiscent of a “sloe-eyed girl” rolling “chop sticks . . . with her black hair scraped back, her skin, which looked yellow . . . she had the appearance of a native at work” (73). Such dehumanizing colonial perspectives cut into the novel’s ability to imagine the British working classes that would emerge after the war. Nonetheless, in the diary, Holden provides an unusual record of multiracial England, usually whitewashed even in contemporary documentary accounts. The sketches of African and Asian patients, students, and doctors are notable for the historical record they provide of nonwhite communities in midcentury England.
It Was Different at the Time begins in the year before the war but, even from the beginning, Holden’s observations are attuned to preparations for and developing attitudes towards the coming war. As the diary unfolds, through her many jobs as a hospital worker, Red Cross volunteer, factory worker, and BBC journalist, Holden captures the shifting discourse of sexuality, gender, and class in a variety of workplaces and from an array of class positions. Her strength lies in providing a broad view of English women in the midst of changing work conditions, which include attempts to undercut women’s wages by exploitative factory owners, condemned in the diary as “dangerous saboteurs” (181). Labor conditions for women are also repeatedly featured in Night Shift, as are signs of a social revolution in gender and sexual attitudes. The novel carefully explores new possibilities for women in meaningful snapshots of minor characters such as an unmarried woman working as a clerk in the factory, proudly expecting a child.
For the university classroom, either work could be fruitfully taught alongside contemporary historical novels that explore this period, such as Small Island by Andrea Levy, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, or Atonement by Ian McEwan, to deliver a highly pertinent unit on modern women’s lives and working conditions during the war. Blitz Writing reintroduces the work of an important socialist writer to the always growing body of World War II scholarship, as well.