The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review Essay | New Editions from the Space Between | Recent Reissues from Handheld Press

Books Reviewed
Latchkey Ladies. By Marjorie Grant. Introduction by Sarah LeFanu. Handheld Press, 2022. 302 pp. £12.99 (paper).

Business as Usual. By Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford. Introduction by Kate Macdonald. Handheld Press, 2020. 242 pp. £12.99 (paper).

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry. By Margaret Kennedy. Introduction by Faye Hammill. Handheld Press, 2021. 201 pp. £12.99 (paper).

Reviewed by Geneviève Brassard, University of Portland

We like to think we live in more enlightened times than our not-so-distant ancestors—that progress happens in a consistently linear fashion, and that reading texts from the first half of the twentieth century offers today’s readers the satisfied impression of having surpassed obstacles previously life-altering or even life-threatening. Reading about the stigma attached to out-of-wedlock pregnancies or the psychological impact of wartime displacement, however, provokes a different response in 2023. History’s cyclical nature reminds us that where some progress toward equal rights and peaceful cooperation among nations has occurred, reading literature from the wartime and interwar periods has much to teach us about uncanny affinities and uncomfortable continuities between those eras and ours.

The recovery of forgotten or out-of-print texts by marginalized authors has been at the center of laudable efforts by publishers, from Virago Press (now celebrating its 50th anniversary), through Persephone Books (est. 1999), and more recently McNally Editions (est. 2021). British publishing house Handheld Press, now in its sixth year, and in the capable hands of self-styled recovering academic Kate Macdonald, consistently produces attractive editions of primarily out-of-print British fiction and non-fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, marketed to both scholarly and general audiences. This dual focus comes naturally to Macdonald, who combines extensive experience in the publishing trade with research expertise in early twentieth-century literary culture. Publishing these titles involves a fair amount of sleuthing to track down copyright ownership, and Macdonald, in a July 2023 interview on Zoom, explained that she privileges accessible and entertaining narratives. She seeks “stories that stay with me.” Each volume includes a helpful apparatus for readers who might be unfamiliar with a book’s historical or cultural context, commissioned introductions by experts, and extensive notes compiled by Macdonald. Eye-catching cover art sets Handheld Press titles apart, thanks to research into picture libraries and collaboration with gifted freelance designer Nadja Guggi. Macdonald’s discerning and wide-ranging taste (spanning from supernatural tales to middlebrow fiction, and including the occasional nineteenth-century or post-1945 novel) results in a rich crop of material with both popular and scholarly appeal.

The three Handheld Press titles—two novels and a memoir—under review form an overview of women’s lives at pivotal moments of early twentieth-century British history, with compelling narratives of ordinary lives disrupted by larger events or by rigid social expectations around gender. Marjorie Grant’s Latchkey Ladies (1921), Jane Oliver and Mary Stafford’s Business as Usual (1933), and Margaret Kennedy’s Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941) capture in distinct ways the changing lives of primarily middle-class women during and immediately following World War I, during the early 1930s economic slump, and in the summer preceding the Blitz.

Latchkey Ladies features an ensemble cast of characters ranging from down-at-heel spinsters to young women receiving favors from well-off male suitors. But its emotional core belongs to Anne Carey, a principled office clerk driven to quit her post by boredom and disgust at the government office’s dysfunction. After her fiancé is killed at the front, she embarks on a love affair with a married man, playwright Philip Dampier, following a first kiss during an air raid. Grant describes her protagonist’s thoughts and actions almost clinically, without sentimentalism or judgment, and with more than a hint of empathy for the unfair treatment of women in Anne’s predicament. When the affair leads to an unwanted pregnancy, Grant stages a series of scenes highlighting the judgmental stance of key figures in Anne’s immediate orbit. For Anne, and many single women in her social circle, economic hardship is inescapable except through marriage; as Sarah LeFanu aptly puts it in her engaging introduction, “Latchkey Ladies is constantly alert to the absence or presence of money” (xv). While marriage offers the possibility of stability and security, Grant also leaves her readers with a sense of ambivalence toward the institution, and the uneasy compromises required whether a woman remains single or accepts a marriage proposal.

Latchkey Ladies’ unwanted pregnancy plot is picked up in Oliver and Stafford’s Business as Usual, albeit less centrally. In this 1933 novel, a secondary character seeks advice from the protagonist, Hilary Fane, when she finds herself pregnant. Hilary’s pragmatic reaction, and her efforts to provide support for her co-worker, demonstrate her open-mindedness and lead to a pivotal moment in this year-long chronicle of the tribulations of a department store employee. Oliver and Stafford, who collaborated on four titles in the 1930s before separating for prolific solo careers, sharply contrast Hilary’s judgmental fiancé and her supportive boss Mr. Grant, with whom she has been conducting a mild flirtation via office memos. Their opposing reactions to Hilary’s pleas for assistance on her co-worker’s behalf lead to a broken engagement and the affirmation of the office romance. The pleasures of Business as Usual include its clever form (it is entirely made up of Hilary’s letters home, inter-office memos, and witty illustrations), its light but sharp tone, and its overlapping themes of women’s independence and workplace pettiness.

Further, the broken engagements featured in both Latchkey Ladies and Business as Usual emphasize the authors’ interest in questioning the status quo for young women in interwar Britain, even and especially at a time when women outnumbered men, and different models for living were not only a matter of choice but also necessary. Moreover, both novels suggest the importance of choosing the right mate, not just the expected one, foregrounding urban life as fertile ground for discovering romantic options. The books differ in their conclusions, with Latchkey Ladies ending more ambiguously for Anne, while Business as Usual concludes on a cheerful note of happy matrimonial prospects for Hilary.

Kennedy, the better-known writer of this group and the best-selling author of The Constant Nymph (1924), evacuated to Cornwall with her children in May 1940 and kept a detailed journal of the experience. Although the journal was initially for personal use, Kennedy eventually revised it for publication in the United States in 1941 as Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry. While this memoir bears little resemblance to the other two titles in terms of setting or themes, Kennedy’s distinctive voice, sharp observations, and unvarnished political opinions elevate what could have been a mere historical account into a significant contribution to life-writing as a distinct literary genre. Her first-person narrative captures what it feels like to live in extraordinary times, and her snapshots of village life among evacuees reflect the sense of suspended animation many Britons felt between Dunkirk and the beginning of the Blitz, when fears of invasions and gas attacks, whether outlandish rumors or real panics, affected civilians of all ages and social positions. Like Grant and the Business as Usual co-authors, Kennedy keenly observes how women tackle challenging situations, how adversities affect emotional well-being, and how ultimately resourceful and resilient women can be without a clearly defined script to follow.

All three titles succeed not only on their own terms but also within well-defined generic parameters (respectively single-woman Bildungsroman, office romantic comedy, and civilian war diary). Each book also packs significant punch as social critique. Latchkey Ladies is especially noteworthy for its attention to class gradations and the hardships of financially precarious women existing on the margins of the marriage plot. Business as Usual, for all its surface charm, witty humor, and cleverness, draws a fairly bleak portrait of modern workplace alienation, with its absurd bureaucracy and petty inter-office rivalries. Protagonist Hilary Fane is squashed by the daily tedium and demanding routine of the capitalist machine. Kennedy’s narrative honestly confronts the heart-rending dilemmas of civilians facing danger, including whether to send children away for the war’s duration, and the real class privilege undergirding such decisions.

Latchkey Ladies, Business as Usual, and Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry have much to teach us about their specific historical moments, while also reminding us that human virtues and failings remain constant across time and place. Any of these titles would greatly enhance a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, from historical surveys to specialized gender studies classes, and their scholarly apparatus makes them especially accessible to twenty-first-century students who might think, erroneously, that they have little to learn from the distant lives evoked in these narratives.

This page has paths: