Phyllis Lassner’s latest work, British Women Writers of World War II, follows Karen Schneider’s Loving Arms, Gill Plain’s Women’s Fiction of the Second World War, and Janet Montefiore’s Men and Women Writers of the 1930s in the process of recovering the works of significant British women writers of the 1930s and 1940s, works neglected by the dominance of the so-called “Auden Generation” in the twentieth-century British literary canon. In terms of the number of authors examined, Lassner is considerably more ambitious than her recent predecessors, though there is some overlap. Of the more than twenty women authors Lassner discusses, the key figures include Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Stevie Smith, Dorothy Sayers, Ethel Mannin, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison, Vita Sackville-West, Katharine Burdekin, Elizabeth Gouge, Elizabeth Bowen, Marguerite Steen, Lettice Cooper, Betty Miller, Elizabeth Taylor, Phyllis Bottome, and Olivia Manning. Of these authors, Jameson and Mitchison receive the most extensive discussion. By addressing this many authors, Lassner sacrifices depth for breadth, but the study does present a broad range of women writers’ responses to the war, and such variety will do well to break down any persisting stereotypes of a unified feminist attitude toward war.
As with Schneider and Plain, Lassner is working against the stereotype of a uniform antiwar pacifism shared by all women: “that all [End Page 1024] wars are wrong and that they destroy women’s culture.” Also at work here is a rejection of the assessment of World War II British fiction as expressed by Salman Rushdie—that England did not create a great literary legacy of the war, and that such an absence represents a blinding nostalgia and an inability to face the changes of contemporary England.
Rather than finding a single, uniform reaction to the war, Lassner instead finds profound ambivalence that varies in degree and kind from author to author. While most women writers found it necessary to support the war effort, some only saw the war as the least of all possible evils. These writers’ ambivalence was based on the pacifism resulting from World War I, a distrust of the British government and its fascist potential, a concern with the racism evident in the British population, an understanding of the treatment of women in wartime, and an awareness of the horrifying potential of the Nazi racist ideology. Also, many writers changed their positions on the war as the stories of Nazi atrocities came to light, so variations occur not only between authors, but also between works in an author’s oeuvre. Some writers chose to express their concerns about Nazi aggression through dystopic visions of the future, while others used the historical past to express their concern about the present. The war affected even the most popular genres: women authors of romantic fiction and espionage novels found their writing affected by their views of the war.
In examining these writers’ ambivalences, Lassner draws not only from their literature, but also from their lives, demonstrating the active involvement many women took in the war beyond their fiction writing. Some, like Stevie Smith, Storm Jameson, and Phyllis Bottome, traveled to Europe, and even into Germany, to observe firsthand the impact of Nazi ideology on Europeans. Such observations lead these writers to foresee the potential horror if such an ideology were perpetuated. Still others, such as Ethel Mannin and Naomi Mitchison, began the thirties with strong socialist tendencies, yet found as the war approached that any organized ideology unsatisfactorily represented the concerns of women in the time of crisis.
Lassner avoids both theorizing and problematizing these writers’ positions, expressing concern that these already-neglected writers would disappear “once again [. . .] in a theoretical debate.” She also wants to refrain from linking all women writers of the war into a single force that dismantles the discourse of war: “Emphasizing writers’ [End Page 1025] changing perceptions, ambivalences, and figuration does not mean that we can only speak of them primarily in terms of destabilizing or demythicizing discourses.”
Such concerns, however, lead to critical problems in...