- British Literature of the Blitz: Fighting the People’s War
Kristine A. Miller’s British Literature of the Blitz: Fighting the People’s War offers the reader a fascinating look at a prominent but little understood chapter of European modernity: the British experience of the German Blitzkrieg during World War II. The exact focus of the study is the literary imagination’s engagement with raw traumatic shock and its attendant discursive constructs, like Churchill’s speeches and the pervasive People’s War rhetoric of national unity—whether the latter is interpreted as myth, ideology, or (most severely) propaganda. At times, on Miller’s account, cultural phenomena appear to have transformative and, at others, limited powers. With each exemplary case she cites, however, the analysis proves nuanced and expansive, addressing political and social implications of specific renderings of the People’s War.
In closely evaluating the construction of the People’s War, Miller demonstrates how its significance lies not only in its response in the moment (in 1940, then again in 1944) to the Blitz but also in its persistent futurity. This forward-looking glance projected the social upheaval of the war years onto the subsequent decades. Did individuals believe, then, that the breakdown of gender and class distinctions prompted by bombing raids could provide the model for postwar equity? Miller’s response to this question is complex, as it entails placing political progressivism under that same People’s War rubric and thus seeing its mythical and ideological aspects as well, insofar as it will later fall short of realization in the welfare state. Indeed, if there is a keyword for British Literature of the Blitz it is “conflictual”: contesting sweeping narratives of the period (like Angus Calder’s 1969 study) and drawing heavily on Mass-Observation reports and personal testimonies, Miller upholds a portrait of an ambivalent nation. Civilians appear both trustful and suspicious of unifying discourses, hopeful and despairing about the war’s outcome. Many, to be sure, [End Page 645] held out hope for “permanent social change,” as it was outlined in the British government’s famous 1942 Beveridge Report. But others did not, or opposed it. In short, the People’s War is a “far less coherent idea” than most historians suggest (8). So too does ambivalence shape the book’s particular critical interventions. The popularity of films such as The Gentle Sex (1941) and the Noël Coward and David Lean collaboration In Which We Serve (1942) is set against “the reality of audience diversity” (154), a spectrum of possible reactions that differ across gender, class, and regional lines (and within those categories). (The examination, moreover, of film spectatorship itself, it is implied, demands a distinct methodology when theaters doubled as bomb shelters.) Likewise though on an individual, authorial level, Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime writings, culminating with The Heat of the Day (1949), complicate our notion of British wartime experience: they “resolutely refuse,” for instance, “ to generalize about the impact of the People’s War on British women” (33).
The range of examples in British Literature of the Blitz is very impressive. Miller details the defining social tensions in Bowen’s, Rosamond Lehmann’s, and Henry Green’s fictions, yet also takes popular forms seriously, from the cinema to Agatha Christie’s and Margery Allingham’s detective novels, and then to Graham Greene’s “entertainments” or spy novels. Selected tales of detection and espionage bear directly on Miller’s thesis because they illustrate how novelists adapt to prevailing conditions. Effectively challenging, more exactly, traditional views of genre fiction “as an imaginary escape” (116) and a vehicle for the promotion of “conservative social norms” (117), she sees it being torn apart at this time by its internal contradictions and, in the process, adapting to that change. “These popular detective and spy novels experiment with generic conventions,” she concludes, “in order to market to a more diverse book-buying public the ideological conflicts central to the People’s War itself” (116). From this reoriented perspective popular icons of intellectual mastery, like Christie’s Hercule Poirot...