- British Writers and the Approach of World War II by Steve Ellis
As the Second World War moves beyond living memory, academic scholarship has now turned to a consideration of this mid-century pivot in British history. Phyllis Lassner’s (1998) and Gill Plain’s (1996) admirable work on women writers during the Second World War paved the way, and the more recent work on modernism and the Second World War, notably by Marina Mackay (2007), Patrick Deer (2009), and Leo Mellor (2011), amongst others, has worked splendidly [End Page 482] well to embed (high modernist) literary and intellectual histories into the study of this war. British Writers and the Approach of World War II makes a vital contribution to this field with its focus on what E.M. Forster termed “The 1939 State.” Forster’s fears about the impending end of civilization were symptomatic of many, as Steven Ellis traces. He argues that the Munich crisis, the push into the Sudetenland, Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement conversations with Germany, and then the rising tensions during the “Phoney War” (from the declaration of war through the Blitzkrieg in May 1940) were signs for many that Britain was entering a period of crisis. Ellis argues that this sense of crisis results in questions about “values the nation would be fighting to defend” and also “who its real enemies were”(12). British Writers and the Approach of World War II is about this national state of anxiety concerning the onset of war, yes, but also about Britishness. In this way, Ellis’s book speaks to that broader undercurrent of discussions about the notion of civilization in the early and mid-twentieth century.
Ellis focuses on this year of 1939—a “long 1939,” as he notes, extended to accommodate September 1938 to May 1940—arguing that it possesses “to some degree a unitary character in the peculiar emotions and responses” which resulted from this “war of nerves” (6). Ellis briefly points to others who have focused on a single year, notably Jean-Michel Rabaté on 1913 and Michael North on 1922, while wryly remarking that the year 1939 may seem inauspicious, in terms of literary history, when considered against 1922. But this is a useful reminder that there are benefits to reading literary history synchronically, as it were. A longer history of these fears for (Western) civilization might elaborate upon the reading which Ellis provides of T. S. Eliot and the spiritual revival in the first chapter, for example, by looking back to Paul Valéry’s “The Crisis of the Mind” (1919). But Ellis’s focus on 1939 allows for a complex account of the networks of religious apologists speaking to Christian renewal in the months surrounding the outbreak of hostilities. Ellis refers to Chamberlain’s statement in the House of Commons, after the Munich Debate, in which he equated what he termed “a new spiritual revival” with a “strong desire . . . to record their readiness to serve their country” (17). Ellis’s careful reading of how spiritual and national identity were interwoven can be seen in his reading of the call for “a reattachment to the soil” (39). Here Eliot’s thoughts on malnutrition and moral decay in The Idea of a Christian Society are brought fruitfully up against Philip Gibbs’s This Nettle, Danger and accounts of Nazi religion. Ellis argues that Eliot’s line, “[t]he whole earth is our hospital” (“East Coker”) is not just a hospital for the well, but “to die well in,” in a combining of spiritual and national identities (56).
In the second chapter, also the second on the post-Munich crisis of spiritual and national identities, Ellis moves fully into his stride in considering a group of novels which he terms the “Literature of the Crisis.” His nuanced and careful dissections of the networks which supported much work in the “long 1939” draws on texts such as Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, Ruth Adam’s There Needs No Ghost, George A. Birmingham’s Appeasement, and Gibbs’s This Nettle...