- British Writers and the Approach of World War II by Steve Ellis
The period between the Munich Agreement of September 1938 and the start of the Blitz in May 1940 is undeniably a distinct moment in British cultural, social, and political history. Steve Ellis's sharp new study addresses the literature of this "long 1939" (7), stretching from the high point of appeasement until the end of the Phoney War. British Writers and the Approach of World War II argues with E. M. Forster that there is a particular "1939 state" (1): a psychological, political, and social ferment characterized by anxiety and despair at the coming war, but also listless anticipation and cautious hopes for regeneration and renewal. Aiming to overturn the overly neat periodization of literary history into decades exemplified by Samuel Hynes's The Auden Generation (1976), Ellis explores the ambivalence with which an older generation of writers reacted to this uncanny historical interlude. British Writers is an astute, much-needed intervention in the literary history of World War II, and it pursues a robust critique of traditional modes of periodization.
Chapters 1 and 2 examine the period immediately following the Munich Agreement. In chapter 1, Ellis draws on wide-ranging research to contextualize Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) within a broad cultural field that includes the Moral Rearmament Movement and concerns over soil erosion. Chapter 2 turns to a range of lesser-known texts, including Ruth Adams's There Needs No Ghost, Kathleen Wallace's Their Chimneys into Spires, Mary Borden's Passport for a Girl, and W. Townend's And Now England (all 1939). Ellis's claim that he is exploring uncharted territory is at its strongest in this chapter as he surveys a wide range of underexplored texts, many of which lie outside of the affective and political register usually associated with the writing of the period. They include, for example, Phillip Gibbs's forgotten pro-appeasement novel This Nettle, Danger (1939) and George A. Birmingham's Appeasement (1939), a blithely comic novel imbued with a "striking political complacency" (87).
Chapter 3 wittily evaluates "the furious activity of the Wells brain" (123), discussing a number of critically neglected texts by H. G. Wells. These include The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939), a gloomy meditation on the forces assembled against Wells's hopes for a new world order, and two works imbued with more strident hopes for Wells's internationalist world state: The Holy Terror (1939) and The New World Order (1940). Wells, Ellis persuasively argues, is caught between his expansive egalitarian impulses and a harrumphing disregard of [End Page 192] opposing points of view, succinctly expressed by Wells's complaint that "the air is full of the panaceas of half-wits, none listening to the others" (124). The great strength of Ellis's reading is that he never falls into the trap of entirely condemning Wells as a crank, even as he underlines the constitutive ironies of Wells's self-contradictory position.
Chapter 4 explores Forster's and Orwell's concern with the role of the writer. Ellis deftly compares these two very different writers' reactions to the problem of authentic liberal consciousness in an age of massed subjectivity and divisive political rhetoric, arguing that Orwell and Forster "join in clinging to an idea of individual autonomy, whether it seek solace in an ivory tower or beside a pool of fish" (162–63). The second reference here is to Orwell's paradigmatic coming-of-war novel Coming Up for Air (1939), which Ellis reads alongside "Inside the Whale" (1940) and Forster's "The Ivory Tower" as a text that "defend[s] the writers' need and right to withdraw … away from the clamorous world of politics" (160). This does not mean that Forster and Orwell ignore the exigencies of wartime Britain, of course, and Ellis carefully draws out these writers' complex negotiations with the claims of wartime patriotism. The theme of ambivalence is pursued further in chapter 5, which turns to Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts (1941). Ellis...