Middlebrow goes to war

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. However, in this post  there are some interesting maps, Jane Austen, Bath and Elizabeth Bowen’s 1942 literary guide  English Novelists.

Let's not make a fuss.

By the time war broke out in September 1939, Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973) had published six novels. Of The Death of the Heart, the February 1939 issue of the Forum wrote:

. ..Elizabeth Bowen, s] really articulating in artistic form the problems of our time. They are not the superficial problems; they are chiefly the spiritual ones, and in our times these are the most challenging that have faced humanity in generations.

I doubt if such praise was given to one of her lesser known works, English Novelists published in the England in Pictures series, first issued in 1942. However, it would also be foolish to pass over it in silence. Forty eight pages long, it explained the evolution of the English novel from John Lyly to Virginia Woolf. Published  by Collins, it was intended to not just to educate but also to raise morale. Of the classic English novel she wrote:

We lose much if we ignore, or honour in name only, so living a part of the English heritage. And now, when the English spirit stands at its full height, to do so would be a double loss.

They are all there: Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, Fielding, Burney, Austen, Scott, Dickens, Thackerary, the Brontës, Gaskell, Eliot, Hardy, James and Kipling. Our man Bennett is there too, the importance of his time spent in France underlined:

The French aesthetic ideal– detachment –was always uppermost in his mind: to this we owe his objective view of England–as valuable in an Englishman as it is rare.

The Nazi threat would not be defeated by the values found in the works of a Rex Warner or a Wyndham Lewis. Rather it was those writers who could be identified as coming from and adding to a shared sense of Englishness that would lead the counterattack, including that reprobate Samuel Butler of Erewhon fame.

Of Jane Austen she wrote that she:

…seems to belong to no century.

Her scenes were small–drawing rooms and lawns– but the truths she applied to them were large.

she dispels…the fallacy that life with the lid off–in thieves’ kitchens, prisons, taverns and brothels–is necessarily more interesting than life with the lid on.

She is, in fact:

…the most nearly flawless of English novelists. She could not have been other than English–yet she stands a little apart from the other writers we have in an artistry that no sentiment blurred, no theory narrowed and no rancour or prejudice side-tracked.

Elizabeth Bowen’s admiration of Austen was long standing. In the August 15th issue of the Saturday Review of Literature in an article entitled Jane Austen: Artist on Ivory, she had written:

Jane Austen…brought the English novel to a point nearer perfection than it has reached since.

Elizabeth BowenSource: Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bowen
Source: Wikipedia

On the 8th of March, 1942, the Battle of Britain a distant memory and the fall of Singapore a very recent one, the BBC broadcast Elizabeth Bowen’s play New Judgement: Elizabeth Bowen on Jane Austen. In it a narrator attempts to tell the story of Jane Austen’s life only to be interrupted by her sister Cassandra, her niece Fanny, Darcy, Elizabeth, Mr. Knightly and Emma. These interruptions quickly enter the narrative, revealing that despite her protestations, Cassandra never fully knew her sister, while Fanny lacked the maturity of character to do so, and, as Elizabeth Bowen was to repeat in her description of Jane in English Novelists, she is to be found in the now. The play is light in touch, almost whimsical, and strikes just the right tone for a nation fighting for its life. Well, if that nation is England.

By the spring of 1942, the London Blitz was over, and another two years would pass before the V1s and V2s would force people back into the shelters. But travelling to Broadcasting House on the night of the broadcast, the actors, the director, the sounds effect people would have walked along bomb damaged streets, as this screen shot from the Bomb Sight website shows (each red circle is a German bomb; BBC Broadcasting House, centre and left):

Aggregate Bomb Damage December 1940 - June 1941

Aggregate Bomb Damage December 1940 – June 1941

But to see the middlebrow in the front line we have to leave London and head for the provinces. In The Western Morning News of April 27th, 1942, Berlin Radio was quoted as saying “As a further reprisal raid for British air attacks on the residential quarters of German cities, strong bomber formations last night attacked the town of Bath, with destructive results….” The choice of Bath as a target was not one of happenstance. On April 29th, The Western Morning News carried a report, quoted from Reuters in Berne, that the German Press had stated that the raid had been directed at “…works of art, monuments and dwelling quarters.” The raid was one of series known as the Baedeker Raids. In the spring of 1942 German bombers attacked Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury in a series of retaliatory raids following the RAF bombing raids on Lübeck. All were unimportant but picturesque cities, supposedly picked from the Baedeker Guide to Britain. The 1905 English Baedeker edition wrote of Bath that:

Among the innumerable visitors of eminence in the 18th and early 19th cent. may be mentioned Chatham, Pitt, Canning and Burke, Nelson, Wolfe, and Sir Sidney Smith, Gainsborough and Lawrence, Smollett, Fielding, Sheridan, Miss Burney, Goldsmith, Southey, Landor, Miss Austen, Wordsworth, Cowper, Scott and Moore. Memorial tablets mark the houses occupied by many of these. Perhaps no other English town of the size has oftener been the theme of literary allusion…

Works of art, monuments, dwelling quarters – Bath ticked all the boxes, you might say.

Damage was widespread and casualties high, more than 400 killed over the two nights.

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project. http://www.thejwarrens.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/bathblitz/index.html

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

Each star on the map marks the impact of German bombs. Given the extent of the damage and the numbers of dead, wounded and homeless, it’s not surprising that The Western Morning News used the bylines BATH AGAIN SINGLED OUT BY HUNS and HUN “NO MERCY” RAIDS. The men in the bombers were not even Germans. They were Huns and Huns, as history shows, destroy civilisations. Of interest to us is Green Park, just to the south of the railway station. It was here in 1804 and 1805 that 3 Green Park Buildings was home to Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. After the raids it looked like this:

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

What is worse, to target cities in an attempt to erase a culture, a love of books, a common history of Englishness; or target cities, using a thousand bombers because statistically the chance of inflicting mass civilian casualties is that much higher? Naturally, I have no answer to that moral conundrum, except to say the Germans started it.

What is clear, however, is the scale of the German error in their attacks on Bath. Alongside the stories of lucky escapes (Mrs. O. Cockram, an elderly lady, tunneled out from a buried room, letting others escape), the resolve of the survivors was praised. The Women’s Volunteer Service provided bedding, accommodation, comfort and, of course, tea. One family, almost killed by rubble falling on their Morrison shelter, arrived at a W.V.S. centre, blackened from head to foot. They refused offers of a wash and fresh clothes. “”All we want is a cup of tea,” said the mother briskly.” Briskly, mind you. The Nazis may have had ideology on their side. England had the middlebrow desire for a good cup of tea.

Leave a comment


  1. Excellent piece! I have just started reading Bowen recently (at last!) and I really must see if I can track down this little rarity. I had no idea she was such an admirer of Austen!

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think for Elizabeth Bowen Jane Austen was the greatest of the English novelists. Above all, she seemed to admire the way in way she combined characters with strong plots.

  2. Thanks very much for this piece, Colin. Fascinating. I do find literary criticism from the past particularly interesting because it always says as much about the time it is written as it does the novels being written about. (And I especially like the mapsand pics!)

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Her criticism from the 1930s must have been influenced by the rise of Fascism and Communism. And war. Hence the emphasis on “now” as a reaction to the seeming lack of any long term future to, well, anything.

  3. This was great, a very good combination of ‘whaaaat?’ facts and the usual excellent illustrations.

    • I find it so odd that instead of bombing military targets or even industrial centres the Germans chose pretty provincial cities and towns. As if to say “We know what makes you English, so that’s what we’ll destroy.” Slaves, in some way, to their own ideology.


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