10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project is rolling along nicely. First there were ten and now there are twenty books. There’s a book in every decade now, I have a couple more to write about, and I have many more in mind.

But I’m going to move away towards other things for a while.

At the moment I’m reading two wonderful books from years that have already been taken – Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

I’m lining up books for A Victorian Celebration.

But then there’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week and Rosamund Lehmann Reading Week to pull me back to the 20th Century.

I’m rambling, and so I’ll get back to business and  list those ten books:

1902 – The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

It was all highly improbable, but the construction of the plot was very clever, and I can’t fault the logic at all. The style was simple and straightforward, the story was compelling, and so I turned the pages quickly. It felt to me like a children’s adventure story for grown-ups – not great literature, but a great entertainment.

1918 – Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

It was brave to write what she did, while the war was still going on, and to take it to William Heinneman himself. He published Diary Without Dates in 1918, and Enid Bagnold was sacked for daring to write it. She saw out the war as an ambulance driver, and then she married and found success as a novelist. But this little book remains: one woman’s account of her war, written as she lived through it.

1920 – In The Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim

The keeper of the journal, whose name I was never to learn, had come to a family home in the Swiss mountains to rest and to recover from – or at least come to terms with – her losses during The Great War. Exactly what – or who – she had lost, what she had suffered, was never quite put into words, but that she was grieving, that she was trying to come to terms with making a new start, was something I never doubted. I found that I understood.

1926 – As It Was by Helen Thomas

‘As It Was’ tells the story of their meeting, their courtship, their marriage, and the birth of the first child. It is an utterly real story, told by a woman who has both the understanding and the words to communicate that understanding. Lives lived long ago come alive on the pages: the beginning  of a love affair, the growth of a relationship, life’s trials and tribulations, the world they live in, the countryside they love …

1931 – Gwendra Cove & Other Cornish Sketches by C C Rogers (Lady Vyvyan)

I picked up the first volume of her memoirs a couple of years ago, and I was soon smitten. Because I saw straight away that Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, loved and understood Cornwall. And I saw it again in these wonderfully diverse little sketches. She gets everything right: the environments, the communities, the characters, the speech patterns …

1934 – Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Her mother realised that Harriet’s suitor had been drawn to her wealth and the expectation of a significant inheritance from an aunt of her late husband. And she learned that Lewis Staunton was clever, that he could play on her daughter’s love of romance, that he could twist her mother’s concerns into something dark and sinister in her daughter’s mind. She tried, but she couldn’t save her daughter. My heart broke for her.

1946 – Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a story with echoes of other authors: Jane Austen in the heroine’s name, and in more besides; Charlotte Bronte in the heroine’s position; Ivy Compton-Burnett in some of the dialogue and relationships; Daphne Du Maurier in the presence, and untold story, of Marion’s wife; Molly Keane in the crumbling mansion; Thomas Hardy in some of the darker moments; and maybe even more that have passed me by when I was caught up … Not a satire, not a pastiche, but something rather different, and rather more interesting. Something I can’t quite explain.

1955 – The Tigress on the Hearth by Margery Sharp

Hugo, a young Devon lad, the kind of hero who could so easily have stepped from the pages of a Regency novel, found himself at the point of a sword. He had been on holiday with his uncle when he, quite inadvertently, breached Albanian etiquette, and it seemed that he would never see Devon again.

1963 – The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Globe House is a wonderful mixture of the traditional and the modern. The four young people had been brought up by their grandmother and they were a credit to her. As were Cook and Edith. They continued to live together happily after she died, with just few changes. The family still ate in the dining room and the staff in the kitchen, but the family went to the kitchen to make their own coffee so that all could be cleared away in time for the whole household to settle down together and watch the evening’s television.

1996 – Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

In her twentieth book, published in the nineties when she was in her eighties, Muriel Spark’s authorial voice spoke as strongly as it ever had. The clearsightedness and the oh so subtle wit are quite wonderful. She created a fine gallery of characters – not likeable characters but they were terribly readable – and gave them just enough plot to keep things interesting and to throw a wealth of ideas into the air.

Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

“Today the sky is like a pale egg-shell, and aeroplanes from two aerodromes are droning round the hill. I think from time to time, ‘Is he still alive?’”

They might have been the words of a young woman anxious about her lover, but they weren’t. They were the words of a nurse, who couldn’t shake off her concern for a gravely ill patient when she left work.

Enid Bagnold came from a very privileged background, she had been to art school, she had worked as a journalist, and when the Great War came she became a VAD, trained in first aid and simple nursing care in to work in military and convalescent hospitals.

‘Diary Without Dates’ is her account of the time she spent in one, unnamed, hospital. It’s not a diary in the usually expected form. There are, as the title suggests, no dates and no real clues to the passage of time; it is a simple, ongoing account of her experience; almost a stream of consciousness.

And so the background is a little fuzzy, but that is all to the good as it brings the details, the observations into sharp focus.

With limited skills, and limited resources there is not a great deal that Enid can do, but she takes care to do whatever she can and she enjoys the camaraderie that she finds with many of her colleagues.

She is critical of the professional nurses she works with finding them heartless, confounded that they seem untouched by the death and by the terrible injuries that they see. In time though she begins to understand the need to keep some degree of reserve, the need for self-preservation, but she never quite forgives what she sees as their lack of compassion.

She never loses her compassion for the men she looks after, never forgets that each man is an individual, with a life, a story, a family … And she finds herself horribly torn, between wanting more to do and not wanting to see more injured bodies, injured souls.

And that compassion makes her critical. Of the effort put into keeping up appearances for wealthy visitors. Of the differences in treatment for officers and enlisted men. Of the offhand treatment of many concerned relations …

But this isn’t a diatribe: it is a full account of one woman’s experience, one woman’s war.

Easier for her to speak out than some maybe, because her future was assured whether she had the job or not, because she could step out of the hospital into her old life at the end of every shift …

But it was brave to write what she did, while the war was still going on, and to take it to William Heinneman himself.

He published Diary Without dates in 1918, and Enid Bagnold was sacked for daring for it. She saw out the war as an ambulance driver, and then she married and found success as a novelist.

But this little book remains: one woman’s account of her war, written as she lived through it.