The “War at Home” series has got better and better as it’s gone on. This one – which includes a slight crossover with the much-missed Morland dynasty series – takes us up to the Armistice, making it clear to us as we go through 1918 that a German invasion was a very real possibility in the spring and that there seemed to be no end in sight even by late summer. It was only in 1918 that compulsory rationing was introduced, risking letting people go short of food apparently having been deemed preferable to interfering with market forces (too socialist!), and, with so many deaths, Russia pulling out of the war and the arrival of the first wave of the Spanish flu, things were looking pretty grim … and yet life went on, with moments of joy as well as sadness for most of the characters.
There are a lot more scenes actually at the Front than in the previous books. I’ll try to avoid spoilers (in case anyone is actually reading my drivellings, and is also reading the books), but we get scenes with the Army, the Air Force, and with Laura Hunter driving an ambulance and running her hostel close to Ypres/Ieper. However, it’s not a military book, and most of the action does still take place on the Home Front, with the Hunter family and their domestic staff. We even get to attend a meeting with Lloyd George and Haig, at which the introduction of rationing is discussed.
The overall sense is of war weariness. It’s not a gloomy book in any way, and it’s never less than entertaining, but the sense of war weariness is very well conveyed. I quite understand about Liberal ideas of laissez-faire and all the rest of it, but it almost beggars belief that compulsory rationing wasn’t introduced until 1918. Whilst food shortages here were obviously never as bad as they were in Russia, it’s incredibly impressive that people did put up with it. We all know the jokes about the British forming orderly queues, but standing in orderly queues, knowing that there might be no food left by the time you got to the front of it, would have been no bloody joke. And this was after more than three years of war, with no end in sight … and there can’t have been anyone, by early 1918, who hadn’t lost people who were important to them. Even hearing of the death of someone you only vaguely knew, maybe even someone you didn’t like, must have been just beyond distressing.
The only people who don’t seem to be war weary are young lads, still hoping that the war isn’t going to end before they can get in on the action. Meanwhile, men up to the age of 51 are being called up.
At home, it’s total war. Most of the book’s set in the countryside, away from the air raids. We don’t see anyone working in munitions factories. The female domestic staff, and the older male domestic staff, are still in their old jobs. Yet the sense of total war still comes across. People look back at their lives before the war and feel that they were different people then. That’s particularly so for the women of the better-off classes – to whom the war’s brought opportunities, as well as sorrow. Unfortunately, some of the characters from the earlier books don’t really feature in this, so we don’t get to see how Audrey, the Hunters’ cousin, is going on in her managerial role in her father’s business, and we don’t get to see much of their cousins Jack and Beth either. I suppose only so much could be fitted into one book, and it seemed better to concentrate on the core family and their servants.
There is a lot about the servants – but what there isn’t is any real sense of a change in the class system. And we don’t really see the effect of the war on the working-classes: we hear about food shortages, and we’re told that the Spanish flu has killed many people in the poorer neighbourhoods, but we don’t actually see that, because the focus is on an upper-middle-class household. That’s not a criticism, because the books are what they are and they do centre on this household, but it means that there are major aspects of the war at home which we don’t see.
On the other hand, the book shows aspects of the effect of the war which most Great War novels, or any war novels, don’t. We get to see how a young man invalided out of the war at any early stage – David Hunter – copes with his injuries, and with his feelings of uselessness and helplessness. We also get several romances involving older couples, which is unusual and rather nice.
A couple of minor points. The Morland crossover is only that David is treated at the Southport Hospital, and we don’t actually get to see any of the Morlands again; but it was still nice to have that mention there. And is Cynthia Harrod-Eagles a big Noel Streatfeild fan? She talks about being “all over” things rather than “covered in” things, which is very Streatfeild, and Munt the gardener refers to elevenses as “beaver”!
I feel as I’m not saying very much, but I can’t say that much more without giving the game away. Like the Morland dynasty books, nothing actually goes that deep. The Kirov trilogy books, which IMHO are the best ones Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has ever written, go so much deeper! Let’s say that there are births, and marriages, and deaths. The book actually ends with a death. It’s the death of a very minor character, but it says a lot that Cynthia Harrod-Eagles wanted to end that way, with a death at the Front on the very day of the Armistice, rather than with scenes of wild joy and rejoicing. Yes, the war is over, but too many of the boys won’t be coming home.
I assume that this isn’t the end of the series, because a lot of loose ends have been left rather than tied up. And I just keep thinking that the next one will inevitably involve the Spanish flu, and that that’s going to mean more deaths. And I want to shout, no, please don’t kill off anyone else, I can’t take it. That’s reading a book about fictional people. How must it have been to have actually lived through that time? Thankfully, we don’t know – but we can get quite a good sense of it, or at least of aspects of it, from these books. At a time when the Great War is much in the news, they give you a lot to think about.