Love among the ruins

The Lovecharm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War, by Lara Feigel, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 528 pages

Lara Feigel’s “restless lives” are those of five writers who experienced, and wrote about, London during the Blitz and its aftermath: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke (better known under his pseudonym of Henry Green) and the Austrian-born Hilde Spiel.

Feigel, a lecturer in English and the medical humanities at King’s College London, explains how the impetus for the book came from Bowen’s own description of the war as a period of “lucid abnormality”, during which she and her friends were “afloat on the tideless, hypnotic, futureless to-day”. The title derives from an article by Greene, written in October 1941: “The nightly routine of sirens ... the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm.”

On the night of September 26 1940, with which the book opens, the Anglo-Irish Bowen is on duty as an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) warden. Her friend and fellow novelist Macaulay, despite being nearly 60 and a perennially reckless driver, is careering around London in an ambulance. Her path may well cross with that of Yorke, working by night as an auxiliary firefighter, having spent all day helping to run the family business. He even manages to find time for a series of liaisons as well as writing his “experimental” novels.

His wife and son have been conveniently evacuated to the countryside, as has the family of Greene, also out patrolling the streets as an ARP warden in the company of his lover. Meanwhile, Spiel, who finds herself trying to avoid the bombs being dropped by her former compatriots, is serving supper to her family in Wimbledon.

Bowen, living in a companionable but celibate marriage, had had lovers for years. But it was during the war that her great passion for the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie began (it was to continue for the rest of her life), and there is a sense in which the war liberated her emotionally and psychologically. Something similar happened to Greene, for whom the dangers of wartime London overcame his habitual boredom and made him feel “urgently alive”. For Macaulay, driving an ambulance helped take her mind off the fact that the man she had secretly loved for 20 years, a married former priest called Gerald O’Donovan, was dying. On the very last night of the Blitz, Macaulay’s flat was hit; she lost everything, including all the letters from her beloved Gerald.

Feigel draws on the diaries, letters, articles and novels of her protagonists in compiling her narrative, one danger of which – and a danger she does not entirely avoid – being that her own writing may pale in comparison. There are glimpses of other writers beyond the chosen five, including Virginia Woolf and Anthony Powell (with whom Macaulay has an unexpected encounter in Venice, in a scene almost worthy of A Dance to the Music of Time). Rosamond Lehmann makes several appearances and justifiably so, as her novel The Echoing Grove captures the atmosphere of wartime London and its dislocations – the unexpected conjunctions and partings – as well as anything by Greene or Bowen.

“I would not have missed being in London throughout the war for anything,” Bowen wrote in 1948. “It was the most interesting period of my life.” It is also the most interesting period of this book, which, despite its title, devotes almost half of its pages to the postwar years. In consequence, Feigel has produced more of a straightforward group biography than was perhaps anticipated in her introduction, with its electrifying promise of tapping into “the high-voltage current of war”.

Virginia Rounding is author of ‘Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina’ (The Robson Press)

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