I love the idea of social histories, but they rarely live up to what I expect from them. Until now. Juliet Gardiner is the perfect social historian. Wartime, a social history of Britain during World War II, is massively huge, which is part of the reason it took me so long to read. The other part is that it constantly made me cry, and I had to stop reading it and get Kleenex, because of how finest an hour it was in Britain.
Gardiner has an unerring instinct for the perfect quotation from each personal account she quotes, the perfect human-interest anecdote for every wartime development. She covers so many different aspects of life in wartime and manages to make them unbelievably vivid and interesting. For example, she writes about life during the blackout and how miserable it was for everybody, which I’d never thought much about before. One of my favorite stories from the entire book pertained to the blackout. In 1940, the clocks sprang forward for Daylight Savings in the spring, and then they never fell back in the autumn; in May 1941, they put the clocks forward again, and Britain was several hours ahead for four years, to give people extra light at nights.
Funny story: The Mass Observation Archive or Pew or, I dunno, Gallup or something did a study to ask people why they were volunteering to work on Air Raid Precaution, and one person responded, “It was the New Year. I must have been drunk. I am STRONGLY anti-Chamberlain.”
I cried when I was reading the part where France had surrendered to Germany, and the people of Britain nevertheless had high morale. Leonard Woolf “had that strange sense of relief–almost exhilaration–at being left alone, ‘shut of’ all encumbrances, including our allies–‘now we can go it alone’ in our muddled, makeshift, empirical, English way.” Oh, Britain.
After the first major Blitz bombing, which devastated London’s East End, Winston Churchill went out to the East End to see the people affected by the bombing. His aides were afraid that he would be mobbed by citizens angry by his failure to protect them, but (pause to get myself a Kleenex because writing this down is making me cry) instead they all came swarming up to his car and said “We thought you’d come and see us! We can take it. Give it ’em back,” and Winston Churchill (much like me because how could you not?) started crying.
There is much to admire in Britain’s behavior during the war, but Gardiner doesn’t gloss over the country’s bad behavior either. She writes about the mockery and injustice that women faced even as they filled vital industry positions during the war; she writes about the unjust imprisonment and internment of Communists or people thought to be German sympathizers. (To the country’s credit, there was apparently a fair amount of outrage over this, and the practice was almost entirely discontinued by 1942.)
Basically Gardiner brings wartime Britain to life. She doesn’t exhaustively discuss every subject that might be of interest (as an American myself, I was interested to know more about Anglo-American relations before and during and after America’s entry into the war), but pretty nearly. This may be the best social history in all the land. Of course I have not yet read Gardiner’s The Thirties, but I’m going to the library tomorrow to check it out. Huzzah!
If you’re American, let me quickly revise your expectations so you will not be disappointed: Juliet Gardiner is often not to be found in American libraries and bookshops. This is very sad, but now at least if your library does turn out to have her, you’ll be pleasantly surprised, rather than crushingly disappointed if your library is lacking in this regard.
Did you review this? Leave me your link!