Book Review: British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime

4 August 2020

Kevin Neuroth, Humboldt University of Berlin and King’s College London

Beryl Pong, British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)

In our understanding of modernism – both as a cultural movement and as a historical process – the First World War occupies a central place. There is a broad consensus among scholars that the experiences of the years 1914-18 played a central role in the development of the high modernism of the 1920s, from the experience of shell shock represented in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) to the mood of civilisational collapse pervading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). By comparison, the 1930s and 1940s remain under-researched. In her book Modernism and World War II (2007), Marina MacKay (University of Oxford) argues for the ‘historical and political’ importance of late modernism and wonders why so ‘little of the [Second World] war’s literature has ever fully registered on the critical field of vision’[1].

Beryl Pong’s (University of Sheffield) book British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime (2020) works to redress this imbalance. In analyses of novels, autobiographies and poems, as well as films, paintings and photography from the 1930s and 1940s, Pong identifies a ‘late modernist chronophobia’ (15). This is defined as ‘not the ostensibly limitless horizon of information technology and of seemingly unprecedented, instantaneous speed, but the oppressively delimited horizon of global catastrophe threatening both national and basic human life’ (15). Pong shows how this mood was registered in the literature of the period, in which the conception of time was no longer that of Marcel Proust’s memory or Henri Bergson’s ‘dureé’, but rather ‘haunted by a past world war and the prospect of another’ (14).

In her book Modernism, History and the First World War (1998), Trudi Tate (University of Cambridge) explains how, in the aftermath of the First World War, the ‘idea of civilian war neurosis’ became increasingly accepted in Britain.[2]As psychologists began to concede, trauma frequently occurred in people who had not experienced battle themselves. ‘Witnessing such events at a distance’, Tate explains, ‘or being exposed to them indirectly, discursively, through stories, can cause war neuroses, just as some soldiers suffered from shell shock without ever going into battle’.[3]With the beginning of the Blitz in September 1940, there was increasingly no distance from warfare for civilians at all, making a reckoning with the psychological consequences of war all the more urgent.[4]Pong mentions a 1939 article in the British Medical Journal by the psychiatrist Maurice Wright, who ‘anticipated several types of response to civilian aerial bombardment: anxiety hysteria, concussion, hysterical stupor, and somnambulism’ (57).

Pong traces the concept of ‘chronophobia’ across a range of different art forms and media, thus working in a similar direction as many recent studies on modernism which move away from exclusively literary analyses and instead seek to enable a dialogue with other art forms and non-literary discourses. For example, Pong identifies ruins – described as always referring to ‘multiple temporalities, simultaneously and multidirectionally’ (181) – as a central trope through which writers of the period expressed a complex mixture of hopes and anxieties. The ‘fear of losing architectural heritage and the nation’s material history’ (189) through aerial bombardment was widespread. One response was the Ministry of Labour’s ‘Recording Britain’ scheme, which, as Pong explains, employed artists to produce ‘a permanent record […] of the United Kingdom’s historic buildings, rural landscapes, country homes, and prehistoric monuments both before and after bomb damage’ (189).

An interesting question that comes up in British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartimeis how far the modernist aesthetics developed in the wake of the First World War provided a template for processing the experiences of the Second World War. In her essay ‘Composition as Explanation’ (1926), Gertrude Stein maintained that ‘war may be said to have advanced a general recognition of the expression of the contemporary composition by almost thirty years’ (quoted in Pong 52). Pong sees Stein’s modernism as having provided the writer Arthur Gwynn-Browne with ‘a style with which to articulate and comment upon the personal experience of a new world war’ (52) in his fragmented memoir F. S. P.(1942), which recounts his experiences of bombardment at Dunkirk. Thinking about the relationship between modernism and war memoirs is certainly an angle that future research could explore further.

Pong’s writing is distinctly concise, moving between close readings of different texts with relative speed. The comparative brevity of her sub-chapters lends the analyses clarity and rigour, though some – such as the conclusion to the life-writing discussion in chapter two – could have been more extensive. However, Pong succeeds in creating a compelling sense of interconnectedness between literature, politics, photography and film. A chapter in which Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941) and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1941)are read through the prism of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s concept of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ (157) is particularly fascinating.

For the most part though, British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartimeshifts the focus away from overtly canonical figures. Instead, Pong analyses numerous short stories by Elizabeth Bowen which, she argues, ‘portray the peculiar temporalities of wartime life: a period when one feels that time has stopped, but also when it simply cannot pass by quickly enough’ (93). The psychological and political concerns of Patrick Hamilton’s novel Hangover Square (1941) also come into sharp focus through the concept of chronophobia. Moving beyond the war, Pong discusses the multi-layered representation of youth in Ealing Studios films such as Hue and Cry(1947) or Passport to Pimlico (1949), which, she argues, ‘by turns [drew] on youth as objects for wartime propaganda, as symbols of the national future, and as examples for capturing as well as countering sociological fears of juvenile delinquency’ (215).

Another critically neglected figure who is given due attention is Storm Jameson. Jameson was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. She was also active in socialist politics and, during the Second World War, helped many émigré writers resettle in London. Her novel Cloudless May(1943) is described as ‘a salient example of how one writer reconciled geopolitical and artistic concerns to fashion together a form of politically engaged, experimental writing in the late modernism of the Second World War’ (137). Reading Pong’s book, one wonders whether one of the reasons for the relative neglect of late modernism is that scholars have been too focused on established canonical authors, many of whose output diminished somewhat in the 1930s. Extending our understanding of the period beyond these authors by employing an innovative theoretical framework is one of the many achievements of British Literature and Culture in Second World Wartime.


[1]Marina MacKay, Modernism and World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 5.

[2]Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 12.

[3]Tate, p. 19.

[4]As MacKay notes, ‘the Second World War was halfway through before the number of dead British combatants exceeded that of dead British civilians’ (p. 6).

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