Mar 16, 2010

Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys

Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys

Henrietta’s War is a humorous epistolary novel set in a village in Devonshire during WW2. “Humorous?”, you might be thinking. “WW2?”. Well, yes. And unlikely though it may sound, it actually works rather splendidly. The story is told through the letters that Henrietta, a middle-aged woman, writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is fighting at the front. In these letters, she satirically describes life in her hometown during the war.

Henrietta’s War is quite a short book, but we get to know the characters surprisingly well as we see them react to the strain of the war. Henrietta’s village is in a relatively privileged position, as it hasn’t suffered any direct bombings. But all the same, its inhabitants have to deal with food rationing just like everyone else, as well as with the threat of bombs gone astray or of an invasion. And most, if not all of them, had loved ones either at the front or in areas that were being heavily bombed. Which is why, Henrietta tell us, they couldn’t help but resent it when London refugees made a point of telling them how good they had it down there.

That was one of my favourite things about Henrietta’s War, actually, as I can very easily imagine these things happening in the context of a war: in the middle of all the larger or more visible tragedies, the small ones got lost. It was probably very easy for people to feel that their feelings and experiences were being dismissed. I’ve always had an interest in WW2 literature, but more recently I have become interested in books that talk about these hidden, semi-forgotten human dramas that surrounded the war. Of course, nobody means to compare them to the horrors of concentration camps, but these are nevertheless stories that deserve to be remembered.

For example, Henrietta has an aged dog, and as food rationing increases, she becomes worried that she won’t be able to feed him at all. Her husband hints that Perry has lived a long, happy life, and perhaps it would be best to end it rather than let him suffer any privations. But Henrietta finds the thought alone almost impossible to endure – somehow, not being able to feed Perry hits her harder than not being able to feed herself. I had never thought of what became of animals in these situations, and doing so now broke my heart. This is, of course, not the sort of tragedy that comes to mind when one thinks of WW2, but it’s still a very real way in which wars hurt people and other living creatures that have nothing whatever to do with them. Mrs Savernack, a lady with whom Henrietta doesn’t always get along, has several dogs, and their common heartbreak and worry brings them together.

As you can probably tell by now, Henrietta’s War is funny-but-not-just. Don’t get me wron: Henrietta’s voice is a delight, and the tone of the letters is very light and humorous. And yes, there are many truly hilarious moments. But you can very much sense that there’s real fear and real helplessness underneath it all. Henrietta’s humour is her coping strategy. She might sound light, but she never actually makes light of serious things, and in between her ironic remarks there are real and very moving moments of despair.

The letters collected in Henrietta’s War were actually written by Joyce Dennys during the war, and published as a regular feature in Sketch magazine. I don’t know how autobiographical they are, but it’s easy to imagine Dennys experiencing the same fear and helplessness the characters she created experience. Possibly writing was her way of feeling that she was doing something – and if making people laugh and helping them keep their sanity is not something, I don’t know what is.

Favourite passages:
His gardening consists in refusing to talk to the gardener, and, occasionally, very occasionally, when the sun is really warm, taking his before-Sunday-lunch sherry down the garden path and saying: ‘Is that an apple-tree or a pear-tree?’; and ‘There seem to be a lot of weeds’; and ‘Of course, I’d like to do some gardening myself, but a doctor has to think of his hands’; and finally, ‘It would be much cheaper to lay it all down in asphalt.’ Then he goes indoors to roast beef with a self-satisfied expression on his face as of one who has spent the morning close to Mother Earth.

I have been rather bad about the war lately. This time the feelings of waste and isolation have taken the form of extreme irritability with Mrs Savernack, whom I suspect of enjoying the war because she can sit on committees and boss everybody about as much as she likes, as well as practising those small economies so fear to her heart.
Yesterday, when I was changing my book at the library, she told me, firmly and loudly, that this war was a Crusade. I said I seemed to have heard that before somewhere, about twenty years ago.
‘Oh, that war,’ she said. ‘That was quite different.’
When I asked her why, she said that, for one thing, the last war had been entirely unnecessary.
Having dismissed the sacrifice of a few million young lives as a sort of boyish prank, she bought a box of rubber bands and left the shop.

Where are those children whose only anxiety then was to get nicely browned on both sides, like a filet of fish? And where are you, Robert? I know you aren’t where you were before, but where are you?
It’s not much fun, you know, being a middle-aged woman, safe and protected, on a roof, thinking of other people in danger.
(Also, there are illustrations! And lovely ones they are too. Some of the far superior reviews I'm about to link to include them, so make sure you click over.)

Other opinions:
Paperback Reader
Nonsuch Book
The Indextrious Reader
Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover
Stuck in a Book
Savidge Reads
Letters from a Hill Farm

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Lovely book this one... I laughed and cried all at the same time. I think my favourite line was, 'Bindweed has its roots in Australia'. Have you tried 'Diary of a Provincial Lady' by E.M. Delafield?

  2. I haven't, but it's on my wishlist! It also sounds like something I'd love :)

  3. Oh I have this on my To be read pile. Can't wait to read it now! Good review!

  4. I found this delightful and charming but you are right: the humour is a coping mechanism; they are making the best out of a bad situation, stiff upper lip and all that. I definitely like the untold domestic stories too as well as the ones that have to be told.

    Thanks for the link; I have a soft spot for that epistolary review.

    Bloomsbury are issuing the sequel to Henrietta's War in the new set of Bloomsbury Group titles out later this year.

  5. I love epistolary novels and put this on my wishlist the first time I heard about it. I'm still waiting to come across a copy - may have to break down and order this one! Excellent review!

  6. This sounds like something I would love since your review makes it seem a little something like D.E. Stevenson's works.

  7. I have not heard of this novel before, but as I love the epistolary form, I think I will have to add it to the TBR list.

  8. Interesting - I've never heard of a book about war that is supposed to be funny! I'm intruiged. I'll keep an eye out for this one!

    from Une Parole

  9. I love the cover of it. And the synopsis sounds great. I will have to check it out. But I have to read The Brontes went to W. first. I started it last week but I found it difficult to get into and so I put it aside. Hopefully, I will pick it up soon. I don't like to abandon books!

  10. This sounds great! I can see why there's humor in it - you wouldn't want to write a depressing letter to a soldier at the front line.

  11. humorous epistolary novel set in a village in Devonshire during WW2.

    that's all I really need to know. thanks! off to investigate.

  12. Okay, the "boyish prank" quotation sold me!

  13. Wow, this sounds really good. I never thought about the plight of pets during WWII, but reading that part of your review broke my heart a little. I'll definitely pick this one up.

  14. It's interesting, because when you say 'funny book about war', I can think of examples: Catch 22 leaps to mind, for instance. But usually war comedies are satirical and they focus on soldiers - as is true of most war books. I was just (kind of ineptly) talking to Ms Debi about something like that the other day - that we only recognize one kind of courage in the world, and it's certainly real courage, but we kind of assume that any courage that doesn't fit it, doesn't really 'count' you know? Honestly, that's what I didn't like about Harry Potter - was the feeling that the books were subtly saying 'the best kids are gryffindors, evil is easy to categorize into one house of slytherins, smart people like Ravenclaws can be helpful sometimes, and everybody else, well, Hufflepuffs are nice enough, and it's kind of sad when they die sometimes.' I know this is a gross oversimplification, and doesn't really do justicto Ms Rowling (I did enjoy the books), but I wish there were more books that told about kinds of heroism that we as a culture don't normally appreciate. We shouldn't ahve to apologize or explain away that someone is sad about their dog, you know? Sure, it's not 'important' in a John STuart Mill kind of equation of good, but I WANT people to be able to love their dogs, their friends, their children, whatever with intensity, because that's what makes life worth living for me. There is something heroic in that feeling, something brave, even if it's not th ebravery of a soldier facing down bullets. That's what I was telling Ms Debi the other day - honestly I would find it much easier to find courage to, for instnace, run into a burning building, than to find courage to be as good of friends as you guys are. Anyway, sorry. Rambling in your comments again. :D

  15. Ooh, this sounds right up my alley! I knew YOU would love it at "epistolary." :-) I now want all these Bloomsbury Group books. So pretty and they seem so wonderfully good, too!

  16. I've been lusting after any of these Bloomsbury Group books. This one might have to be the first I buy!

  17. Very intriguing. I think I'm seeing a pattern in the books that I'm enjoying in that there is a juxtaposition of emotion - that which is expected and deemed appropriate to that which is not. When you see how closely the mind and soul can go from one to the other, it is an interesting study. This sounds like that sort of exposition. Great review. I'll add it to the list.

  18. I'm just waiting for my mum to get given this for her birthday. It's got to happen soon (right?). I love to read stories that talk about what life was like for the average person during these massive historical events: the tiny ways people had of coping, the games they played, the stories they told.

  19. This sounds charming -- I've read 2 of the Provincial Lady books and this one sounds like something I'd love. But my library has it classified as a children's book! How odd.

  20. I've seen reviews of this book in so many places, but for some reason, I keep away from reading them. Maybe it's because I thought it's not really the kind of book for me. I was under the impression that it's an old classic, something I wasn't interested in at the time.

    Then now you review it, and I thought, well, lets just read and see what the book's really about. And I'm now intrigued. I don't usually like books that are a whole series of letters (I see the term is "epistolary"), but some of them have worked for me (like Dracula for example). I'm making a mental note of this book. Thanks for the lovely review Ana.

  21. I don't think I'll pick up this book at first glance, but I'm intrigued with this book after reading your great review, Ana! Onto the wishlist it goes! ;)

  22. This does sound like a book I should read. I think I would enjoy it. Glad u posted about it--thanks so much

  23. Envy!! I just put this one on my wishlist, last week. It probably won't ever make it to my town, so I'll have to order, eventually. Sounds just as wonderful as I hoped!

  24. This sounds delightful! The dog issue is actually something that can up for me after I read The Road. So sad.

  25. Her poor dog! I had never imagined how the animals coped in wartime, when people were struggling with lack of food.

    I really want to read this one, especially as it is epistolary form.

  26. Mrs B, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Claire, your epistolary review is a masterpiece :D And wow, you made my day with the news that there is going to be a sequel! What are the other Bloomsbury titles that are coming out?

    JoAnn: You SHOULD break down! :P I don't think you'll regret it.

    Tricia, I've yet to read any D.E. Stevenson, but Miss Buncle's Book is on my wishlist. It sounds delightful.

    Molly: I love epistolary novels too! :) I hope you enjoy this when you get to it.

    Emidy: There's Catch-22 too, but I have to confess I haven't read it :P

    Andreea: Oh no - I'm sad to hear you're having trouble getting into The Brontës! As you know I really loved it. But, both Vivienne and Frances reviewed it recently and mentioned having a little bit of trouble getting into it at first too. But they loved it in the end, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that you do too.

    Kathy, good point!

    raidergirl3: lol! What else does one need, right? :P

    Jeanne: I just loved that passage :D

    S. Krishna: It really is heartbreaking :( Fortunately nothing dreadful happens in this case, but just the thought...

  27. Hee, thank you :D.

    Henrietta Sees it Through: More News from the Home Front 1942 -45 along with Mrs Harris Goes to Paris AND Mrs Harris Goes to New York by Paul Gallico; Mrs Ames by E.F. Benson; Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady.

  28. Jason, you know you're welcome to "ramble" anytime! I agree with you - there are many forms of courages, and many, MANY more experiences that are worthy of being talked and written about than those we tend to consider or recognise. Honestly, ANY human experience deserves to be included in literature. I want people to be able to love their dogs &c as well :)

    Aarti: lol - I'm predictable, aren't I? ;) I want them all too!

    Amanda: So have I! I want the whole set.

    Elisabeth: This - "I think I'm seeing a pattern in the books that I'm enjoying in that there is a juxtaposition of emotion - that which is expected and deemed appropriate to that which is not" - is such an excellent point! I'm also very much drawn to books about emotions and experiences that aren't normally recognised or acknowledged.

    Jenny: lol - fingers crossed that it does happen :P And yes, I love those stories too. They make the big events seem so much more real.

    Karen: I need to get my hands on the Diary of a Provincial Lady soon, don't I? And that's so weird about the classification! I wonder if whoever catalogued it just glanced through it, saw the illustrations, and automatically assumed it was for children?

    Michelle: For some reason I really love epistolary books, but I can see why they're not for everyone. But as my job is to read and catalogue old letters, I guess I learned to like them for my own good :P Anyway, I hope you enjoy this if you decide to pick it up!

    Melody, I actually think you'd really enjoy it :)

    Diane, I think you would too!

    Bookfool: I had it on my Bookmooch wishlist for ages, and then just caved and bought it. Book buying ban? What book buying ban? :P

    Jessica: Oh, The Road :( That book just stomped on my heart.

    Vivienne: I know! Though - *spoiler alert, possibly* - nothing too horrible happens. Anyway, I think you'll really enjoy this!

    Claire: Well, predictably I haven't heard of any of them :P But I've heard of Benson, and really want to read his Mapp and Lucia books (Michael Dirda is a huge fan). Plus I love the title "Let's Kill Uncle" :D

  29. You need to check out my Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (under Flowers for Mrs Harris) review from earlier this year! I only just made the Benson connection as I was listing them for you; I want to read the Mapp and Lucia books too :)

  30. I have been seeing advertisements for this book all over the place, and wasn't sure what it was all about, but your review makes me think that this is definitely a book I would enjoy. The part you mention about the dog is very saddening, and something that I had never thought about before. Great review, I am going to be on the lookout for this book!

  31. I currently have a dog sitting at my feet and it would be very bad if he had to starve because of rationing. Funny, the things we take for granted, such as being able to feed the family pets.

    This sounds like a great read, but my TBR is so fricken huge that I'm not sure I should add it quite yet.

  32. I have this one at home - bought it after seeing Dovegreyreader raved about it! I am making a conscious effort to read my own books in April, so who knows, I might even get to this one.

  33. Claire: Off to check out your review :)

    Zibilee: They've been released in the US recently, which is why they're all over the place! They're really as good as advertised, I think :)

    April: We do take those things for granted. I love my cats and dogs to pieces and don't even want to imagine watching them go hungry :\

    Marg: I hope you do! And that you enjoy it, of course.

  34. I've read such wonderful reviews of this one and yours is no exception. I'm off to add this to my TBR on Goodreads.

  35. Your review makes me think of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, in terms of WWII, and knowing the characters well. I tend to not want to read stories of war, and then sometimes they pop and surprise me in their beauty. Not, though, the Book Thief by Markus Zuzak; that one still makes me sad.

  36. This sounds fabulous! I think these "lighter" books about the war are just as valuable as the more serious ones, though in a different way.

    I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.