Review: Wartime, Britain 1939-1945, Juliet Gardiner

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.

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  • The image of Britain as the last beacon of light and hope in Europe is so compelling and so chilling… it’s fascinating. (I love that story about Daylight Savings Time!)

    Have you seen the Doctor Who story “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances”? It’s set during the Blitz, and if you’ve never seen Doctor Who, that’d be a great place to start.

    • I love Doctor Who with a mighty love, and that episode’s one of my favorites. Every time I watch it, and the Doctor says all that stuff about “I dunno what you do to Hitler but you scare the hell out of me” I get teary. And then did I get teary again despite feeling manipulated during the Churchill/iDaleks episode this season? OF COURSE I DID. :p

  • I loved this book when I first read it (shortly after publication, which meant I was lugging the hardcover around with me on buses – useful for self defense and building muscle). The anecdotes Gardiner uses are fantastic – I read a lot of nonfiction about this period and all too often you hear the same stories, time and again. Not with Gardiner.

    Can’t wait to get my hands on The Thirties!

    • I wanted to haul it around everywhere with me, but my purse is already unreasonably heavy, and I managed to desist. It was hard though–every chapter was full of funny, interesting, poignant stories, and I never wanted to put the book down.

      I want The Thirties so much! It turns out my optimistic estimation of when I was going to get it was foolhardy and jinxed me. It turns out it’s checked out until 2011, so right now I’m waiting to see if the library will agree to force the patron who has it to return it even though s/he is probably faculty to have it checked out so long.

  • Ah gee, Jenny–I know whereof you speak viz kleenex. The thought of Dunkirk in particular always does it to me…

    I’ll look out for this one.

    • Oh, yeah, I wept right through the Dunkirk chapter. There was one particular quotation from JB Priestley about it:

      What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes and miscalculations, ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit – and you can see it running through our history – of conjuring up such transformations…here at Dunkirk is another English epic. And to my mind what was most characteristically English about it – so typical of us, so absurd and yet so grand and gallant that you hardly know whether to laugh or cry when you read about them – was the part played in the difficult and dangerous embarkation – not by the warships, magnificent though they were – but by the little pleasure-steamers. We’ve known them and laughed at them, all our lives…And our great-grandchildren when they learn how we began this War by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept onto victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.

      *sniffle*

  • Shoot. I want to read this book even more now! I appreciate your warning, even though it came late in my case.

    I read a great novel with a plot that hinged on the internment of the Germans. I wish I could remember what it was called, or who wrote it! It took place in East Anglia? It didn’t demonize the English, but it shocked me at the time because I had never given much thought to what happened to naturalized Germans in other countries. I had a similar experience with Mary Sharratt’s Summit Avenue. German immigrants in the U.S. were pretty anxious during WWI. There was a lot of hateful propaganda (even before we entered the war) and a lot of them Americanized their names.

    • I hadn’t thought about it much either. I knew the US had done all those Japanese internment camps, and I kind of wondered if the Americans would have ever reached a point of outrage where the government decided to stop doing it. I hope so….

  • This is definitely one I should grab. I avoided wartime era books for the longest time and so I’ve been filling in the huge gaps in my knowledge for the past couple of years with fiction and non-fiction.

    BTW, some of my notification emails seem to have not gone through but you won a book in my giveaway (Shadow of the Wind)! You can send your mailing address to webereading AT gmailDOTcom and I’ll get it out to you!

    • Thanks–sorry about the confusion! I guess Gmail saw the “Congratulations you won a” subject line and tried to protect you. It’s weird that your spam filters minded and mine didn’t, since I have Gmail too.

      I still don’t like reading books about actual war, like at the front. But I’ve gotten more and more fond of books set in Britain during and between the World Wars. They are so interesting and full of social change!

  • This book sounds awesome. I especially liked your mention of how Gardiner seems to pick the perfect quotation or perfect anecdote. I admire non-fiction writers like that. They’ve done the research and they know how to cull it and give us the best.

    • Exactly! I’m curious to see if she has the same knack in her book about the 1930s. With the Wartime book, she was able to draw on the Mass Observation archive, which was a huge amount of material. I’m wondering how she manages in the decade before the MO project got started.

  • I love Juliet Gardiner as well. She’s a rare historian in that she is so readable and entertaining while she informs you! I have The Thirties and I think I’m going to start tackling it a chapter a night – it’s sooo huge I’m never going to fit it in my bag! Great review…I want to read this desperately!

    • I want The Thirties ever so much! When I checked out Wartime, The Thirties was sitting right there, and I talked myself out of getting it because I figured I could just check it out later. And now it’s gone… grrr, Past Jenny was dumb!

  • She

    I’ve had a hard time finding non-fiction reads that are like this book sounds it is. It’s such a talent to be able to make real accounts so much more than that but still keep the truth to it all. I will have to keep an eye out for Gardiner, wherever I can find her.

    • I hope you can! I want everyone to love her as much as I do! I just discovered she wrote a book about Oscar Wilde, and then my head exploded with love. (Unless I read it and disagree with her, in which case she and I can’t be friends.)

  • Oh, this sounds perfect. It is going on my wishlist straight away.

    • It is perfect. I wish Juliet Gardiner would live forever and write social histories of every decade that ever happened. :p

  • I’m almost finished with Citizens of London and have been so impressed with the information about British and American attitudes concerning the war. We Americans don’t always come off so well, but the information is fascinating. Like you the British courage during the Blitz inspires me, but America’s reluctance to enter the war and their attitude toward their British allies saddens me at times. Lynne Olson’s research seems impeccable and her choice of quotes is also revealing.

    I’m adding Gardiner’s book to my list!

    • I’ll be adding that book to my list–though not right away. I think when I finish reading this one wartime diary I have right now, I’ll take a little break from wartime stuff. But when I get in the mood again, I’ll hit up Citizens of London straight away.

  • I’m DYING to read this and her book on the 1930’s! My new library system had better have them. *checks* It does! Hooray 😀

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