Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 1, 2018

1939: The Last Season, by Anne de Courcy #BookReview

Yes, I’m having a bit of a binge on books from the B-C shelf.  But I’m a bit bemused about whyever I bought this one with my hard-earned dollar. The blurb says that it’s a skilful weaving of Thirties ‘Society’ with the political events leading up to the war.  And some of it is.  But the sycophantic society stuff is nauseating…

I guess it depends where a reader is coming from.  Someone at Goodreads was disappointed by the politics and wanted more of the society gossip.  *chuckle* Maybe this book was de Courcy’s way of teaching a bit of British history to the sort of people who read celebrity gossip magazines and who fawn over the rich and famous? Whatever her intent, there is far too much about debutantes and the vast amount of money spent on their coming-out, but these sections are clearly signalled and the impatient reader can skip them.  I certainly did.

The bits that I was interested in were the background on Chamberlain, his rivalry with Churchill, the unpreparedness of Britain for war, the complex negotiations with potential allies especially Russia, and the juxtaposition of bad news with the hapless politician in receipt of it having to keep a stiff upper lip at some ball or dinner.  The chapter titled ‘Health and Panaceas’ was an insight into commonplace deadly diseases in the era before antibiotics and the National Health system.  De Courcy says that most people really were better off at home rather than in hospital because they were probably immune to their own germs whereas cross-infection in hospitals was often terminal, as indicated by the anecdote about a woman who had a leg amputated after puerperal fever.  Plastic surgery, (which would be in demand for pilots rescued from burning planes), was a nightmare: between each graft the patient had to wait until the resulting infection cleared up, making any procedure longer and more painful than can be imagined now.   And this situation was not so long ago really… my parents were teenagers in 1939.

Also of interest was the chapter on servants and the foreshadowing of an end to their labour when the war brought opportunities for better pay and more satisfying work.

I skipped most of the gushing chapter of The Royal Transatlantic Visit to Canada except to notice that de Courcy does a fine job of creating drama out of crossing the Atlantic in fog, something that shipping did (and still does) routinely.  I also noticed this rejoinder to the question of whether it was safe for the Royals to leave Britain at that time…

At a time when Britain needed all the friends she could get, it was unthinkable that the King and Queen should miss the chance to consolidate bonds with a Dominion, and to influence American public opinion by appearing in both the political capital of Washington and the most important city in North America, New York. (p.129)

Well, it was clearly not ‘unthinkable’ to take the loyalty of Australia, South Africa and India for granted.  And the irony of the other ambition for this tour seems to have passed by De Courcy altogether.  The enthusiastic reception of the Royals in the US in 1939 did Britain no good at all when it came to whether America would join the fight against fascism in Europe, since the Land of the Free waited until Hitler declared war on them in December 1941.

I read the next chapter more soberly.  It’s an account of the tragic loss of the HMS Thetis, a new submarine doing trials.  Only four men survived, and 99 lives were lost.  It happened at the same time as Eton’s annual celebration of George III’s birthday, and the tone of the book becomes more sombre from this point onwards. De Courcy notes that the sixth form speeches included a passage from Riders to the Sea in which an old woman mourns the loss of her husband and sons in their hopeless struggle against the impersonal but relentless cruelty of the sea.  She concludes the chapter with a roll call of the men from Eton’s Eight who lost their lives in the war.

Although ensuing chapters include references to the interminable parties (and particularly tiresome is the moaning about how dull ‘Royal Ascot’ was without the Royals),  De Courcy describes the preparations which by June were beginning to become inescapable:

There were slit trenches in Kensington Gardens, barrage balloons above the London parks, posters everywhere described how to recognise mustard gas and decontaminate oneself after an attack.  Hotel and restaurant windows were sandbagged; the Savoy, particularly vulnerable in its position on the river, had already fortified itself before the Munich crisis with thousands of feet of steel tubing and timber beams reinforced with concrete in its main restaurant and reception rooms.  (p.181)

And I learned something about PG Wodehouse: he made some contentious broadcasts from France that led to accusations that he supported the Nazis. Who knew?

Adding to the tension was the IRA bombing campaign:

… since January, there had been 127 separate bombing incidents, sixty-six Irishmen had been convicted, and the police had seized enough explosive — 1500 sticks of gelignite, 1000 detonators, two tons of potassium chloride and oxide of iron, seven gallons of sulphuric acid and four hundredweight of aluminium powder— to cause, they said, at least 1000 deaths and millions of pounds worth of damage. (p.205)

The silliness of this book is offset by poignant moments that remind us that Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. So I think I’ll let the last word go to the Australian Richard Hillary, in whose name there is still a writing competition at Oxford.  De Courcy calls him the Rupert Brooke figure of his generation, and she quotes from his book, The Last Enemy published in 1942:

‘In a fighter plane, I believe, we have found a way to return to war as it ought to be, war which is individual combat between two people, in which one either kills or is killed.  It’s exciting, it’s individual and it’s disinterested… I shan’t get maimed: either I shall get killed or I shall get a few pleasant putty medals and enjoy being stared at in a night club…’  Alas, he was to be maimed, when he was terribly burned in his Spitfire.  Later he was killed when he returned to operational flying. (p.207)

He was 24.

*The photo of Richard Hillary is sourced from Oxford’s Trinity College website.

Author: Anne de Courcy
Title: 1939, The Last Season
Publisher: Phoenix (Orion, 2003)
ISBN: 0753816725
Source: Personal library, purchased from Top Titles Brighton, $24.95


Responses

  1. What an odd mix of a book. I can see that there would be lots of it that would annoy me intensely!

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    • It’s weird, it really is. And unfortunately, the society stuff comes first in the book – I nearly tossed it aside, but I’m glad I didn’t in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a strange book but fascinating too with so much social history. And how repetitive it still is just a new set of faces and sychophants. Am reading The Last Of The Stuarts by Jean Plaidy another writer who made a fortune on her view of the Royals. Recent birthday present so must read. She was a favourite author when I was a teenager.

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    • #Snap! Me too:) I won one of her books as a prize at school and was completely hooked. But when I signed up for British History in Leaving (Year 11) I was bored brainless and switched to Modern European History in term 2. I loved that, all the unification movements and so on.

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  3. Smart move Lisa.

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  4. When I’m home I scroll down my inbox for missed posts, there’s generally two or three of yours, so here I am commenting when you’re thinking about something else altogether. It sounds a really odd book to have been written 60 years after – at least Waugh (E) and the Mitfords were there at the time.

    Sad that 20 years after the horrors of WWI trench warfare Eton boys still believed there was such a thing as honourable war.

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    • Fear not, this book is still in my head, the silly bits and the real.
      I had a look at this author’s other work, and she seems to have a bit of an obsession with the royals. I can’t help wondering why the Brits are like this, surely they can see the inequity of their class system all around them, and they know that this queen of theirs (and regrettably, also ours) has done nothing to redress poverty and disadvantage despite being one of the richest people in the world.
      I tend to think that people experience a kind of frisson from being around the rich and famous, as if it enhances their status in some way to be present in the same place. Witness this season’s MasterChef, contestants and judges alike, fawning over Charles (who didn’t even deign to taste the food that had been cooked for him). How is it an honour? I don’t understand it.

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