Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 25, 2022

The Love-charm of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War, by Lara Feigel

This book has a bizarre, somewhat tasteless title, but The Love-charm of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War is an excellent chronicle of World War Two, seen through the eyes of five writers and their circles of friends and family. Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke (a.k.a. Henry Green) and the Austrian Hilde Spiel were all prominent writers in London at the time, and their work is testimony to the mood of the time.

These writers, firefighting, ambulance-driving, patrolling the streets, were the successors of the soldier poets of the First World War […]. Like the poets in the trenches, Bowen,  Greene, Macaulay and Yorke were participants rather than witnesses, risking death, night after night in defence of their city. The Second World War was a total war.  No one escaped the danger and every Londoner was vulnerable.  While the fighting in the First World War took place far away, the bombing of the Second World War was superimposed onto a relatively normal life.  Books were written, parties hosted, love affairs initiated and broken off.  But the books, parties and love affairs were infused with the danger of death; every aspect of life was refracted through the lens of war. (Introduction, p.4)

Elizabeth Bowen in later years described this time as a moment outside time when she and her friends were ‘afloat on the tideless, hypnotic, futureless today.’

Bowen, Greene, Macaulay, Spiel and Yorke floated dangerously on that futureless present.  All experienced the war as an abnormal pocket of time.  As writers, they observed the strangeness of war imaginatively. London became a city of restless dreams and hallucinogenic madness; a place in which fear itself could transmute into addictive euphoria.  To stay in London was to gamble nightly with death. And so each day was unexpected; each moment had the exhilarating but unreal intensity of the last moment on earth.  (p.4)

If I hadn’t heard my own mother say much the same thing, I wouldn’t have believed this possible…

(Her war was very different to my father’s.  He had no romanticised memories of the tragedies that befell him.)

The book could so easily have been mere salacious celebrity gossip, because it’s about the adulterous love lives of these famous (and privileged) authors, but it’s not. It’s an unusual slant on the war when we think we’ve already heard it all.  Through letters, diaries and the authors’ books, The Love-charm of Bombs reveals how the war changed emotional lives and created a dreamlike atmosphere where every moment had to be savoured. Everything was more intense and more vivid, as well as more precarious.

I’ve read and reviewed all but one of the five writers on whom the book is focussed. (But be warned, reading this book will generate a wishlist of titles from which your credit card may never recover!)

  • Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), the Anglo-Irish novelist.  Her novel The Heat of the Day (1949) was set during the war, (see my review here).  I’ve also read Eva Trout (1969), but that was pre-blog.  Bowen was an ARP Warden.
  • Graham Greene needs no introduction.  I’ve reviewed six of his books here, (and read many more) and also Richard Greene’s biography.  Greene was an ARP Warden by night after a boring day at the Ministry of Information.
  • Rose Macaulay (1881-1958), a prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  I’ve read and reviewed Fabled Shore: From the Pyrenees to Portugal By Road (1949) and on the TBR I have The Towers of Trebizond (1956) which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.  Macaulay was an ambulance driver.
  • Henry Yorke, (1905-1973) writing as Henry Green, whose war time experiences as an auxiliary fireman were the catalyst for Caught, which I have just read.  I’ve also read Loving, which he wrote when in Ireland after the war.
  • New to me, Hilde Spiel (1911-1990), an Austrian writer, journalist, film critic and translator, who emigrated to England in 1936 and married there.  Most of her work appears to be in German, but in 1946 she reported on postwar Austria and Germany for the New Statesman.  She was a housewife and mother, trying to write to augment the family’s fragile finances.

The Love-charm of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War is a long book, but fascinating.  In six parts it begins with an Introduction and then Part I: One Night in the Lives of Five Writers, (26th of September 1940).  It then continues chronologically with:

  • Part II: The Blitz, from September1940 to May 1941;
  • Part III: The Lull, from June 1941 to May 1944 when war operations were offshore;
  • Part IV: Approaching Victory, from June 1944 to August 1945
  • Part V: Surveying the Ruins, postwar Europe 1945-1949
  • Part VI: Mid-century: Middle Age, followed by a Coda covering the end of the writers’ lives.

From a booklover’s point-of-view, there are not only biographies of the authors, seen primarily through the lens of their love-lives and the progress of the war, but also valuable literary criticism. Feigel illuminates their oeuvres by analysing their writing to identify resonances with their love-lives, and to show the influences of the war, travel and the people in their lives.

I was quite shaken to read about Rose Macaulay’s experiences during the war.  After reading Fabled Shore: From the Pyrenees to Portugal By Road before my trip to Spain in 2010, I thought of her as feisty, independent and mildly eccentric.  I had no idea of how hard-won her apparent insouciance was.  While the other three British authors were energised by the war, and Heide Spiel struggled with homesickness and displacement, Macaulay’s war was a tragedy that threatened to overwhelm her.

In March 1941 her sister Margaret died after two months of agony, sent home from hospital to die from cancer.  (This also happened to my father’s father. There was no room in the hospitals for civilians, and my father had compassionate leave from the RAF to nurse him at home.)

On the 28th of March, Virginia Woolf — Macaulay’s friend and mentor — disappeared, found later to have committed suicide. Macaulay was devastated:

“The gap she leaves is unfillable (and now when so much is on the way to be lost) intolerable, like the extinguishing of a light.” (p.137)

On the 18th of April Mary O’Donovan aged 23, the daughter of Macaulay’s ailing lover, Gerald O’Donovan, died of septicaemia. Grieving with him (though privately because few knew of their adulterous relationship) Macaulay dreaded his impending death from cancer.

And then on May 10th, on what turned out to be the last, heaviest-ever bombing of the Blitz, Macaulay returned to London after tidying up her sister’s estate, to find that her own flat had been utterly destroyed.  She lost everything, including her letters from Gerald, her inscribed copy of his novel The Holy Tree that had intense personal meaning for her, and her entire library reduced to ashes.  In letters to friends afterwards, she mourned the loss of these books as a way of deflecting from the other tragedies that engulfed her.  She had inherited four generations of books through a family of Cambridge academics and clergymen and from her historian ancestor, Thomas Babington Macaulay. She had used her precious 17th century collection to write a biography of Milton and an historical novel called They Were Defeated (1932).  In one letter in the aftermath, she wrote:

I can’t start again, I feel.  I keep thinking of one thing I loved after another, with a fresh stab.  I wish I could go abroad and stay there, then I shouldn’t miss my things so much, but it can’t be.  I loved my books so much, and can never replace them.  I feel I am finished, and would like to have been bombed too.  Still, I suppose one gets over it in the end.  (p.151)

That poignant attempt at stoicism in the last line would have been characteristic of many facing similar devastation.  But in another letter, she gives in to grief:

House no more — bombed and burned out of existence, and nothing saved.  I am bookless, homeless, sans everything but my eyes to weep with.  (p.151)

Victor and Ruth Gollancz gave her a replacement Oxford Dictionary which became the first book on the shelf in her new flat…

In May 1942 Gerald O’Donovan died, leaving her bereft of her lover of twenty years, and yet her grief had to be private because she was The Other Woman. She expressed that grief in her subsequent fiction, starting with The World My Wilderness where the central character’s loss hungered in her night and day, engulfing her senses and her reason in an aching void.  In The Towers of Trebizond the central character is shattered by the death of her married lover.  

‘And now the joy was killed, and there seemed no reason why my life too should not run down and stop now that its mainspring was broken.’  For a companionship like theirs to end is ‘to lose a limb, or the faculty of sight; one is, quite simply, cut off from life and scattered adrift, lacking the coherence and the integration of love.’ (p181-2)

Feigel writes that travel in Portugal and Spain helped somewhat to restore her spirits with its warmth, light and colour. As she explored ruined cities restored after historic conflicts, she felt some hope for the cities ruined by the bombing. But she never really recovered, and despite her public persona as an eccentric, she was lonely for the rest of her life.

I’ll finish with an excerpt that shows the importance of a bit of escapism.  Peter de Mendelssohn, Hilde Spiels’s husband, went to the pictures in London because he was lonely without her when she evacuated to Cambridge with their daughter. In a letter to her, he wrote abut how the film moved him:

the thing with which I had completely lost touch — you know: human voice, laughter, tears, a little music, someone talking of love — do you understand?  In short, feeling, sentiment, human warmth.  How one loses these things in this life of ours, in this daily bombing routine.  Suddenly you come up against a note of music, a ripple of laughter, a beautiful face, a smile — and it just overwhelms you.  How poor we have become through this war.  The simplest human things are suddenly a revelation, forcing tears into your eyes, for no reason at all. It is as if, after a long time, somebody says something nice and warm and personal to you — something you had completely forgotten existed. (p.119)

Books, films, music… they can be a salve to the soul.

Thank you to PenWithLit for recommending The Love-charms of Bombs.  It is a marvellous book, and I don’t want to take it back to the library! (My only complaint is about the grainy B&W reproductions throughout the text: an insert on photographic quality paper would have been much better.)

Author: Lara Feigel
Title: The Love-charm of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War
Cover design: David Mann
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2013
ISBN: 9781408830444, hbk, 519 pages (includes extensive notes and an index)
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Tempted yet again.

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  2. Sounds a great find Lisa. “Love-charm” just sounds weird. Is it a quote from one of the writers? Surely otherwise there’s a more natural term to describe what is being described.

    Like

    • I don’t remember seeing it within the text. I think it’s a bit of ‘clickbait’ dreamed up by the marketers at Bloomsbury…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bad title but good book. My former landlady had such interesting stories to tell about wartime London. Speaking of Hilde Spiel, she wrote a fascinating series of essays about moving back to Vienna after the war. I read it in German but it was originally written in English so might still be floating around somewhere.
    https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/and-now-for-something-completely-different/

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    • Hi Marina, yes, I did have a bit of a hunt around for those essays, but she was a bit elusive.
      However, *chuckle* I meant what I wrote about the reading list that arises from reading this book. Fortunately I’ve already read most of Graham Greene, but there’s still books on my TBR by Bowen, Green and Macaulay, without adding to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Brilliant and detailed review-excellent!

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    • Thank you!
      (Though — you’ve read it — you know how much more there is to say about this book!)

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  5. I read this book a few years ago now, from the library but then bought as a Kindle bargain, and also bought my mum a copy in paperback, which she read – she died of cancer in autumn 2016. My memory was that the title, which I confess really caught my attention and intrigued me, came from one of the writers. I googled and found a review by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian, and it’s not a direct quote but it’s not just made up by the publisher. It comes from Graham Greene, who felt that he came more alive during the Blitz:

    “The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine (Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?), the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm.”

    The review is here:

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/11/love-charm-of-bombs-review-blitz-lara-feigel

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    • Ah, thank you Elkiedee, I must have missed that.
      It is so Graham Greene, isn’t it? I knew he was a bit odd from reading the Richard Greene bio, but his death-wish ideas are really strange. He doesn’t come out of this book very well, though not nearly as badly as Henry Green who was a real cad to Mary Keene.

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  6. Oh, lovely review Lisa. I’ve been drawn to this one for a while and I’m glad you think so highly of it – that encourages me to actually read it. As for Macaulay, the loss of those letters informed one of her most moving short stories. She really did suffer so much.

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    • If you’re finding the length a bit off-putting — and I admit my heart sank when I saw its size — because I have so much else to read, it’s not academic in tone, and I romped through it in just a few days.
      I must read more Macaulay, though I know I will read her differently now.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds really wonderful, quite a different approach to war stories. I had no idea of the relentless losses in Rose Macaulay’s life, how awful.

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    • I only hope it doesn’t spawn more of those dreadful WW2 commercial fiction novels… you know the ones, the covers always have a back view of a woman in a WW2-styled coat and shoes, with Blitz background. If I see one more of those I shall behave badly, I know I will.
      (Fortunately no one can hear what I say about them and their authors here in my little library!)

      Liked by 1 person


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