Sunday, March 20, 2011

At Home with Henrietta

Henrietta Brown is the creation of Joyce Dennys. In 1939, Dennys began regular submissions of fictional letters to Sketch magazine in which she was Henrietta, a middle aged woman living on the Devon coast and writing (and sketching adorable little drawings) to Robert, a childhood friend away at war in France. These letters were very popular and she continued writing them until the war ended in 1945. The subtitle on these books is "News from the Home Front" and that pretty much says it all. Henrietta writes about gardening, cooking, clothing and so many other things from the point of view of a Doctor's Wife in a village setting. All of these aspects of life are affected by the war but Henrietta also knows (especially from the grumblings of the London evacuees) that they are also lucky to be where they are.

There is an amusing cast of characters in these letters, from the aging Lady B, who is always able to stay calm and look on the bright side, to the irritable Mrs. Savernack, who treats Henrietta like she's a bit simple and utterly hopeless. The group of people from the town have children fighting in this war and some have even lost children in the last war. They are trying to cope without friends, husbands and all of the niceties in life. Silk stockings must be worn with "ladders" (runs) because there are no replacements. Fuel shortages make people close up parts of their homes to economize. Walks on the shore are hampered by barbed wire and land mines. These letters reveal so many of the small details about life at home in England during the war that one might have heard of but never put together in such a complete picture.

The letters, finally published in book form in 1985, are divided into two volumes -- Henrietta's War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942 and Henrietta Sees it Through: More News from the Home Front 1942-1945. I suppose they were divided in order to avoid a 300+ page collection but I decided to sit down and read both books back to back and I didn't lose interest at all. In fact, I found it more satisfying to have VE Day to look forward to at the end, rather than stopping on a melancholy note in the middle of the war.

Also, I'm happy to finally get to one of these beautiful Bloomsbury books (my copy of Henrietta's War is actually an older Penguin edition). I have heard so many good things about the series and now I truly appreciate what they have brought back in print. This pair of novels present a unique portrait of a segment of the British population that is regularly forgotten behind the tragedy and magnitude of the Blitz. I can't recommend these books enough to anyone interested in a sweet but melancholy stay in Devon during WWII.

Taking nothing for granted,

Support our site and buy Henrietta's War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942 (Bloomsbury Group) and Henrietta Sees It Through: More News from the Home Front 1942-1945 (Bloomsbury Group) on Amazon or find them at your local library. We bought our own copy of the first and received a review copy of the second from LibraryThing.


  1. These sound fantastically interesting and very useful given my current writing interests.

    Thanks very much for the review!

  2. I have several of the Bloomsbury books but neither of these -- I'll have to add them to my birthday wish list! I'm particularly interested in the home front during WWII. Persephone books also publishes a lot of fiction from this era. Thanks for the review.

  3. I have this but I've been saving it against a grim grim day when I will really really need it. :p I'll have to get the second volume soon too -- VE Day! (Was exciting, but the real surrender was on my birthday, and then the selfish people of Europe made it the next day. Durn it. VE-Day on my birthday would have had a pleasing circularity, because the Lusitania also sank on my birthday.)

  4. These sound excellent - my old workplace had a collection of real letters from the very beginning of the war until a few years just afterwards - again, lots of little details about rationing, digging for victory etc.

  5. Al - I'm glad that I could bring these books to your attention! They're really fantastic for period language as they were written at the time as if she was writing actual letters.

    Karen - I have a few more of the Bloomsbury books on the stack and enjoying these has made me more excited for those! I have to look into more Persephone books too!

    Jenny - This would be a perfect book for a grim day in two ways -- making you see that there has been far worse that people have lived through and also enjoying the humor of these situations. (p.s. I have Hitler's birthday. It's tempered by the fact that it's also my great-grandmother's birthday.)

    Tracy - I would love a chance/reason to read letters like those. It is really interesting that they wrote about things that they found so odious. And yet, I know that they really did have patriotic feelings about doing them.

    Jenners - I love the term too! If I wore stockings, I would use the term.