Books of 1939 (1): popular fiction on the eve of war

Combining an interest in Britain in the 1930s and 40s and out-of- print authors I have been working on a project to identify and read popular fiction published in 1939. What was the ‘reading’ public buying and by the same token what were popular authors of the period writing about and how did they respond to the period of diplomatic crisis leading up to the declaration of war in September 1939? Most of these books would have been in preparation the year before during the run up to the Munich Crisis of September 1938. It was noted at the time that  a specific genre –  the ‘Crisis novel’  –  emerged during 1939 in response to events in Europe.

Of course novels were published on a wide variety of subjects not connected with the approach to war. Morever, it would be a natural reaction for readers to seek out fiction which did not deal with current affairs, offering an escape from what must have been a  general sense of approaching distaster and ensuing doom. At the top of the best seller lists was Rachel Field’s ‘All This and Heaven Too’, which was turned into a hollywood movie in 1940, staring Charles Boyer and Bette Davies. The plot concerned a 19th century nobleman who falls in love with his governess and murders his wife. It was a mammoth best seller.This was also the year of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, a best seller in Britain and America, which was also made into a film in 1941, directed by John Ford, which won an academy award for best picture. There was also Hugh Walpole’s Sea Tower, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

However my interest is specifically in works of fiction that can be related to the contemporary situation, either engaging with it directly or offering in some way or another a self conscious rejection of those events and their meaning – a negative creative response if you like.

During the course of my initial research I read book reviews in magazines such as Time and Tide, the Listener, the Times Literary Supplement and the Sunday Newspapers to indentify a representative sample of books, as well as listings of popular fiction in trade journals to get a general feel for the publishing market – what was selling well. From this has emerged the following list. Some of the authors are familiar, others less so and some have vanished from our literary memory. At the time they were popular, enjoying a wide readership but have since enterred the lists of the out-of-print. One of the purposes of this series of articles is to resurrect these writers, to show they wrote well and are worth reading: to encourage a modern readership to discover forgotten authors.

The List (in simple alphabetical order by author):

Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios.

George A. Birmingham, Appeasement.

Nicholas Blake, The  Smiler With the Knife.

Mary Borden, Passport For A Girl.

Manning Colles, Drink To Yesterday.

Mary Dunstan, Banners In Bavaria.

Pamela Frankau, The Devil We Know/A Democrat Dies

Philip Gibbs, This Nettle Danger.

Geoffrey Household, The Third Hour/ Rogue Male.

George Orwell, Coming Up For Air.

Bernard Newman, Maginot Line Murder.

Nevil Shute, What Happened To The Corbetts.

Ethel Vance, Escape.

I will deal separately with each in turn but it is possible to group them together under specific genres. Orwell and Shute fit more neatly together as more serious works; Frankau, Vance, Dunstan and Borden wrote psychological, often female character led dramas arising out of the European crisis; Ambler and Household wrote intelligent thrillers in the contemporary setting, developing the genre in new ways and pointing away from John Buchan and his generation towards John Le Carre, Len Deighton and others; Blake, Coles and Newman wrote good quality detective stories and whodunnits; Philip Gibbs wrote a very readbale fictional reportage/journalese on current events. George A. Birmingham wrote wonderfully wry and humorous tales of manners.


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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