If you have seen recent films Dunkirk or Darkest Hour, you’d be forgiven for thinking that World War Two was a struggle in which half the human race was missing. Its soldiers and strategists, politicians and prisoners, workers and wounded are all men, and while the odd wife or secretary is there to murmur supportive admiration, the crucial roles played by women are completely overlooked.
Yet in the past year, increasing numbers of books and films have begun to give us a very different portrait of what happened, both on the Home Front and abroad.
Women at war is becoming a hot new genre, as a blend of both crime and historical fiction, with the inevitable dash of romance.
Last year, Their Finest, the film of Lissa Evans’s novel about a propaganda scriptwriter played by Gemma Arterton, captivated audiences.
No doubt we will similarly fall for the big screen adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – about a female writer in the aftermath of World War II – starring Lily James and released in April.
That month also sees the publication of AJ Pearce’s debut novel about wartime female friendship, Dear Mrs Bird, which was the subject of a seven-way bidding war won by Picador. It will come hot on the heels of Jane Thynne’s five best-selling Clara Vine spy novels, and Elizabeth Buchan’s wartime romances I Can’t Begin to Tell You and The New Mrs Clifton.
All are enthralling, meticulously researched and vividly imagined. And all shine a fresh light onto the experience of women during one of the most harrowing times in our national history.
So why has this new sub-genre suddenly emerged, almost 80 years after the event?
Lissa Evans’s novels are pin-sharp with details like the sound of London’s broken glass being swept up, and the buses brought in from all over the country to struggle through the capital’s streets. They feel real in their domestic detail about how wives, mothers, daughters and sisters kept the home fires burning – during black-outs, tragedy and rationing.
The author has been fascinated by the War ever since she came across a book called How We Lived Then by Norman Longmate when she was 13, but she thinks that “part of the current interest has to be Brexit. The parallels are so clear. It makes me think of the famous cartoon of a soldier shaking his fist across the Channel saying, “Very Well, Alone”, after the Fall of France. There is something of that feeling now.”
Many of the novelists now addressing the War in fiction felt inspired by asking parents and grandparents about their experiences – or failing to before they died.
For Elizabeth Buchan, writing about female spies was partly out of regret at not having asked her own father, who fought in a reconnaissance unit “from El Alamein all the way up Italy to Monte Cassino” about his own experience.
He had survived Dunkirk, while her aunt married a German soldier and had to adapt to life in post-War Berlin, just as the German heroine of The New Mrs Clifton must adapt to life in post-War London. Like most men and women of that generation, she says, “they wanted to forget and live a normal life once the War ended.”
Yet her novels also emerged out of “a kind of apprehension”.
“The war feels much closer to us now,” she says. “When the squeeze on incomes began, it felt quite familiar – even if austerity now is nothing like what our parents and grandparents experienced with one tin of Spam having to last a whole week. Those grey, despairing lives are almost comforting to contemplate now.”
Her heroine in I Can’t Begin to Tell You was inspired by a real life Anglo-Irish aristocrat Monica de Lichfeld who married a Danish aristocrat and spied (without her husband’s knowledge) for the British in Demark. A tiny woman, she would row out into the estate’s lake to collect arms for the Resistance dropped by the RAF; unlike Buchan’s heroine, de Lichfeld was betrayed to the Nazis, and died in prison.
“They were just so unbelievably brave. Whether it was the decoders working on indecipherable messages, tackling them 10,000 times because lives depended on it, or women like my Mum who was a nurse in the Middlesex hospital during the Blitz, or those keeping their families alive making a meal out of so little – they were amazing. Though I’m profoundly thankful not to be them,” Buchan adds.
Jane Thynne, whose richly complex spy novels have made her the female John le Carré of the genre, believes that the new interest in women’s roles during the War is fuelled by the same anger that has made dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale fashionable.
“The attention to detail of women’s lives that the Nazis prescribed that was intensely misogynistic,” she points out. “What German women could wear, how many children they should have, not letting them smoke and so much more.”
Her heroine Clara Vine is based on the many real-life British women from good families, for whom it was fashionable to learn German in the 1930s. However, they were not considered spy material for the Allies until MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight (supposedly the model for ‘M’ in James Bond) realised, “that women would make the best spies because they were resourceful, observant, empathetic and – crucially – overlooked,” says Thynne. And recent biographies such as Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved (about Christine Granville, the Polish-Jewish aristocrat who was reputedly Churchill’s favourite spy) have revealed how astute his decision was.
“What has been left out of history is the women’s experience, the way ordinary people coped, which is much more interesting and relatable than stories about soldiers,” adds Thynne. “Most of us haven’t been in a tank, but we’ve all been to shops and thought about what it would be like if there was suddenly no butter.”
An enchanting new addition to the genre, Dear Mrs Bird, initially seems more light-hearted. It recounts the adventures of heroine Emmeline on a failing woman’s weekly magazine in 1940s London. Emmy surreptitiously answers the letters that her agony aunt boss Henrietta Bird is too prudish and snobbish to give time to, combining her job with working nights at the fire station. The sorrow of losing friends, family and lovers to the Blitz is balanced by youthful energy and kindness. The advance interest the novel has taken AJ Pearce by surprise.
“I started writing this years ago as a story of an ordinary young woman in extraordinary times, really because I was looking back at my grandparents, and wondering how they got through,” she explains. “When I looked at the problem pages of magazines of the time I saw that their letters could be from any woman now, falling in love with the wrong bloke or worried about children. It was a way of celebrating and admiring them. They just got on with it, keeping families together and hoping their husbands would come back.
“The Make Do and Mend attitude was normal in wartime, when every woman had to be good at sewing, knitting and cooking. My mother made all my clothes, and my grandmother could knit anything; I can’t do either.”