Reading and Remembrance

It’s Remembrance Day in my adopted country. On the way to church this morning, my daughter and I saw people with poppies pinned to their coats headed to Victory Square for the wreath-laying ceremonies. At church, we were treated to a children’s choir singing Alexander Tilley’s setting of John McRae’s First World War poem “In Flanders Fields.” (Here is the Canadian Men’s Chorus singing it). We also had a trumpeter playing The Last Post before the two minutes of silence.

As a transplanted American, I don’t fully understand the importance of World War I for Canadian identity. The way war shaped my own nation’s sense of itself is really different, and other wars are far more significant to us. But I’ve been fascinated by the literary impact of WWI since I read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory in a graduate seminar on Modernism. Aside from war poetry, it’s not so much literature of the period as literature about it that I enjoy. Last week, Donna at Radish Reviews did a great post on fiction set between the wars and got more good suggestions in the comments. Why does this period still seem so fascinating to historical fiction writers? Is there a similar wealth of historical fiction set during or after WWII that I’m not aware of? (WWII is a great subject for American film-makers, certainly).

A big part of my own interest in the Great War is the conventional view that it marks the end of “the long nineteenth century” (my academic period) and a decisive break with the past. That’s only partly true, of course, but it’s a useful oversimplification. When I teach the second half of our British Literature survey, WWI and the war poets mark the end of the course, as if a tradition ended there and something else took its place. (This is now an utterly indefensible curriculum, of course; we’re missing a whole century of Brit Lit. But that’s a topic for another day).

I once taught an introduction to historical fiction for students also taking a creative writing course on historical fiction and a post-Confederation Canadian history course. To help link the courses, we read some Canadian fiction about the Great War and its aftermath: Timothy Findley’s The Wars and Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers. I’ve also taught Pat Barker’s Regeneration. This is some of my favorite literary fiction set in the period.

I love a number of mystery series with a post-war setting: Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge, Barbara Cleverley’s Joe Sandilands, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and of course the grandmother of them all, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. All of these detectives are haunted to one extent or another by their wartime experiences, and many of the mysteries have roots in the war. It’s possible that Sayers’s literary influence is partly why this is a popular period for mystery writers, but I suspect there are other reasons. Some of these characters are freed by the fact that the war disrupted old class structures and created new opportunities, for instance. And the way people are haunted, marked, still traumatized by war is fertile thematic ground for mysteries, which are always about uncovering and understanding past events.

I have often wished that romance, my other genre of choice, was set in a wider range of historical periods, including the time during and after the Great War that I’m so intrigued by. But I can understand why the very themes and issues that make it such a good fit for mystery make it hard to set a romance there. So many young men were killed and wounded. Look at the mysteries I cited: Maisie Dobbs’ fiancé suffered severe brain damage, among other injuries, and is unable to communicate or recognize her; Rutledge’s and Wimsey’s fianceés left them for men less broken by war. Despite various romantic entanglements, only Wimsey, so far at least, managed to find a new, lasting love. It’s as if happiness, for many of them, is no longer quite possible after the war. Ruthie Knox had a great post on a World-War-II-set romance this week, and how it wasn’t, couldn’t be, escapist enough to read comfortably as genre romance for her. Perhaps I’m better off sticking to post-war Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, one of my favorite romantic couples ever.

Urquhart’s Stone Carvers, which ends with the creation of the Vimy memorial, has both a tragic love story and happy romantic ending–Klara loses a lover to the war but finds another one, and her brother Tilman finds love too. I think this makes thematic sense: the novel is partly about the power of art to create order out of chaos, to make meaning, to memorialize. The romantic relationships that end the novel are another way of triumphing over–but not forgetting or erasing–suffering. A lot of my students, though, found the ending too neat and “formulaic.” I think they read the happy ending as somehow diminishing or denying war’s impact, as a cop-out on tragedy. I wonder if this helps explain the reluctance of genre romance to explore “difficult” historical periods, despite the fact that people did (and do) fall in love in wartime, and survive to live happily together after it.

Personal Updates

I’m continuing my good reading streak, switching back and forth between two books I’m really enjoying. There should be a post on these Tales by Two Carolyns in a week or so.

Tomorrow I take my husband to the airport for his comics scholarship world tour (he’s giving papers in Leeds and Beijing). He’ll be gone almost two weeks. Plan A for this time: I am supermom and use my lonely evenings to get a ton of work done; Plan B: I subsist largely on cereal, snap at the pets and children I must somehow care for all by myself, stay up too late watching romantic comedies on Netflix, and treat my absent-spouse-induced insomnia with favorite audiobooks. Unfortunately, I’m pretty much a Plan B kind of woman. I hope to move the needle a little bit towards Plan A.

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40 Responses to Reading and Remembrance

  1. I think the issue for historical romance is it must be far enough back that no living memory survives to refute it. We are just entering a time when WW1 and Victorian romance is popular under that criteria. When my grandmother started reading, Georgian was a popular era. I think the historical my grandkids read will be WW1 instead of Napoleonic.

    Living memory is longer than anyone thinks. Ten years ago I was doing research and received a letter from someone claiming to have been a classmate of my subject. I thought it was impossible. The woman in question had been born before 1900. Turns out the person writing me was 106. Another woman wrote to me about settling Canada. I thought the photo I sent her was of her mother or grandmother, but it was of herself.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a really good point. Barker’s interest in WWI, for instance, is partly because her grandfather served. It was still “alive” for her. That does make a romantic fantasy version hard to create, and I think to some extent Romance, however solidly researched, is in the business of romanticizing history.

  2. mezzak says:

    I spent time with one of my cousin’s today and she commented how the whole of Greensborough Shopping Mall ( a large outer suburban shopping centre here in Melbourne) came to stillness for the two minute silence yesterday (11th fell on a Sunday here). No pressing of buttons in the photoprint shop; everyone standing still and quiet once the trumpets played. ANZAC Day on 25th April is the primary day of commemoration and remembrance in Australia with tens of thousands attending Dawn Services. Remembrance Day is overshadowed by that but it persists and is quietly powerful in its own way.

    I can’t speak for Canada but in the first world war, 1 in 2 Australian men of military age were enlisted and our casualty rates KIA, prisoners and wounded were around 51% of all who saw service. There were 60,000 deaths from a small population of around 5 million compared with 39,000 from a larger population base in WW2. The impacts of WW1 were profound and touched every family and in Australia the war memorials list all those who served not only those who died.

    There is a very poignant song ‘Dancing at Whitsun’ which is about this impact. There were some English towns and villages were the male mortality rate approached seventy percent. Amongst other things the traditions of male dancing were at risk of disappearing with no men left alive to continue so the women – the war widows and women who would never marry now, started dancing the morris steps.

  3. SonomaLass says:

    One of my favorite series is Anne Perry’s WWI series, beginning with No Graves as Yet. It has some romance, some mystery, some action, and a lot of sadness. I waited months, sometimes years, between books, and I had be in the right frame of mind, but each was a lovely, moving experience. Of course Perry is problematic for a lot of readers, but those are the best WWI fiction I’ve read. For post-war, give me Lord Peter!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have only read her Victorian books. Maybe I’ll try these.

      • sonomalass says:

        I loved the early Thomas Pitt books, but then they got a bit same-ish and I took a (long) break. The William Monk books are hit and miss for me, mostly because the amnesia device is weird — just sits wrong with me for some reason, totally subjective. A lot of people refuse to read her at all, especially writing about murder, but obviously I’m not in that camp. I thought the WWI books had some of the best elements of the detective fiction, but without restrictions of the genre and with a really terrific feel of the time and place, both in the trenches and on the English home front.

  4. Erin Satie says:

    One more stellar example to add to the list of inter-war mysteries: P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories, which are mystery-ish.

    On a contemporary note, I’ve really enjoyed Laurie King’s Mary Russell mysteries, which feature a wonderful if highly unconventional (massive May/December) romance between the heroine & Sherlock Holmes. The first book especially has a very wartime feel.

    Not really a response to your thoughts – maybe later.

  5. Ros says:

    I think there is quite a lot of WWII fiction, but it’s mostly in the war/thriller/misery genres. More romantic titles that come to mind are: Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, though that’s not strictly a romance, I suppose. You could also try Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home. Both those latter are more like family sagas with romantic themes. Lovely books, though. I am not a huge Eva Ibbotson fan, but she also has a WWII romance, The Morning Gift.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Mary Wesley is one of the writers I discovered before I became a full-on romance reader but was looking for love stories in my fiction. I really enjoy her and that’s a great book.

  6. Ros says:

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, of course.

  7. Donna says:

    I really need to find those Jacqueline Winspear books–they sound exactly like the kind of thing I like.

    Sayers, of course, is a different beast from the others in that she was there. Her husband had been gassed during the war, and he suffered both physically and mentally for the rest of his life from his experiences. Although she created Lord Peter before she married Mac, she clearly used his experiences in later books. Bellona Club was published two years after her marriage.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really enjoyed the Maisie Dobbs books, though I got a bit bored and haven’t read the last couple. They’re quite unusual in some ways and Maisie is a great character. And you’re right, of course, that Sayers is not writing historical fiction and is therefore quite different. I do suspect some of the other series are influenced by her. Even King’s version of Holmes has a touch of Wimsey.

  8. farmwifetwo says:

    The War of 1812 started building Canada’s colonies into a nation. WWI completed the process – not just for us, but many of the other Commonwealth countries. The fact that Canada owns Vimy Ridge in France (it is Cdn soil, gifted to Canada after the War from France), the fact that Canada was at the peace talks afterwards, are very important to our nation building and transformation from “just a part of Britain” to Canada. Also, the US wasn’t there for the majority of WWI. You took ever nickel you could in exchange for materials and weapons and showed up at the end. So, no, you don’t understand it’s importance to the rest of the world. But that choice and the US’s involvement in WWII are still very important factors in relations between the US and Europe even today. Europe has a long memory.

    Books to read:

    Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series
    Laurie R King’s Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series and Touchstone. She is writing a follow-up to Touchstone.
    Lucy Maude Montgomery’s journals and Rilla of Ingelside – which is the last of the “Anne” books and tells the story of the War from Canada.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I hope nothing I said came off as belittling Canada’s role. My point was really that not having grown up here, I lack a deep emotional understanding of the war’s place in Canadian identity, something no education in history can provide. Your comment demonstrates that. I’ve read Rilla, but not for ages. I thought it was interesting (though not very effective) that the later Anne TV series sent Gilbert to war.

  9. VacuousMinx says:

    I think it’s because WW1 really is the end of the Long Nineteenth Century, and the technology of the war was so shattering for so many of the participants. Also, the total war aspect was unexpected because the treaties in place were supposed to prevent wars, and instead they created a domino effect where treaty signatories had to enter.

    For the white colonies like Canada and Australia, their full-blown participation (and sacrifice) in WW1 was followed by increased domestic autonomy and dominion status. For non-white colonies like India, the unequal treatment (dominion status was off the table) and the lack of compensation for participation helped propel independence demands.

    James Hilton’s Random Harvest gives you a sense of the postwar change. Not the movie, which compresses a lot of that part of the book (or omits it entirely), but the novel itself.

    For interwar and WW2 fiction you can’t beat Elizabeth Bowen and Angela Thirkell. Entirely different from each other but both are must-read authors.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Your first two paragraphs are basically what I was trying to say but much more cogent and well-informed. I read one Thirkell book and really should read more. After all, I’ve read plenty of Trollope.

      • VacuousMinx says:

        I was agreeing with you out loud, I think; I had forgotten about the long 19thC until you mentioned it. In thinking more about it, it sounds as if WW1 was the decolonizing war for the settler colonies, while WW2 was pivotal for the non-white parts of the various empires.

        With the exception of Pat Barker, I generally find the contemporaneous work of the period far more satisfying than the retrospective “historical” works. The latter don’t quite capture the ambivalence and the combination of the end of one era, beginning of the next. For example, I wish Charles Todd’s series worked for me, but it just doesn’t.

  10. Meri says:

    I live in a country that does have any sort of Remembrance/Veterans Day on this date; we use a different date for this purpose. I have always been confused, however, as to why Veterans Day in the US is a somber, thoughtful occasion, while Memorial Day is a time for barbecues and high-budget films. Shouldn’t they both be meaningful, just in different ways?

    As for books linked with WW1, I really liked a Very Long Engagement.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think that difference has a lot to do with the time of year, but it may also have to do with the different origins and traditions of each.

    • I love A Very Long Enagement too. I was going to ask Liz if she’d read it. I thought it was much better than the first Maisie Dobbs book. It made me want to read more Japrisot.

  11. Janet W says:

    Janet W: A few years ago I was privileged to join a friend in West Vancouver for their Remembrance Day ceremonies. The weather was suitably cooperative–it was grey and overcast–but the solemn feeling has stayed with me over the years. When I grew up in Toronto, my mum (an American by birth) would take us to the ceremonies at the old City Hall. My mother has gone on many battlefield tours of Europe, led by military historians from RMC (Royal Military College) and she has commented so many times on the exquisite care taken of the Canadian war graves of the First and Second World Wars — it seems to be a responsibility of the nearby villages and cities that goes on generation after generation.

    The carnage of some of the campaigns — and I know other countries in the Commonwealth have their memories too — falls under that “never forget” category. I follow many British tweeters–this year there was a hashtag reminded people to fall silent for two minutes–in the social media realm.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love the idea of two minutes of online silence. Silence is so powerful, and so rare in modern life. Two minutes can feel like a very long time.

  12. kaetrin says:

    Here in Australia, as we were discussing yesterday on Twitter and as others have stated here, the bigger day is Anzac Day. There is a dawn service and a march in the morning. All the shops are shut til 12. Then everything opens, pubs have special dispensation to hold two-up games. The morning is somber and the afternoon is celebratory.
    Remembrance Day here is mainly about the 2 minutes silence at 11am – at least, that is my sense. No public holiday for R Day, unlike Anzac Day.

  13. cecilia says:

    I think my favourite creative product of the WWI is the official war art. Even the fact that there were official war artists (and that they weren’t mere propagandists) seems kind of awesome to me. And it’s one piece of why that war in particular really resonates with me – the weird and tragic blend of elements, like horses and tanks, and paintings and film, and poets and poison gas.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I think that mixture is part of what’s so fascinating to me. I was going to say, I wonder if there are soldiers writing poetry now. But these days, in North America at least, people like Brooke and Sassoon and Owen are unlikely to go to war. They can avoid it. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t poet-soldiers, of course, but likely not with the same kinds of social connection).

      • Ros says:

        Did you see Andrew Motion’s poem consisting of snippets from soldiers? It’s really powerful, I think:

      • cecilia says:

        I don’t know about soldier-poets, but I remember a few years ago a story on the news about a poet who went to Afghanistan to spend some time with soldiers. She wanted to, I don’t know, get some kind of authentic experience to write about. Anyway, I thought it was really interesting, but what really stuck with me was her comment about how all her poet friends in Canada were very harshly critical of her apparent support of the war.

      • Meri says:

        I’m not sure it’s quite what you had in mind, but there’s an annual project in Israel in which material written by fallen soldiers is set to music and performed by well-known musicians (here’s an article about it: Some of the songs are about everyday things, while others deal more directly with the military experience. They are usually released shortly before Memorial/Remembrance Day, and it can be heartbreaking to listen to them. Probably the best known one is called Nothing Will Harm Me; like all the project songs, it’s in Hebrew, but there’s at least one subtitled version on Youtube.

        I wonder if there’s anything like that in other countries?

  14. Kathryn says:

    Another American living in Canada. I’ve lived in different parts of Canada (Ontario, BC, and now the Maritimes) since I moved here. And I find that the biggest and most solemn Remembrance Day ceremonies are here in the Maritimes. In part I suspect that it is because I live near a Canadian Forces Base (so lots of active and retired military), but also because people here seem to remember WW I so much more strongly than people I know in the more immigrant-rich areas of Ontario and BC. And I’ve been told by my Newfoundland friends that is even more true about Newfoundland.

    As for Veteran’s Day in the US–I grew up in the Midwest and my hometown had an active VFW hall, and as Girl Scout I participated in a couple of poppy drives, but overall it was more low-key. But I think in my childhood of the 60s and 70s we had other wars to preoccupy us — Vietnam and WWII of course (nobody really remembered the Korean conflict). But the American total war rooted in our mythology and still almost in living memory was of course the American Civil War. One of things I realized in this sesquicentennial of that war was just how much further away that war feels compared to my childhood. And I don’t think it is just because I am in Canada now or because of some nostalgia for my childhood–I think in part it is because we are another generation and half away from that war and there are no people alive now who were there. And of course because Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s could in fact be seen as a continuation of that that war by other means. For Civil War didn’t in fact resolve the problem of a house divided against itself, anymore than the Great War ended all wars in Europe.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, the Revolution and the Civil War are really the American nation-makers, in different ways. And of course more recent wars have caused a certain amount of soul-searching about that identity.

      It seems that both of those wars and their aftermath are the setting for a good deal of American fiction, as is Vietnam.

  15. Alex says:

    If you enjoy mysteries and are looking for something set in World War Two, the first two novels in Laura Wilson’s series about London detective Ted Stratton are set in 1941 and 1944. They are excellent not only as crime fiction but also on the social setting of London during and after the blitz. And, I wonder if you’ve enjoyed Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy if you’ve come across her two latest books which move on Ito the period immediately after the First World War?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for the Wilson recommendation–had not heard of her, but those look interesting. I do know about Barker’s more recent books, but I haven’t read them.

  16. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I thought of this as kind of a filler post, but obviously I’m not the only one intrigued by books set insuring and between the world wars.

    This discussion reminded me of a little-known mystery series I really liked, Rebecca Pawel’s series featuring Carlos Tejada and set in Franco’s Spain (the first is set in 1939). Civil war shades into world war and both exact a high toll on the characters. Despite that, there’s a great romantic thread, too, for those who like such things. I think there are 4 and I was really sorry the publisher (Soho Crime) appears to have dropped it.

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