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.
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.