At first we don’t see it. Then we do: it is Roe, he is a bore. This is what strikes us most, above everything else, above even…but we will come to that… Above all other things the hero of this book is an exceedingly boring chap.
…above even class, the big theme in this novel, which is especially attuned to sexual transgression between the upper and lower orders; Prudence and Bert Pye enjoying their couplings precisely because they cross the class divide; although in an extraordinary scene, of one many extra-ordinary scenes in this extraordinary novel, we witness the moment this new found freedom turns to disgust.
It might have been the same day, but just before blackout, that Ilse lay naked on her bed. Declining light, in which there was no sun, reduced her body. She lay dim, like a worm with a thin skeleton back from a window, pallid, rasher thin, her breasts, as she lay on her back, pointing different ways. She had been complaining. The war with Finland. The invasion of Norway. Poor Sweden. Poor England. It was this last that irritated Prudence, as she sat on a cushion before the hoarse gas fire.
For Prudence much resented Shiner Wright, with whom Ilse had coldly begun to go to bed, almost publicly, almost as though to clear the skin. So sweet, lovely she thought Ilse was, so cold of course. After all, it was too continental with this Auxiliary. It put one off Bert Pye even. She wondered if her John would be flying this night. It was real bombs now. Not leaflets. She said, to change the conversation.
“Darling, you’ve started painting your toes.”
Ilse said something really quite coarse and unlike her true self about the Wright creature, who sat in the best chair and stamped cigarettes out on the carpet. She, who had seriously left her toenails natural, now said she had changed because he liked it. She did not even pretend she felt anything except the one thing.
“Look,” Prudence said, “it must be black-out.” She judged this by the sudden unreal depth of blue outside. “I’ll draw the curtains.” She got up.
“Ach you are so English, darling. No, I will lie in the night light.”
“You can’t. You know the fire shews outside.” Prudence drew the curtains, shut the room up. It glowed with the gas fire. Then she walked across and switched on lamps. At these, in their logic, Ilse’s body jumped out where it lay, fattened and stared. With her yellow hair in short curls, her washed, washed skin, fluted ribs, a stomach caved like sand, with long-fingered arms drifted to her whole violin-cut length, long fragile legs polished and fine, with painted toenails that had the look of objects thrown up on a beach, her mouth also and with the shut, lashed eyes which might have been the marks a tide that has ebbed can leave on sand, Prudence caught her breath, it was strong, so falsely Wright’s, what was thus coldly, virginally outspread.
Taking up the eiderdown from where it had been kicked, with disgust she covered, and left, and muted, this now victorious paper white violin.
So it came about that Prudence went off Pye. Should would still go out but she would not bring him back after that.
Ilse is an abstraction out of Prudence’s own war-muddled mind; the conditioned morality and conventional ideas of the pre-war middle classes, especially its ideas about sex and sin, under attack from the new feelings and strange desires let loose by the Blitz.
Ilse is a foreigner. Of course she is! She represents an alien invasion; a night-time raid blowing up the cosy respectability of the daytime economy - the public realm of the bourgeoisie, which so dominates their private lives. No wonder Prudence wants to draw the curtains. But such is the confusion of a wartime city, the disarray caused by those falling bombs, that she hasn't grasped the real location of the danger - it is within. The allies are the real threat to the citizens of London. The enemy is already here. Here is she is lying on the bed; Ilse is naked, and so lovely, so inviting; she invites Shiner to penetrate virgin sands… Affected by this marvellous novel, we think in its images; get drunk on its metaphors. We slap our cheeks, and put them under the cold tap. Sober, we write more directly: working men now fuck the bourgeoise. Though we mustn't blame the Swedes, the Danes, the French… It is the Brits who are mostly responsible. A morality that held desires in check, its moral codes a barbed wire fence separating the classes, has been severely damaged, letting the feelings flow free, like troops over an unprotected beach, fanning out to wherever their force takes them; Pye clambering over the dunes and culverts of Prudence’s elegant physique. Morality has taken a direct hit, and Sin lies dead amongst the rubble; the old Class Divide hurt and wounded is stumbling around dazzled and confused; not sure where he is; uncertain if she is enjoying it; “Darling, you’ve started painting your toes.”
A beautiful piece of art - and the author paints her exquisitely - lies waiting to be desecrated by a thug from the lower orders. Yet the war has already done its work: Ilse, having caught Wright’s coarseness, has already lost her aura.
It is an invasion not a conquest.
London still stands; the Blitz has damaged but not demolished this great city, so that a remnant of the pre-war morality remains: Prudence covers up Ilse’s nakedness and leaves the room. Still that need for privacy,1 while the old inhibitions retain their hold: “She did not even pretend she felt anything except the one thing”; this euphemism suggesting that the mind has kept some control. Indeed, this mind appears to be strengthening - thus Prudence's “It put one off Bert Pye even.” The licentiousness has gone too far. There is a retreat back to normality, the old ideas are returning, the pre-war class divisions are being patched up and repaired, like the fallen walls, the splintered doors…
Pye has misgivings about the relationship. Crossing the class divide is beyond his means: he cannot afford Prudence’s expensive tastes, particularly the White Ladies she drinks in a fashionable club. The occupation will not last for long. Prudence has no respect for the fireman. It is only an animal need - sex - that connects them; and this need quickly fulfilled, the affections are rapidly consumed and worn out. The common spirit that binds two lovers together does not exist here; so that when the passion fades their minds will resume the old ways of thinking;2 and “So it came about that Prudence went off Pye.”
Pye loves it! Like his promotion, sex with Prudence elevates him above his peacetime rank; the sexual act as much idea - so exhilarating, so elevating to be fondling a lady - as a physical satisfaction. Prudence cannot share in this happiness. For sure the degradation is enjoyable, her feelings stronger than her former inhibitions, the desire to degrade herself part of the pleasure. But unlike Pye she needs more than just animal passion; which like any drug has its hangovers and early morning regrets. Looking at Ilse gorgeous on the bed she thinks of that beautiful body crushed beneath Shiner Wright; so ugly with that wretched business with the fags. Prudence is seeing herself from the outside. She is revolted by the sight; and reverts back to her old mentality; sex becoming once more an idea Prudence dresses Ilse’s beautiful body in the delicate sensibilities and fastidious morals of peacetime. To paint one’s toes! A fine body is besmirched with cheap glitter; a sign of the fallen. The old ideas are coming back. They are erecting their defences, holding the desires at bay, so that once more the beaches will be safe; safer even than before, mines and concrete bunkers now added to the rows of barbed wire. Prudence ends the affair.
Pye goes into free fall. To transgress class lines is dangerous for the workers; while the ladies cope quite easily - their mind switches on, and the passion dies.
An immoral interregnum is ending. The raids are coming to an end.
During the Blitz the passions are more intense; anger is pervasive, fear becomes hysterical; and the desire for a good time is overwhelming, creating an enormous pressure to change the geography of class. Thus when the bombs drop, and the old walls fall down, anyone can climb into Prudence’s bedroom - miscegenation between the classes becomes rife. Anything is now possible, for those who have the will.
A typical scion of a family business Roe cannot easily discard the conditioning of his youth and early maturity. This a building that the war hasn't wrecked; only a few windows are cracked, a door pitted with shrapnel. Or to put it soberly: Roe wants a sexual relationship, is aware of its easy availability, but is restrained by his inhibitions; until he falls for Hilly, a colleague at the fire station.
It should be easy for Roe find a woman - he is a handsome and wealthy man. But even Hilly is reluctant to go out with him, because he is so boring. Roe is too conventional for this life of the Blitz. Repulsed by the easy sexuality of these middle class women, their promiscuity disturbs him; Roe too prosaic to enjoy the adventures of a war zone. He is too middle class to work as a fireman. And so like Pye, another character who has transgressed his social background, he will suffer the consequences, experiencing a mental breakdown after being knocked out during a raid.
We witness his recovery through a tour de force description of that raid. Talking obsessively to his sister-in-law - this astonishing monologue a psychoanalytic session - he sloughs off his recent identity; gallons of water poured onto a warehouse blaze. A teetotaller puts it plainly: a civilian is returning to a peaceful existence, to an ordinary mentality.3 Roe will marry Dy, despite a serious tiff in the final paragraphs.
Although Roe’s account is marvellous, his powers of description are weak; describing the events he cannot paint them with vivid images; so the author intervenes, to add colours and metaphors; a bravura performance that creates a strange pathos - we feel our hero’s inability to capture the brilliance of these scenes.4 Roe is a bore. He is Peace personified; a pre-war society that despite its wreckage will survive this airborne assault, though not completely intact; it will be a Victorian terrace minus a few houses, those rectangles of air above a wilderness of weeds and rubble, where kids play with the odd tin can, a pair of ripped knickers, a decomposing corset; “Get out of there William. It is dangerous!” Too much has been seen, there has been too much damage done, for Roe to remain the same person. He has lost some control; his feelings are more febrile; while arguments come easy to him now; he shouts at his son to leave him alone, to go away…
“Well, anyway, leave me alone till after tea, can’t you?”
Roe retreats from his rudeness. The pre-war civilities are returning to this family. But they won’t all come back; the passions of the Blitz, like Freud’s unconscious, surfacing from time to time; to effect their own changes, unknown and unpredictable. The Edwardian age has gone. Both the Germans and the allies helped blow it away. The very structure of this novel a symbol of its collapse.
The shape of the book - its kaleidoscope of images and memories - resembles a conventional plot that has suffered a nervous breakdown; past, present and future are jumbled up - like a row of houses collapsing into one another - and flow chaotically into the consciousnesses of several characters; whose minds appear fragmented and fluid; their thoughts a confusing melange, given an evanescent order by the sudden eruption of explosive images, that in turn destroys what is left of the mind’s coherence; it falls into shards of memories and broken associations.5 The novel itself an air-raid.
Class is extremely important to this novel. It is treated strangely: Roe, the middle class bore, wants to gain the good opinion of Bert Pye, his working class boss. The fire crew think an irregular is currying favour with the Chief. They are mistaken. It is a personal issue: Pye’s sister had abducted Roe’s son, and Roe, out of feelings of shame or sympathy, has become oversensitive towards this man; a feeling he tries to hide by a forced friendliness. It is a sign that the moral codes are in decay. The strict divide between home and work has broken down, leaving private emotions messily entangled with public roles - a wardrobe shatters in the street, and commuters walk through suits, dress, bras, stockings strewn across their way; a woman’s heel catches in a pair of pants - complicating a workplace environment that relies upon an impersonal persona.
We are interrupted by a man from Class War: “You’re forgetting Roe’s class background (we squint in irony). Of course he will look to associate himself with the bosses. Power will always seek power (we smile our Nietzschean smile) even if it does belong to the salt of the earth. A toff friendly with the workers! What do you know! Course he finds them too common for this own la-di-da refinements.”
We don’t wholly disagree, even though the analysis is rather crude. Our friend’s view a handy metaphor for the rise of organised labour during the Second World War;6 which produced a fawning Left intelligentsia - overwhelmingly middle class - that became especially abject during the sixties and seventies.7
Power is everywhere in this book. It is treated with subtlety. We are shown its weaknesses: Bert Pye promoted above this talent - for he lacks both the charisma and the attention to nuance to manage men well - he suffers the insecurities of an unskillful boss. In a war the wrong men are inevitably in charge: Pye, a technician without the gift of command, made chief only because he is a professional fireman. Power is too much for him; he makes too many mistakes, and, eventually, is caught out. Prudence is to blame! for this last fall. When she rejects him Pye loses his mind; he roams around London, is vaguely attracted to a prostitute, then picks up a young boy; a scene so suggestive that we can only imagine that censorship forbade an outright seduction. No fire station can allow a young boy inside a man’s room. Pye is sacked.
Bert Pye is defeated by his desires. Night invades the day, and consumes it. The meaning of the novel is at least revealed: the civilians, because they are participants in this war, are corrupted by its effects;8 the emotions taking over, the feelings are set free, and all the restraints fall away, to leave a man prostrated before his uncontrollable urges; sex floods the mind, and he loses control of himself and his organisation. Bert Pye is a professional that the war has turned into an amateur. Of course he must fail.
No one is safe. Everyone is caught.
Insanity invades the book. Pye’s sister is in an asylum. Roe suffers a breakdown. While Pye…is driven crazy by his situation - the worries of the job; his now insane sex instinct. A psychiatrist delivers the coup de grâce: he triggers some disturbing memories when he suggests that his sister’s madness is caused by a sexual phobia; Pye, unable to accurately reconstruct a memory, now thinks that he is responsible, that it was he who slept…
The war is destroying the past. The future too looks uncertain.
Dy thinks the worst of Pye and his “beastly sister”. They represent a world she doesn’t understand, and hates - because they are a threat to her comfortable existence (the war has not touched her country estate). But Roe will insist on telling her about his time in the fire service. She doesn't want to know; and as she listens, with a mixture of boredom and irritation to a long account of fighting fires down by the Thames, she is thinking only about getting away, of not hearing these ghastly words; their horrific sounds, their grotesque meanings. Such indifference makes Roe angry, for it denies his experiences, now an essential part of his being. There is tension. Dy is a civilian who untouched by the war wants to hide from its realities. Roe will not let her. To regain control he must talk these memories out. Sanity. Order. Normality. These can only come after he has been purged of his terrible history. But this risks unsettling the peace.
We are left with a question mark: will they marry?
Extremes of experience make for lonely people. Roe’s recent life is too disturbing for an easy sympathy. Dead bodies.Transgressive sex. Blitzed moralities. All these are dangerous things, and are hard to comprehend, to feel with empathy. Dy (such a resonant and ambiguous name representing death or merely its camouflage?) is no heroine. She refuses such understanding. She wants to be left to her innocence; she wants only calm and peace. The war has made this couple incompatible; and yet the need to regain the old order is so strong that we believe they will marry. Roe will never find anyone else.
This man cannot run away from the Blitz. He has lived through experiences that have badly damaged his worldview; the simple moralities of the pre-war middle classes. He has lived in a place where even the worst behaviour can be justified - Pye’s sister acted out of instinct only; itself produced by the wreckage of her own life, whose cause was an accident; Pye not meaning to fuck her, he did it by mistake. So much is due to chance, to the contingencies of the situation. Moral anarchy has been brought into an ordered moral universe. Moral truths, Roe now recognises, are complex, they are rife with ambiguity.
Dy will not accept such ideas. But…she cannot walk away from Roe, who will insist on talking; his words so vivid that they are bonded to the memory. Dy will not escape this war. No-one is free from its effects. All are caught.
1. Wonderfully captured by Richard Cobb in Still Life: Sketches from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood; a book that should be read in conjunction with this one.
2. Popular belief was much less concerned with the hereafter than with the present life. Most lay people were less worried about saving their souls, than about ordered security. Hence they took steps to ensure that they and theirs had enough to eat: they performed rites to protect crops from blight, storms, or dearth, and their animals from disease and death. They wished to avoid illness and sudden death, especially in dangerous contexts like a sea voyage of wartime; finally, they used an arsenal of supernatural charms to preserve their looks, to attract a suitable partner, to ensure against infertility and impotence, to protect women in childbirth, and to guard children against disease and demonic possession when they were most vulnerable. Such were the immediate pressing concerns of human survival in an age where all the essentials of life were beyond most people’s control of foresight. Charms and rituals were ‘ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones were not available.’
…penitential discipline was not a cynical means for the powerful to dominate the rest; it was inflicted at least as severely, and usually more so, upon members of the ruling classes themselves. Lay people who could afford to do so maintained ‘confessors’, resident household priests whose function was to discipline and console their patrons’ consciences… A well-conducted confession served, for the educated, to console and guide as much to warn and punish; it aimed as much to prevent morbid and over-scrupulous worry about sin, as to reproach complacency… The Church, in short, offered the wealthy the opportunity to invest in the health of their souls. (Euan Cameron, The European Reformation. The quote is from Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England.)
Although Cameron qualifies this picture by arguing that all classes shared in the superstitious culture, the trend was for the wealthy and educated to be more concerned with souls, the poor with their bodies and the material aspects of life. The middle classes are the heirs of this older confessional culture; the workers to that of their agrarian forebears.
3. For the complex psychology of an amateur in a professional life see the wartime novels of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.
4. A similar feeling is generated in Blindness, in those first few days after John Haye loses his sight.
5. Green does something similar in Blindness, in the Joan Entwhistle chapter, where he treats nature as a character, so mixing up the human with the natural world to evoke the chaos and drift of the girl’s household; itself a symbol for the blind boy’s initial state of mind.
6. See Alan Milward’s The Economic Effects of the Two World Wars on Britain, which demonstrates that the two major redistributions of economic power occurred during these wars.
7. Described by Radhika Desai in Intellectuals and Socialism: "Social Democrats" and the Labour Party.
8. Stella makes this very point in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day - those who stayed in London felt like criminals.