Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London,
Hardback, 244 pages, 4 b/w illustrations, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
ISBN13: 978-0230577534. £40.00
The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011)
<1> Kristin Bluemel’s 2009 book Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain represents one of the key pieces of critical writing in the past five years by offering both a critical tool for examining inter-war British fiction and by reminding the reader of the depth of the 1930s canon beyond the Auden Generation. It built on her work George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics (2005) that reintroduced a series of ‘lost’ names into critical consciousness. Bluemel’s book was modern British literary criticism doing what it should: engaging in challenging the critical paradigms and also expanding the canon of both period and twentieth century literature in general. Sara Wasson’s first book takes up that challenge and attempts something similar.
<2> Wasson is primarily a Gothic critic and her knowledge of the genre is well covered in the ‘Introduction’ in which she makes a lively and informed argument for the position of Gothic tropes being used as tools in understanding British fiction of the 1939-45 period. Her argument rests on two key concepts: Gothic as ‘an emotional colouring and a preoccupation with certain relationships to space’ (Wasson 2). She highlights some of the imagery of the war – bodies buried alive under buildings, the sight of human beings killed in the most perverted forms (by bomb or in gas chamber) and the blackout extinguishing the senses of direction. Yet, despite these being obvious facts of the war – 80,000 British civilians dead, several million Germans – official propaganda of the time would go to any lengths to avoid the sight of bodies on screen or in print. The Gothic, argues Wasson with some conviction, reassesses the structures of information control in the wartime city.
<3> The writers included in Wasson’s book aim to rectify this imbalance between what was felt appropriate for the public to be told by the Ministry of Information and what was actually seen or felt. The book therefore covers some of the relevant areas of the Home Front: the streets, prisons, hospitals, factories, homes and the morgues. The writers are a mixture of the expected – Henry Green, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen – and the lesser known: Roy Fuller, Anna Kavan and Diana Murray Hill. Similar to Bluemel’s work, this provides new critical tool for twentieth century studies and an eclectic mix of the known and forgotten in the choice or writers.
<4> Yet it doesn’t always work quite as well. For instance, in the second chapter, primarily a study of Henry Green’s Caught which also references the poetry of Roy Fuller, the novel is examined not only as a Gothic text, but as a study in Gothic flânerie. This adds another layer of critical perception that obscures the very real imagery and intention of Green; he is writing in a city changing colour and shape where the definitions of self and landscape are mutable and terminal. Henry Green was not the only fireman writer, as the Fire and Water anthology illustrates. Wasson even mentions the work of William Sansom whose long short story ‘Fireman Flower’ would better illustrate the Urban Gothic that the book applies to this writing.
<5> Wasson’s following chapter is much stronger as it considers a lesser-known writer, Anna Kavan. Through a short biography and a brief historical contexualising. Wasson offers a fine argument for this writer being more widely read and studied. Kavan was a heroin user with the junkie’s subsequent filtering of the outside world though dopamine reduced synapses. In the blitzed city this can make for a far more illuminating take on the shapes, sounds and moods of the time. James Hanley’s No Directions (1943) is probably the best known of the novels about living in the Blitz, and Wasson makes an arresting and cogent case for Kavan’s I Am Lazarus (1945) to be recognised as equally important.
<6> Three female writers also dominate the next chapter which makes one of its strongest arguments for Gothic as a transgressive genre. Inez Holden may be better known in the past five years thanks to Bluemel, but Anne Ridler and Diana Murray Hill are two who have slipped through the cracks of critical and public perception. The realities of the wartime factory space are contrasted with the propaganda films of the Ministry of Information. The joie de vivre of Millions Like Us or the documentaries Listen to Britain and Night Shift (all 1942) is revealed as a mask waiting to be ripped away from the face of the villain in the climatic scene as the castle burns. The official image is contrasted with documentary evidence of the sexism prevalent within the factories and the stresses imposed by the demands of working in a wartime economy. It is a persuasive argument that assesses the Gothic tropes of fractured narrative, deadly spaces, reclusive and marginalised characters and places them within effective twentieth century corollaries.
<7> Elizabeth Bowen’s 1949 The Heat of the Day is a novel of unsettling atmosphere throughout. The key section in Wasson’s chapter on Bowen centres on the role of the Irish house to which Stella returns. Wasson’s argument is that this house symbolises Anglo-Irish ascendancy and is symptomatic of the condition of Stella’s disconnectedness within the novel and reflective of the novel’s relationship to its time. Bowen was herself part of this Anglo-Irish tradition. Wasson notes that ‘the hermetic solitude and the autocracy of the great country house, the demonic power of the family myth, fatalism, feudism’ (120) establishes something of the strangeness of Bowen’s own background and subsequent perception of the wartime landscape.
<8> The final chapter is again a strong piece of writing. The Gormenghast trilogy is Mervyn Peake’s best-known piece of writing, but this, as Wasson argues, excludes his poetry. Wasson places his work in the context of British (and by extension Allied) triumphalism over the liberation of the concentration and death camps. Peake, she argues, foregrounds ‘the challenge of adequate emotional response in the face of horror’ (153). She illustrates this by quoting from his poem ‘The Consumptive’ or ‘Victims’ and reproduces his drawing ‘Dying Girl in a Blanket’. Wasson also shows that Peake knew of the horrors faced on the Home Front and illustrates the psychological terrors of the Blitz or the V-Rockets and the threat of unseen and random death ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’. This poem illuminates aspects of the war that we would prefer to forget from the vantage of seventy years on.
<9> Wasson’s book does so many things right. It reminds us of ‘lost’ authors, finds new and illustrative examples of British Second World War writing, and develops a new and cogent critical tool in which to assess it. This is a book that is concerned with the London experience and as such it deals with its role admirably. The research is faultless, all the usual suspects and more are quoted. Yet London was but one city on the Home Front. To use it as a metonym for the UK is to sideline the very real differences of experience that other cities experienced. Wasson alludes to the other blitzes but what mention there is of Liverpool or Plymouth, to name but two of the most badly affected cities, where the established processes of liberal democracy came closest to collapse, is less than might be expected. Tom Harrisson’s Living Through the Blitz (1977) is still the key text in this area employing a national approach to assess how the British negotiated their way through the war. As a literary critic, Wasson depends on the primary texts of which there are few outside of the London experience but without something to measure against it is difficult to assess the full impact of a work like ‘I Am Lazarus’ or ‘The Confidential Agent’ in describing the London scene.
<10> As a social historian Wasson comes close to offering a new perception of what was happening in the country, but only in the factory chapter is she fully able to reveal a new and informed outlook. As a literary critic Wasson opens eyes and reawakens the reader’s interest in what has been forgotten. Employing one last Gothic metaphor, she resurrects from the tomb of critical apathy that which has been long buried.
To Cite This Article:
Simon Goulding, ‘Review of Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010’, The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2011/goulding.html. Accessed on [date of access].