Monday, 8 September 2014

A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain - A.C. Ward

Back in April I read A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain (1943) by A.C. Ward, very kindly given to me by the always wonderful Karen/Kaggsy, but I have only just got around to reading it. I can't remember where this first came up (maybe in person; before her lovely review anyway) but I was extremely happy to be presented with a copy. What a fascinating little book it is, and so perfect for somebody with an interest in the early 20th century.

A.C. Ward has a special place in my heart because of his book The Nineteen-Twenties (published, I think, in 1930 - so a very immediate retrospective). I was reading it at the beginning of my DPhil, just to get a sense of how somebody contemporary might have characterised the period. Lo and behold, he had a chapter on 'The Refuge of Form and Fantasy', where he discussed the vogue for the fantastic in the period. Since I'd already decided to write my thesis on this, it was wonderful confirmation that it had been significant in the 1920s - as well as providing an invaluable quotation from a talk by Sylvia Townsend Warner that doesn't appear to have been quoted anywhere else. Research mad skillz.

Anyway, in A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain Ward does exactly that, whether figuratively or not - he takes the reader on a journey through Britain, showing the literary sites that have been saved from bombing, or those that have been irrevocably changed by war. I can only imagine how poignant and moving this would have been in 1943; it is certainly moving enough now.

Plenty of his narration takes place in London, unsurprisingly - it was undoubtedly the area of Britain most physically affected by war - and in between commemorating Keats in Hampstead and Dickens in Doughty Street, he turns his attention to pre-war Bloomsbury (in a passage, incidentally, which would have been very useful in my first chapter):
After the last war 'Bloomsbury' became a synonym for intellectualist inbreeding and highbrow snobbery. But it is as difficult to define (or even to find) the pure 'Bloomsbury' type as it is to define or isolate 'Victorianism.' There is an old Punch joke, '"You can always tell a Kensington girl." "Yes; but you can't tell her much."' his, if given an intellectualist twist, might be applied to Bloomsbury in the nineteen-twenties. The authors who wrote and/or published their books in Bloomsbury then were not susceptible to instruction. They instructed. The hallmark of 'Bloomsbury' was a tart intellectual arrogance; and in their literary style Bloomsbury writers affected a dryness which was intended to have the vitrue of dry champagne, yet the product was, often, sandy on the palate. The Mother Superior of 'Bloomsbury' was Virginia Woolf, but, beside her, the rest were mostly novices lacking a vocation. Her one vice was preciosity; her virtues were legion.
I don't think I've ever read a more incisive and concise depiction of the Bloomsbury group.

Along with the text (and I should re-emphasise that he does sweep through other counties, and not just southern ones either) there are two types of illustration - pencil sketches and photographs. The photos are amazing. We see Westminster Abbey with rubble, Milton's statue knocked off a plinth, Canterbury ruins, etc. A trove of poignant (yes, that word again) images which bring to life a period that even the greatest description inevitably keeps at some distance.

Thanks, Karen, for sending this my way! A unique perspective on wartime Britain that I will really treasure.


  1. Thanks for the kind words Simon and I'm so glad you like the book! I think it possibly was on LT we came across it, and it's great that it's found a good home. I thought it was a lovely, illuminating little book and I'll look out for any of Ward's other works.

  2. This looks like a real gem. I'm going to look for a few copies---one for me, one for a friend, and so on! (I hope this comments works, I've tried a few times!)


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