Friday 11 November 2011

Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady by Edith Olivier

Those of you who eagerly await my 'hilarious' pun-nomenal post titles may have noted that, of late, I've gone for simple titles when doing book reviews.  This is partly so I can tell what I was reviewing when I look at archives, and partly to make the search engine work better... but I do miss trying to think of laboured ways to pun, of an evening.

Which isn't really relevant to anything at all, only I felt I could have had a field day with Edith Olivier's Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady (1940).  Nothing springs to mind right now, of course... (Landlady Olivier... no. Holding The Thoughts... no.  Night to See You, To See You... Night!  Ok, stop Simon.)  Shall we get on with the show?

It's no secret that I love Olivier's novel The Love-Child.  I'm currently writing a chapter of my thesis which centres around it, and it's probably in my top ten favourite books.  So far my other encounters with Olivier have been somewhat less impressive (unless you count the genuine excitement of reading her actual diary, in Wiltshire Record Office) but I am abundantly hopeful - and thus, when I saw Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady in Taunton, I grabbed it.  (And, y'know, paid for it and everything.)

Being specific, this book is (purportedly) 'presented by' Edith Olivier.  It takes the form of edited diaries from the pen of Miss Emma Nightingale.  Olivier's preface indicates that she compiled Miss Nightingale's war diaries, deposited with her the night before Miss N died: 'All the sentences I have printed here are hers, though I have rearranged them in order to bring them into chapters.'  Now, Jane, in her lovely review, took Olivier at her word.  I'm more cynical.  I'm pretty sure she's lying.  Remember when Margaret Forster wrote Diary of an Ordinary Woman and there was a small kerfuffle because it turned out the 'ordinary woman' was entirely made up?  Well, I expect Olivier's kerfuffle was even smaller, but... it does seem as though Miss Nightingale is a creature of Olivier's imagination.  There's her name, for starters ('night thoughts' of Miss Nightingale? A little coincidental.)  Also the fact that the book doesn't even slightly resemble a diary - for instance, she often writes looking back over several years, retrospectively.  And finally, the style is very much Olivier's own.  It often reads exactly like her own autobiography, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley, which I have yet to review here.

None of which, naturally, prevents it being a very enjoyable book.  It's quite an odd, roundabout concept - but whether or not Miss Nightingale ever existed, the wartime thoughts are interesting, engaging reading for any of us interested in the home front of the war years.  Which is quite a lot of us, no?

The plot (as it were) of the book is quite unextraordinary.  Ordinary, if you will.  Essentially it narrates the experience of a fairly old woman, living in a small village during wartime, and offering up her home to lodgers.  These range from military men to a famous actress - each of which Miss Nightingale welcomes happily, and observes shrewdly.  For the most part, I enjoyed and respected the calm, kind manner in which Miss Nightingale coped with the uncertainties and upheavals of conflict.
I have found that the happiest way to carry on in the war is, not to worry about any immediate effect of what we are actually doing, but to do it as well as we can, and then to look away and watch nature all around, slowly reaching her effortless and sure fruition.  That is the complete change of air and scene which we so often think we must have.  There is no repose like the realisation that one's little daily drudgery is already part of something beyond itself.
I am endlessly interested in home-front perspectives on war, but what I really love is the good old British if-you-can't-laugh-what-can-you-do attitude to anything and everything.  One need look no further than E.M. Delafield's The Provincial Lady in Wartime to realise that the most unsettling of circumstances can be dealt with humorously - and that was what I found most lacking in The Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady.  It's very rarely funny.  It isn't unduly earnest, but does lapse into the prosaic on occasion.  Some situations had inherent humour, and those came across well, but I felt Olivier/Nightingale could have made this a more engaging narrative if she had allowed herself to be a bit wittier.  The humour, when it comes, is subtle...
One complication was that a party of mothers and "expectant mothers", whose children were sent here, had been themselves evacuated to another place beginning with the same letter.  The authorities had imagined that this alphabetical proximity naturally carried with it a geographical one, but unfortunately this was not the case, and the other village was about twelve miles off.  For some days this caused a ferment.  First of all, one of the mothers (who further happened to be "expectant") having been located in this remote spot, arrived at our school screaming for her children who had been sent here.  She and her two children made a terrific scene, yelling and shrieking in the school yard, while I tried to explain that as the two places were in different rural districts the exchange must be arranged by the two councils.  I promised that this would be done as soon as possible.  No good.  The yells grew louder.  The Chief Billeting Officer, being a stickler for law-abiding, refused to let me take the matter into my own hands.  I therefore conveyed the party to his office, where I pointed out to him that, unless we made an exception in this case, the "expectant mother" would soon be "expectant" no longer, and that the alteration in her status might take place in his very office.  This changed his opinion, and he delightedly consented to our sending the whole family, as quickly as possible, at least twelve miles away.
(Incidentally, for two rather different angles on WW2 evacuees, see Evelyn Waugh's spiky, rather cruel novel Put Out More Flags or Terence Frisby's touching memoir Kisses on a Postcard.)

The final two paragraphs of the book reflect what is deep within my own heart too, and which couldn't be understood by people who haven't lived in a village.  It's made me want to write a post dedicated to villages, to see if I can offer up an alternative to Rachel's paeans to New York and London, places (sorry!) I would loathe to live.  I might well write that soon, but for now I'll hand over to Olivier/Miss Nightingale (the quotation at the end, by the way, is apparently from George Borrow):
That is the happiness of living in this place, and indeed in any country place in England to-day.  We are not cut off from the life-and-death struggle of our country, for has not this bee called "a war of little groups", in which the Home Guards and the housewives take their place behind the aircraft and the tanks?  Yet we still live on in our own homes, and if other homes are like mine (s I am sure they are) it s still possible for a visitor to say, as he enters our doors, "Here, one can hardly realise the war".  And that is perhaps the best thing we can ever give to the strangers within our gates.
So the colour of the trees still matters to us, and also to our lodgers.  It has mattered to us - spring, summer, autumn, and winter - all through the past three years; and, as for the winters, it must be admitted that the war ones have been very hard.  They really might have been planned by Hitler.  Yet, in spite of that, now they have taken their place among the visual memories of a lifetime, what rare effects of beauty some of them are found to recall!  There was that marvellous Sunday morning when the rain froze as it fell, and the trees were suddenly hung with tinkling icicles, chiming with little ghost-like echoes of the church bells which had long been silent.  There are no icicles to-night, and there are no bells; but "there's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise the wind on the heath.  Life is very sweet, brother."
Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady is a very slim volume, under a hundred pages, and doesn't really have the quality of Nella Last's War or the magnitude of Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges - but there is plenty of room for many voices, and this is a quieter angle, from an older perspective, and still makes for interesting reading.  Olivier still hasn't equalled The Love Child here, but of course it is a very different kettle of fish.  For anybody interested in wartime England - I'd recommend picking this up if you stumble across it, and further recommend that you go and read Jane's enchanting review.


  1. I'm fairly sure you are right about the made-up-ness, though why I think so, not having read the book. Perhaps it's because I was completely fooled by the Margaret Forster and really shocked when I discovered just after reading it that it was invented.

  2. that should have said 'not sure why I think so...'

  3. Lovely post, Simon. I do tend to feel a bit guilty about the pleasure I get from non-fiction homefront novels. Being tucked up all safe and cosy while reading about people making do.

    We're planning a book scrounge for this Sunday so I'm making note of this title. You never know...

  4. Just came across a reference to this book while reading "The Initials in the Heart" & had hoped to get a bit more of an idea about it. Thanks for the excerpts!

  5. I'm sorry to be so late in saying that I am delighted you found a copy of this to read.

    You may well be right about there being a touch of the fictional here - I am very credulous, in life as well as reading, and I did find my copy on a non fiction shelf. I only spotted it because it was next door to Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes.

    But having read Edith Olivier's memoir - the name escapes me - if Miss Nightingale is fictional I am sure she is inspired by real country gentlewomen of the author's acquintance.


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