The Provincial Lady in War-Time

Date of publication
Affectionately dedicated to Peter Stucley, because of our long friendship and as a tribute to many shared recollections of Moscow, London, Edinburgh and the West Country.
Published reviews
Charques, R. D. ‘War-Time Rejuvenation’. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1984, 10 Feb. 1940, p. 71; Muir, Edwin. ‘New Novels: The Provincial Lady in War-Time’. The Listener, vol. 23, no. 587, 11 Apr. 1940, p. 754; ‘New Novels: The Provincial Lady in War-Time’. The Times, no. 48535, 10 Feb. 1940, p. 4; Pope, Margaret. ‘New Fiction’. Daily Telegraph, no. 26423, 10 Feb. 1940, p. 5.
At the start of September 1939 Robert (as ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Organiser) is fitting the family (and Cook) for gas-masks. The PL, Robin and Vicky (now capable teenagers) prepare the house to receive refugees, and put up black-out under Robert’s direction. Aunt Blanche asks to come to stay as a paying guest for the duration. Humphrey Holloway, the local billetting officer, describes how difficult it is to get evacuees settled. War is declared, and the PL makes plans for undertaking war work in London, while wondering about the economic impact on her family. Cook loyally agrees to stay with them, as does one housemaid. Aunt Blanche arrives in the middle of the night, after a much-delayed train journey. Lady Boxe turns her house into a convalescent home for officers only, and is seen in Red Cross uniform. The villagers struggle rather with their evacuees, although Miss Pankerton - in wartime garb of blue slacks and leather jerkin - is pleased with her six little boys from the East End. Aunt Blanche proposes some evacuated children, Marigold and Margery, from a family she knows in Coventry. They arrive with their nurse, a young Irishwoman called Doreen Fitzgerald and settle in well. Aunt Blanche complains bitterly about her former flatmate Pussy Winter-Gammon, who has volunteered for the ARP at the Adelphi in London in a way Aunt Blanche thinks unsuitable for her age. Rose writes to offer the tenancy of a flat in Buckingham Street in London, and Aunt Blanche agrees to take over the running of the house in Devon while the PL goes to undertake war-work in London. Robin attempts to enlist with the Reserve of the Devon Regiment, but is told to return to school. Our Vicar’s Wife is struggling with some difficult evacuees and no servants. Robert is being driven mad by a volunteer at the ARP. The PL is driven to London by Humphrey Holloway, neighbour and billeting officer, and moves in to Buckingham Street; she is warned by the owner of the house how unsafe it would be if bombed. Nearby is the Adelphi ARP station and the PL goes there where she meets the prolix and self-obsesssed Pussy Winter-Gammon and the much more pleasant Serena Brown, a friend of Aunt Blanche. The ARP station is noisy smoky and airless, and the sleeping arrangements are uncomfortable in the extreme. The PL invites Serena to use the bathroom at her flat whenever she needs to, as her own flat is in Belsize Park and she has four Austrian Jewish refugees staying with her. The PL begins the search for war work but is rebuffed by the BBC and Ministry of Information; she volunteers at the Adelphi canteen instead. Rose, Cissie Crabbe and various other friends are all similarly searching for war work, without success. Rose reports that the hospitals are all empty but suggests that the PL ring up the Blowfields; Sir Archibald Blowfield has a job at the Ministry of Information. She does so, but gets no further. She and Serena meet for coffee, and Serena explains how the barrage balloons work. Visiting Serena at her flat, she meets the oldest of Serena’s refugees, who feels the cold and is wearing an overcoat and sitting over an electric fire. They practice wearing their gas-masks, much to the alarm of Serena’s refugees. The PL is introduced to Serena’s friend J. L., an author and broadcaster, who is having similar difficulty finding suitable war work. Serena introduces the PL to the Adelphi Commandant, an officious and bad-tempered young woman, and Darling, the Commandant’s friend and assistant; despite their very rude treatment the PL begins work in the Adelphi Canteen with Mrs. Peacock, who is kind and friendly and has a bad leg. Following another conversation with the owner of her building in Buckingham Street, the PL experiments successfully with finding her way to the nearest air-raid shelter in the dark - but returns to find she left all her lights on and her gas-mask behind. She is saddened by a letter from Felicity Fairmead, who is helping a friend with domestic work while trying to find war work, and irritated by a selfish one from Barbara Blenkinsop. She buys trousers and an overall to wear at the Canteen before lunching with Mr and Mrs Weatherby; he is an overworked civil servant, but is not helpful in offering contacts for war work. Later she visits Uncle A., in his eighties, for tea; he is pleased to see her and full of sprightly energy. During her Canteen duty, she is subjected to Pussy Winter-Gammon’s prolix and self-serving monologues. The Commandant arrives in the Canteen, intimidating the staff and being exceptionally high-handed about her food. Rumours of air-raids abound and the PL makes an inefficient job of slicing bread for sandwiches. Hitler has made peace proposals which are universally found unacceptable. The PL makes another young friend at the Canteen, Muriel, who also makes use of her bathroom. Serena asks for advice as to whether marriage to J. L. would be a good idea. The PL lunches with the Blowfields and a clearly fraudulent young man called Gitnik who passes on rumours characterised as inside information. The Weatherbys are also there and equally unimpressed. The PL volunteers for a Sunday shift and is appalled to be put on the rota for 6 a.m; even being there this early cannot save her from Mrs Winter-Gammon’s conversation. Rose is having similar problems finding suitable war work, despite her medical qualifications. At the Canteen, a stretcher-bearer complains that they are to be issued with shrouds for the dead, a measure he considers overly refined. Cook writes to the PL to say that Winnie the housemaid has had to go home, and this domestic disruption causes some anxiety, especially as there has been no word from Aunt Blanche. Robert, on the telephone, is rather vague about the whole thing. The PL decides to take ten days’ leave and return to Devon to sort out domestic matters; she beards the Commandant in a spirit of defiance, but the Commandant is as rude as ever. A mock air raid takes place at the Adelphi. The PL advises Serena to find another sort of war work, as her current role is bad for her health, but Serena points out that there is nothing else available. Returning to Devonshire, the PL finds Winnie has come back and that food is plentiful, but Cook is generally unhappy, especially with the state of the range. Aunt Blanche suggests sending her on holiday. Young men in the village appear in uniform and Lady Boxe is holding First Aid classes at her house, although her hospital has yet to manifest. Cook is told of her impending holiday, but offers a spirited resistance. Lady Boxe visits, and shares a number of rumours about the war; she is keeping on all her staff except her second footman. There is an air raid over the Firth of Forth, after much speculation about raids; Vicky’s school hears the warning. Mrs. Vallence arrives to take over the cooking and teaches the PL how to prepare rabbits, which she is unable to eat afterwards. A discussion of her hunt for war work with Miss Pankerton drives the PL into a state of fury. She decides to return to London and asks Robert whether he can spare her - he is not enthusiastic but assents. The PL returns to the Canteen, which has changed considerably in her absence, and is reunited with Serena, who tells her about J. L.’s novel. Uncle A. has provided an introduction to a Mr. Molesworth at the Ministry of Information, and the PL makes an appointment to see him. She gets thoroughly lost in the Ministry building, and has a vague discussion with Mr Molesworth who refers her to a Captain Jerry Skein-Tring. Jerry tells her that writers, artists and so on need to keep working at their normal activities but stay off the War as a topic, and is unmoved by her argument that the market for books is depressed and there is also a paper shortage. A sudden craze for knitting overtakes the Adelphi ARP, mostly for the war effort although Mrs. Peacock is knitting a shawl for an imminent grandchild. Serena discusses J. L. and whether she should marry him; she is shocked when the PL asks if she is considering an affair with him. Mrs. Winter-Gammon interrupts them with one of her self-promoting monologues. The PL’s literary agent telephones and encourages her to get on with a new novel. Serena brings J. L., Muriel and a handsome man who turns out to be a psychiatrist to the flat for sherry, and J. L. then takes the PL out for dinner where he talks about his relationship with Serena. They attend Ridgway’s Late Joys at the Players’ Theatre. An assassination attempt on Hitler in a Munich beer-hall fails. Lady Blowfield, depressed as ever, lunches with the PL at her club; afterwards, the PL tries to work out a synopsis of a new novel. Back at the flat, Serena is in a low state, and the PL advises again that she should find different war work - but notes that this is next to impossible. The canteen’s Deb has left because of nervous strain. Felicity Fairmead is in London and the two friends meet; Felicity is saddened by her general uselessness in wartime and they reminisce about the way they were brought up. The PL loses her gas-mask and National Registration Card, and has to obtain replacements. A chance meeting with Humphrey Holloway leads to the organisation of a sherry-party at Serena’s flat; one of her refugees makes excellent canapes. The PL buys a siren-suit to wear to the party. Cissie Crabbe visits, in uniform; Rose, at the party, has also found suitable war-work. The party is a great success, and the next day the PL hears that her services as a writer are now required for the war effort, and expects that these activities will be too important to record in her diary.
Second World War comedy novel women's work