Agony aunts and pineapple chunks

dear-mrs-bird-aj-pearce-cover

In 1938, the National Marriage Guidance Council was established in Britain, recognising that psychological problems within marriages needed to be addressed in the light of rising divorce rates. It provided counselling for couples from 1943. At the same time, as Claire Langhamer has argued in her book The English in Love, there was an ’emotional revolution’ in what both men and women expected from heterosexual relationships. The problem page became an established feature for women’s magazines in the mid twentieth century, and personal advertisements for dates started to focus more on qualities such as ‘good sense of humour’ rather than practical considerations such as how far the potential partner could contribute to breadwinning and domesticity. There was less focus on respect and affection, and more on ‘chemistry.’ [1] Both men and women were more likely to marry, and to marry younger, than they had been in the previous generation; adultery was more harshly condemned, but in practice, more people were actually inclined to cheat on their spouse. [2]

It’s against this historical background that the story of A.J. Pearce’s first novel, Dear Mrs Bird, takes shape. Emmy Lake is determined to become a Lady War Correspondent, but finds herself as a general dogsbody on Woman’s Friend instead, given the job of sorting through problem page letters for her intimidating boss, Mrs Bird. Mrs Bird refuses to answer ‘Unacceptable Letters’ containing what she calls ‘unpleasantness’ – references to sex, infidelity, divorce, pregnancy or even grief. Emmy is instructed to put such correspondence directly in the bin. However, she can’t resist reading the rejected letters, and, touched by the women’s stories, decides to start writing back herself.

This is an utterly adorable novel. There are no other words for it. I can see this being a massive hit – it certainly cheered me up during a miserable winter with its message of Keep Calm and Carry On but don’t be afraid to ask for help if you really need it. It’s closely focused on relationships between women, which – with the exception of Mrs Bird herself and Horrible Vera at the Auxiliary Fire Services, where Emmy volunteers as a telephone operator – are all presented as positive. Moreover, it’s clear about the ways in which women rely on each other in times of trouble, especially in Emmy’s relationship with her best friend and flatmate, Bunty. It verges on the twee at times, with its use of capitalisation and its old-fashioned chapter titles – one, for example, is called ‘The Prospect of Pineapple Chunks’ – but carries all of this off with its sheer good humour and the way that it really makes you care about its central characters. Because of this, it’s consistently gripping, and there’s a tense few chapters about two-thirds of the way through where I genuinely couldn’t put it down.

Dear Mrs Bird is less an historical novel than an immersion in the kind of imagined 1940s that we like to reminisce about, full of plucky girls, dashing chaps and a sense of stoic commitment to a good cause. While I have no problem at all with quasi-historical novels going off piste in this way – indeed, I think it’s important for historical novelists to recognise that they are engaging with modern readers’ conceptions of the past, rather than simply conveying historical ‘truth’ – this was the only aspect of the novel that troubled me a little. It strongly plays into the kind of tropes that we might think are already a bit too prominent in our national memory of the Second World War – ‘Blitz spirit’, British grit, nationalistic pride. I worry that it might be taken as an accurate account of the 1940s (and, as the emotional context shows, it’s by no means completely off the mark) rather than as a delightful pastiche. In this sense, it’s not quite as good as Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgivenwhich manages to engage with both wartime spirit and humour and the persistent splits within a supposedly united nation, such as the treatment of people of colour. But then, it’s clear why somebody might pick up Dear Mrs Bird rather than the bleaker Everyone Brave, and it’s hard to begrudge somebody wanting a cheerful pick-me-up when our own political climate is so grim. I just hope it will be read as the splendid novel it is, rather than as an accurate wartime history.

 

[1] Claire Langhamer, The English in Love: the intimate story of an emotional revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 3, 15, 24, 28.

[2] Claire Langhamer, ‘Adultery in post-war England’, History Workshop Journal, 62, 1 (2006). Can be read for free online here.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 5th April.

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