The brilliant collaboration between Scott of the Furrowed Middlebrow blog and the enterprising Dean Street Press has resulted in nine new issues of out of print books by women authors. They’re available from 3rd October (how can it be so nearly October already?). I actually looked forward to writing this post because I love to be able to recommend a book wholeheartedly. The book in question is the first one I read: A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell. I loved it.
The book is not a novel but a memoir about living in Chelsea in wartime. Frances Faviell (not her real name) was an upper class woman, well travelled, a talented artist who spoke several languages. She moved in artistic circles (Rex Whistler was a friend) and lived in a house in Cheyne Place shared by another family. The story begins during the phoney war with Frances, already a volunteer, engaged in what seemed futile civil defence exercises when so many people refused to believe war would come. Once the war started, she was so busy that you wonder how she found time to eat and sleep. She was nursing: sometimes at a hospital, sometimes on the scene of bomb damage and occasionally engaged in the gruesome task of reassembling body parts into something that could have been human. I don’t think soldiers in battle could have seen worse things than she and her fellow volunteers did when bringing bodies out of ruins and dealing with the injured. She was also in demand as a translator and as she spoke Flemish, took Belgian refugees under her wing. They were not very grateful and she frequently had to intervene in their quarrels. As if this weren’t enough for one person, she made herself responsible for the education of a young girl whose mother had attempted suicide, a young refugee with a baby and other needy people.
Frances was not a great writer (too many exclamation marks), but a brilliant reporter. We seem to see the city and the strange beauty of the terrible fires, smell the choking ‘bonfire night’ reek, feel the emotions veering from excitement to terror. Her little dachshund Vicki is an important character, who remained totally unfazed by the noise of bombs and gunfire. The grumbling refugees, the heroic wardens and heavy rescue teams, the dedicated doctors and nurses, her friends and neighbours are all vividly portrayed, especially her housekeeper, the redoubtable Mrs Freeth, ready to cope with anything. Frances was married during one air raid and gave birth in another.
I love to read 1940s books and I have never read an account which describes so graphically what it actually felt like to live in London during the Blitz and to deal with it day after day. What shines through is the strength of the human spirit under duress and the absolute conviction that victory would come. At the end of the book one feels that everyone in London deserved a medal.
I find it astonishing that this book has remained out of print for so long when the dreary diaries of Vere Hodgson (Few Eggs and no Oranges) have been reprinted by Persephone. In her introduction, Virginia Nicolson says that in order to use the book for research, she had to borrow it from the London Library. Now we can all read it, hurrah. I’m now eager to read the author’s first book, The Dancing Bear, which is an account of life in post-war Berlin when her husband was part of the British Administration.
Three other books by Frances Faviell are on the Furrowed Middlebrow list, with three by Rachel Ferguson and one by Winifred Peck. Everyone concerned is to be congratulated on this.