Reading through Burn-out: A Retreat into World War II Women’s Fiction

Blogger burn-out is a strange concept. Writing a blog is a voluntary activity, done for the love of writing, or perhaps for self-promotion or sales. It can be an escape from the real world, which is a fairly horrible place at the moment. Blogging is usually a personal choice.

And yet I suffer from blogger burn-out, intensified by the serious burn-out known as Covid fatigue.

Because of my two major burn-outs, I have retreated abruptly into English women’s fiction. It takes me far away from my own troubles, though I am a bit surprised to find myself suddenly in the late 1930’s and ‘early 40’s. Everything I read is set in England during World War II.

Over Thanksgiving, always a good time for light reading, I became absorbed in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazelet Chronicles. Then I picked up a copy of Angela Thirkell’s 1942 novel Marling Hall (one of her Barsetshire novels) to complement the reading of Howard. The genres and styles are very different, but they treat many of the same issues. There are, however, so many characters to keep straight. Fortunately The Cazelet Chronicles has a family tree in the front of the book, but I would love one for the Thirkell, too.

I certainly wish I had this copy!

Mary consider Howard’s Chronicles a literary masterpiece, though I view these books mainly as an engrossing, beautifully-written family saga. Thirkell’s light, comical novels are unique, perhaps best compared with E. F. Benson’s, though her characters are, in my opinion, more fully developed. But tell me, Thirkell fans, about David Leslie, who I suspect will marry Lettice by the end of Marling Hall. Was he in love with Mrs. Brandon in The Brandons? Or was that someone else? It has been a while since I’ve read Thirkell!

Then I decided to watch the movie Mrs. Miniver. Such a great World War II movie, on the domestic front! There was much crying her over the death of one of the characters. But now I have mixed up some of the events in Mrs. Miniver (the movie, not the book) with the Cazelets and Marlings! So do you suppose I will read Mrs. Miniver next?

My coy seems to have been marketed to romance readers! The cover has nothing to do with the content.

My husband looks askance at these charming women’s books, and assumes they are trash because of the covers. I assure him that COVERS LIE (especially the Thirkell). It isn’t even the right period!

Alas, he will never read them. I did get him to read a Thirkell once, and he disliked it. I doubt he will read the Cazelets. So it goes: men and women are different.

My copy of this Cazelet cover is also marketed to women readers

A Good Holiday, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s “The Light Years,” and Paula Byrne’s “Mad World”

Thanksgiving is an uncomplicated holiday, with homely food and minimal dysfunction.

If you are a fan of big Thanksgiving get-togethers, however, you probably missed the family party that provides year-long fodder for stories. You will have lamented the absence of Aunt Viola, who brings the vegan gluten-free pies made with “flax eggs” and tofu, and delivers tirades on why you should purify your own drinking water. (She is your favorite relative.) Uncle Richard, who brings the 2-liter bottles of soda and generic beer, will tell her to chill. “Drink a Coke if you’re worried.” And then your dramatic cousin, a non-reading librarian in recovery, says,”Don’t you mean snort, Rich?”

Then there is a group glare.

Well, none of us have social skills, we all long to be deaf- mutes or Aspergers at the table, and my husband and I were quite happy to have our own quiet dinner. I’d clipped out a new recipe from the newspaper. As I understood it, you simply threw a chicken, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts onto a baking sheet in the oven and forgot about it. When I actually read the recipe all the way through on Thursday morning, I discovered it was necessary to have TWO WOODEN SPOONS EXACTLY THE SAME SIZE, between which one placed the raw potatoes while cutting them into 1/8 inch slices. Very mysterious instruction.

It was easier just to roast the chicken, make mashed potatoes, and let my husband make his fabulous caramelized Brussels sprouts. We are capable of making a traditional Thanksgiving meal…

So a good feast was had by all!

WHAT DID WE READ? That’s what you really want to know.

I am inhaling Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, set in 1937, the first volume of a stunning family saga, The Cazalet Chronicles. This is in the class of Susan Howatch’s absorbing, fast-paced novels, and like all great family sagas, it centers on a rich, likable, but slightly dysfunctional family. The Cazalets are a huge, complicated tribe, who can be kept track of in the convenient family tree and character list at the beginning. Among them is the matriarch Kitty, nicknamed Duchy (for Duchess); her son Edward, a philandering husband of his ex-ballerina wife, Viola; Hugh, still recovering from the First World War; Rupert, an artist whose first wife tragically died in childbirth, and who is now married to a shallow young woman who abhors his children; Rachel, the lovable spinster aunt; scads of children, housemaids, cooks, horses. There are also elements of Upstairs, Downstairs, for those of us who are fascinated by the houses of the rich.

I planned to reread Evelyn Waugh this weekend, but realized it might involve the urge to make (non-alcoholic) cocktails, freelance a gossip column, leap into fountains… Instead I perused Paula Byrne’s superb biography, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead.

I knew nothing about Waugh’s life, but picked this up because I love Brideshead Revisited. I was astonished by how closely his experiences are interwoven with his fiction. Although the focus is Brideshead, Byrne also fills us in on the writing of other novels, concentrating on the characters and incidents from Waugh’s life. And yes, the fey, whimsical Oxford friends are based on Waugh’s own friends. At Oxford he hung out with a group of gay aesthetes, and had affairs with three men, all of the same “Rupert Brooks” type, according to Byrne.

And so I finally concluded that Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flite are gay. It always seemed ambiguous to me: I assume it was supposed to be? Waugh himself was blatantly gay at Oxford. Later, he had heterosexual experiences and married twice, and these experiences also influence his work. After Sebastian, there is Julia. And there are wives in his other novels.

Waugh actually got time off from the War by saying he needed to write Brideshead.

Mad World is an excellent biography, a good guide to Brideshead, and a great read.