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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2014

2 - Documenting

from I - WAR


I am going to keep a journal because I cannot accept the fact that I feel so shattered that I cannot write at all. … Words seem to break in my mind like sticks when I put them down on paper.

(Stephen Spender, ‘September Journal’, Horizon, Vol. 1, No. 2, February 1940: 102)

Oh, if only I had the composure and self-detachment to write of all these things. But everything is fluid in me, an undigested mass of experience, without shape or plot or purpose. And it is as well to let it be so, for it's a true reflection of this Now we scramble through.

(Alun Lewis, Letter, 15 January 1944; 1948/2006: 67)

September 1st, 1939.–Enquire of Robert whether he does not think that, in view of times in which we live, diary of daily events might be of ultimate historical value to posterity. He replies that It Depends.

(E. M. Delafield, The Provincial Lady in Wartime, 1940/1984: 373)

While most pronounced at the beginning of the war, the urge to document, to bear witness and, in the process, make sense of the conflict was a persistent feature of 1940s writing. Yet, as the epigraphs to this chapter suggest, the war resisted straightforward inscription. In part this was a problem of scale: as Elizabeth Bowen observes in The Heat of the Day, global war was ‘uncontainable’, it ‘ran off the edges of maps’ (1948/1962: 308). There were no fixed lines of battle, and shifting alliances destabilised the certainties of preceding decades.