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'Postwar' is both a period and a state of mind, a sensibility comprised of hope, fear and fatigue in which British society and its writers paradoxically yearned both for political transformation and a nostalgic re-instatement of past securities. From the Labour landslide victory of 1945 to the emergence of the Cold War and the humiliation of Suez in 1956, this was a period of radical political transformation in Britain and beyond, but these changes resisted literary assimilation. Arguing that writing and history do not map straightforwardly one onto the other, and that the postwar cannot easily be fitted into the explanatory paradigms of modernism or postmodernism, this book offers a more nuanced recognition of what was written and read in the period. From wartime radio writing to 1950s travellers, cold war poetry to radical theatre, magazine cultures to popular fiction, this volume examines important debates that animated postwar Britain.
This new study undoes the customary division of the 1940s into the Second World War and after. Instead, it focuses on the thematic preoccupations that emerged from writers’ immersion in and resistance to the conflict. Through seven chapters – Documenting, Desiring, Killing, Escaping, Grieving, Adjusting and Atomizing – the book sets middlebrow and popular writers alongside residual modernists and new voices to reconstruct the literary landscape of the period. Detailed case studies of fiction, drama and poetry provide fresh critical perspectives on writers as diverse as Margery Allingham, Alexander Baron, Elizabeth Bowen, Keith Douglas, Graham Greene, Henry Green, Georgette Heyer, Alun Lewis, Nancy Mitford, George Orwell, Mervyn Peake, J. B. Priestley, Terrence Rattigan, Mary Renault, Stevie Smith, Dylan Thomas and Evelyn Waugh. Arguing that the postwar is a concept that emerges almost simultaneously with the war itself, and that ‘peace’ is significant only by its absence in an emergent post-Atomic cold war era, this book reclaims the complexity of a decade all too often lost in the fault-lines between pre-war modernism and the emergence of the postmodern.
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.