Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Home Front

Recently my reading and my TV watching have aligned around the subject of the home front during World War II. 

First, I've spent the past few Sunday nights watching the miniseries Home Fires on PBS. It centers around the a Women's Institute in a rural village at the start of WWII. The WI's membership comprises a wide cross section of women--old and young, upper and lower class, housewives, shopkeepers, and farmers--and shows the impact the outbreak of war has on their lives. While it's interesting to see such a range of characters portrayed, my favorite thing about the show is its setting. From the neighborly sense of everyone knowing everyone's business in the village to shots of cozy British interiors, I can easily imagine the world of Home Fires being populated by a cast of Barbara Pym characters a few years down the road.

With all of this on my mind, when it came time to start a new book, I naturally gravitated toward On the Side of the Angels by Betty Miller, a Virago Classic that I had picked up at a used book sale. Also located in a rural village, the novel centers around two sisters: Honor, a mother of two whose husband is a physician in the local army hospital, and Claudia, a schoolteacher whose lawyer fiance has recently been invalided out of the service after developing a heart condition. Honor tends to be meek and prone to daydreams. Her world centers around her husband and she resents the pull that the commanding officer in his unit seems to have over his actions. Claudia is intellectual and feisty. She has very clear ideas of how she should act and how her life should be. She comes to question these ideas for herself when a British Commando comes to the village. His aggressive demeanor and his reputation for heroic deeds behind enemy lines cause all of the characters, both male and female, to reevaluate their impressions of the home front.

One key difference between Home Fires and this book is that while many of the characters in the former are left on their own when their husbands head to the front, in the latter both Honor and Claudia have their husband and fiance present with them. This highlights the different ways that the male and female characters deal with life on the home front. One theme that surfaces in the novel is the suggestion that the characters are actually glad for the war because of the opportunity it offers them to step out of their everyday civilian lives and adopt more exciting roles for themselves. While I felt that this argument could only hold up among people like Miller's characters, whose upper class professions enable them to serve on the home front and who are not separated from their loved ones, I nonetheless found it to be an interesting take that I had not considered before. While it doesn't evoke the kind of cozy atmosphere that Home Fires does, On the Side of the Angels is well worth reading for the new perspectives it offers on this time period and location.

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