Sunday, April 29, 2012

An Essex village in 1940

The Oaken Heart, Margery Allingham

After I read Margery Allingham's Tether's End a few weeks ago, I went looking for a list of the Albert Campion books.  I found a bibliography on the Allingham Society's website, but in the middle of the list was a title I didn't recognize, The Oaken Heart.  The summary of it was so intriguing that I immediately put in a request to interlibrary loan.  In the first pages of her book, Allingham explained its purpose and how it came to be written in a letter to the residents of her village near the Essex coast:
"Last November an American whom some of you know [her published at Doubleday] asked me to put it down so that he and his wife and his village in America could gather exactly what life has been like down here for us ordinary country people during the war. It was a business request, and I have made an ultra-careful job of it, as you will see, because I believe that he and his friends are sufficiently (but by no means exactly) like us for it to be possible for me to convey to him much more of the actual truth than is usual on these occasions . . . Also, the war is getting very close to them over there . . . It is not a private attempt at propaganda, nor yet a disinterested gesture on my part. I have been employed as a professional writer by the American to tell him what he wants to know." 
The village where Allingham and her husband Philip Youngman Carter lived is Tolleshunt D'Arcy (renamed "Auburn" in the book).  She began the book by introducing her readers to the village, its geography and its residents.  The Carters' home was in the center of it, and though they had only moved into it in 1934, they seem to have quickly found their place, probably in part because Allingham had lived in Essex from childhood.  She took a sociologist's interest in the community, analyzing their state of mind and heart starting in late 1938, through the fraught events of 1939, and then into the first two years of the war.  She described the evolution of the community's thinking on the war and Britain's place in it:
"In those weeks in May and June [1940] I think ninety-nine per cent of English folk, country and town, found their souls . . . [in] the bald discovery that you would honestly and in cold blood rather die when it came to it than be bossed about by a Nazi . . . They said things like 'Looks like we'll have to stand up to 'em then,' . . . or merely and most firmly, 'We can't have they here, no, no.'"
The greatest upheaval at the start of the war was the unexpected arrival of five hundred mothers and their young children, evacuees from London, most of whom were not well-suited to country life.  Allingham took a leading role in managing their placement with village families; meanwhile her husband had become the head of the local air raid wardens, and their home the village headquarters.  Though her focus remained on the countryside, in the later part of the book Allingham wrote about two trips to London in the midst of the Blitz.  Despite the continual air raids on her part of Essex, the damage was limited, at least up to the time the book was published in 1941.

As one might expect in a book written for an American audience, Allingham spent some time analyzing both the differences and the similarities between the British and the Americans, like she was trying to explain each to the other.  In her telling, the people of Auburn initially thought it only natural that America might not rush to Britain's aid again, though self-interest and the ties between the two countries would eventually have their effect.

In addition to coping with the upheaval of the war, Allingham was on a deadline to complete a Campion novel, published in 1941 as Traitor's Purse and set in the early years of the war. 
"On my part, the completion of my thriller was a vital necessity; no question about that. My part in the family war effort was to keep the home going and pay the taxes, and there were times when I wished I had been prenticed to a different trade. My tale was about a man with amnesia and required a mental contortionist with uninterrupted leisure to write the blessed thing . . . I was always hoping that the end of one thriller would not overtake me before I finished the other."
As I read The Oaken Heart, I was mentally comparing it with Vera Brittain's England's Hour, also published in 1941 and also written for an American audience.  The books, though very different, complement each other.  Brittain's focus was urban: "to present, from several different angles, this wartime life as it has appeared to the ordinary London civilian day by day."  Perhaps in a natural reaction to the months of bombing that she endured, the devastation that she witnessed, Brittain's book feels more urgent, almost impatient at times.  Yet though she also analyzed actions and reactions, feelings and thoughts, it was from more of a distance than Allingham, embedded in the middle of her small rural community.  As I read I was also comparing The Oaken Heart with the war-time novels in Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire series and her fictional portrayal of the home front.  One of the major differences I noted is that Allingham's village seems to have had less class division or class consciousness than Thirkell's.  Most of the Auburn residents that Allingham described and quoted would have been minor characters in a Barsetshire novel.

The Allingham Society's site described The Oaken Heart as "one of the great books to come out of the Second World War," and though I'm not an expert on the literature of the war, I'd agree with that.


  1. What a find! Once again you've tempted me. I didn't know about the literature English authors wrote to describe their war experience to an American audience - I'd like to read the Vera Brittain book, too. I've always been interested in how they emotionally stood the bombings - it must have been so terrible, but the country experience sounds fascinating as well.

  2. I know, night after night of the bombing, and trying to carry on with daily life in between. They are both really good books and like I said, I think they complement each other (city & country). I'm so glad I stumbled across them both - book serendipity.

  3. I have never heard of this, but I am intrigued. And my library has it in reserve stock, so I have placed an order. Thank you!

  4. Jane, I was surprised to get a 1941 first edition via interlibrary loan, but I discovered it is still in print (as a modern paperback). I hope you enjoy it & I'll be interested to read your thoughts on it.

  5. Those both sound like 'must reads' I used to live in rural Essex - and my library doesn't have either of them. I'll have to either get an interlibrary loan or buy - which I'm tempted to do, although I shouldn't.

  6. Not to tempt you further, Katrina, but the modern reprint of The Oaken Heart that I ordered through the Book Depository arrived today. It has so much additional material - photos, and a village map, with a list of residents, and even excerpts from Allingham's diaries and letters. It makes me want to read it straight through again!

  7. Just came upon your comments, Lisa, but I am half-way through the book right now and gripped totally by it. Thank you for posting this. I will check in again when I have reached the end, of the book, not, alas that TERRIBLE war.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Janet. It's such a fascinating book!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!