Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, Part 1 – Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay and more.

Much as I love novels, there are occasions when I’d rather read a complete story in one sitting, particularly if time is short or my attention span is brief. Recently reissued by Virago, Wave Me Goodbye has proved to be a godsend in this respect. It’s is a fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end).

Viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. 

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each piece in detail – there are twenty-eight of them in total! Instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily, there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price of the collection alone. (This is the first of two pieces about this anthology, with the second to follow later this week.)

I’ve already written about two of my favourite stories included here. In Elizabeth Taylor’s Gravement Endommagé a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside of France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. This excellent story appears in Taylor’s collection Hester Lilly, which I can highly recommend.

Goodbye My Love by Mollie Panter-Downes is another familiar piece. Here, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, only for the clock to be a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety. You can find this and more of MPD’s excellent stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven – another stellar collection of fiction from WW2.

In Rose Macaulay’s Miss Anstruther’s Letters, we are plunged straight into the titular character’s pain as she must come to terms with the loss of her most treasured possession – a collection of letters from her lover of more than twenty years, the papers now charred and turned to ashes following a bombing raid in the Blitz.

Miss Ansthruther, whose life had been cut in two on the night of the 10 May 1941, so that she now felt herself a ghost, without attachments or habitation, neither of which she any longer desired, sat alone in the bed-sitting-room she had taken, a small room, littered with the grimy, broken and useless objects which she had salvaged from the burnt-out ruin round the corner. It was one of the many burnt-out ruins of that wild night when high explosives and incendiaries had rained on London and the water had run short; it was now a gaunt and roofless tomb, a pile of ashes and rubble and burnt, smashed beams. Where the floors of twelve flats had been, there was empty space. (p. 50)

In the days following the bombing, Miss Anstruther embarks on a search for any remaining traces of the letters, desperately scrabbling around among the ashes and rubble, but to very little available. Other, less precious items have been salvaged, but not the missives she so badly desires. As this heartbreaking story unfolds, we realise the depth of her loss – not just for the letters themselves, but for the life they once encapsulated.

Jean Rhys’s I Spy a Stranger is another standout, a story that highlights the damaging effects of suspicion, prejudices and small-town gossip, issues that remain all too relevant today. In this brilliantly-executed story, Laura has returned to England to stay with her cousin, Mrs Hudson, Laura’s former life in Europe having been decimated by the war. Partly as a consequence of her ‘foreignness’, and partly because she is emotionally damaged, Laura is viewed as a threat by the locals, someone to be feared and despised. Suspicion is rife – slurs are cast, arguments erupt, and poison-pen letters are pushed through the door. There comes a point when the townsfolk cannot take any more, especially when there are residents’ reputations to consider.

[Mrs Hudson:] “…Somebody has started a lot of nasty talk. They’ve found out that you [Laura] lived abroad a long time and that when you had to leave – Central Europe, you went to France. They say you only came home when you were forced to, and they’re suspicious. Considering everything, you can’t blame them, can you?” “No,” she [Laura] said, it’s one of the horrible games they’re allowed to play to take their minds off the real horror.” That’s the sort of thing she used to come out with. (pp. 110-111)

This is a powerful, distressing story of the hidden trauma of war. As ever with Rhys, the technique is masterful. The tale is relayed by Mrs Hudson to her sister following the outcome of events, with a gradual reveal of the full tragedy of Laura’s history and subsequent situation.

The return home on leave is a recurring theme in a number of the stories here. Dorothy Parker’s The Lovely Leave is a great example of this, as a young wife battles with her conflicting emotions during her husband’s lightning visit. On the one hand, the woman knows she must try to make the most of their brief time together, while on the other, she is jealous of the companionship and camaraderie her husband is experiencing among the air corps. In truth, these feelings are born out of a sense of fear or insecurity, a natural consequence of a disrupted marriage.

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Poor Mary, the traditional marital roles are reversed as a conscientious objector husband (now working on the land) awaits the return of his wife from her role in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). It is four years since these two individuals have seen one another, a gap that has magnified their differences rather than diminishing them in any way. 

Three hours earlier the bed had not seemed his own, now his living-room was not his either, but some sort of institutional waiting-room where two people had made an inordinate mess of a meal. (p. 236)

That’s it for today, but I hope this post has whetted your appetite for this wide-ranging collection of women’s fiction from WW2. Join me again later this week when I’ll be covering some of the other stories in the collection, including pieces from Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Bowen. I can promise you flashes of dry, darkly comic humour in some of these stories, particularly those by Bainbridge and Pym. 

38 thoughts on “Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, Part 1 – Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay and more.

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    What a great idea to have created this anthology in the first place, it seems to have included many of the authors you’ve been reading and writing about over the past few years and here they all are, channelling the trauma of war.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Exactly! You can see why I was drawn to it in the first place. Plus, it also gave me the opportunity to experience some writers who were *new* to me alongside my familiar favourites. Authors such as Margery Sharp, A. L. Barker and Molly Lefebure – they all fall into the first category.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I do not read enough short stories. When I read them, they are collections from a single author, I has been decades since. I read a collection like this from multiple writers. I am not averse to reading something like this, it just has been a very long time. There is an appeal to reading various authors whose stories are collected under a theme. Maybe I will try one soon.

    These stories and the characters who inhabit them sound so good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a really interesting collection – and while the overall theme of the anthology is common to all, the individual stories themselves are quite different from one another. There’s quite a diversity of styles here irrespective of the overlaps in subject matter.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    It sounds like a really marvellous collection, Jacqui, and I’m familiar with some of the stories you mention – the Parker I remember from reading her a long time ago, and the STW from more recently ;D Sounds like a perfect book for dipping, and I know what you mean about sometimes just needing to finish something quickly – I often opt for novellas when I feel like that too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I LOVED the Parker! She’s definitely a writer I’d really like to get to know a lot better in the future. I’ve only read bits and pieces so far, mostly the occasional story here and there, but I feel the need to rush out and buy a more extensive collection of her work. The Collected, I guess, or her Complete Stories – I’ll have to take a closer look. STW’s pieces are excellent too, especially Poor Mary – it’s an interesting twist on the home-on-leave story, quite subversive in certain respects.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is. A really excellent collection that offers glimpses of several different experiences of WW2 – all written by women. You’d like this, I’m sure…

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    It looks like Anne Boston has gathered together the crème de la crème for this collection; it all looks very tempting, but I’m especially drawn by Rose Macaulay’s story after reading about her own experience of losing letters from a dearly loved one in a raid. Very much looking forward to reading your further thoughts about the collection.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think I read somewhere that Miss Anstruther’s had been inspired by one of Macaulay’s own personal experiences. It’s such a poignant piece, really shattering in terms of its impact…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hooray! Isn’t Taylor wonderful? Her skills with character are so finely tuned, and there’s a subtlety to her work that hard to put into words. I’m so glad you’ve had a chance to read her.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I’m so glad you loved these stories. They do portray those war years perfectly, all those worries, losses and things to be endured. Such a fabulous collection of writers gathered together too, I look forward to your next post about this anthology.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right. So many emotions from petty jealousies and slights to abject loss and heartbreak. I thought the Rose Macaulay story was tremendous. All that scrabbling around in the debris for any traces of the letters, only to find a tiny scrap – a piece that only serves to amplify her pain. Do you know if Macaulay wrote many other stories? I’m wondering if there might be a collection somewhere? I’d certainly be keen to read more in a similar vein…

      Reply
  6. Jane

    You certainly have Jacqui! These all sound good and although I don’t usually like short stories, I think this strange summer might be the right time to have another go!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great collection, especially for readers with an an interest in WW2. I do like short stories and often have a collection on the go, but I’ve probably read more stories than ever this summer for the reason you’ve hinted at above! It’s been such an unsettling year, hence my need to read something concise and satisfying.

      Reply
  7. robinandian2013

    Thank you so much for mentioning this book. I’m not a big fan of short stories but I love so many of these writers I jumped online and ordered a copy straightaway. I look forward to dipping in and out for many months to come.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how wonderful! I do hope you enjoy the collection. As you say, there are so many brilliant writers included here – it really is a treasure trove of riches.

      Reply
  8. gertloveday

    What would we do without Virago? Possibly writers like Elizabeth Taylor and Mollie Panter Downes would be very little known if it was not for that press. This collection sounds like the best of the best.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! Virago must account for something like a third of my reading these days, especially these women writers from the mid-20th century.

      As for the book, it does feel like a creme de la creme collection of WW2 fiction. Although interestingly, Anne Boston – who compiled the collection – chose to include one or two pieces to maximise the diversity of wartime experiences represented here, therefore prioritising an element of content over quality. They’re still good pieces, although possibly not the best stories when viewed in isolation.

      Reply
  9. Liz Dexter

    This sounds brilliant and what excellent writers have been put together. Sounds like I’ve read a couple of them in other places but I will still look out for a copy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. There’s so much to enjoy here, even if you have read two or three of the stories before. Plus, it’s a great way to try some *new* writers to get a feel for their styles. Margery Sharp, A. L. Barker and Molly Lefebure all fell into that category for me…

      Reply
  10. Grier

    I read this a few years ago and loved it, too, and your review makes me want to revisit the stories. I’d forgotten that Dorothy Parker is included in the anthology. I’m about to start her Complete Stories which I think will be a treat.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So glad to hear that you loved it too, Grier. It really is a wonderful collection, chock-full of different glimpses of life during WW2. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of Dorothy Parker’s Collected Stories. I’ve half a mind to go and order a copy for myself!

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    Thank you for this. Your review has brought some frustration to the surface as I thought I had ordered this book some weeks ago, but I jnow I havent received it.
    You mention many of the short stories I know, but the collection as a whole also sounds interesting. I will have to (re?)order it. Thanks as always.
    Caroline

    Reply
  12. Richard

    Sounds pretty great. I’m particularly interested in checking out the Olivia Manning and Jean Rhys stories to see how they differ in the shorter vs. the novel format, but most of these sound better than average regardless.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Rhys is excellent and quite different in style to both her other stories and her novels. (I don’t think I would have guessed it was Rhys had I not know that in advance.) As one might expect, it’s brilliantly written, partly because of the way in which certain details about the set-up are gradually revealed throughout the story. Definitely a highlight of the collection…

      The Manning, on the other hand, feels very much in line with her Balkan Trilogy. So if you liked that, you’ll almost certainly appreciate this!

      Reply
  13. Pingback: Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, Part 2 – Barbra Pym, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Olivia Manning and more | JacquiWine's Journal

  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. buriedinprint

    So am I understanding correctly that this entire collection is a reprint? or is it the stories have all been printed before in other formats (the author’s own collections or whatnot)? Either way, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is right up my street!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The entire collection first came out in 1988, although I’m sure several of the stories were published in other books of journals before then. Glad to hear you like the sound of it!

      Reply

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