The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War

Rosemary Hill writes:

On 31 August 1939 Alan Cameron was at his desk at the BBC, where he was secretary to the Central Council of School Broadcasting, when he heard that the British fleet was mobilising. This meant that war with Germany was imminent and Cameron telephoned home to give his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, the news. She received it without apparent emotion and with an awkwardness of tone that made an impression on the Irish writer and occasional IRA gunman Sean O’Faolain, with whom she was in bed at the time. He made a joke about it, which she considered in poor taste and there was a subsequent cooling in their relationship. It was to be his last visit to her house and the first change of partners in a frantic dance of infidelities, ménages à trois and other more complex triangulations among writers in London that lasted like an epic ‘excuse me’ throughout the Second World War. Lara Feigel unravels the tangled web, concentrating on the experiences of six novelists: Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke (who wrote as Henry Green), Rose Macaulay, Rosamond Lehmann and the Austrian émigrée Hilde Spiel. The combination of danger and novelty made the times ‘an absolute gift to the writer’, as Yorke put it to Lehmann: ‘Everything is breaking up.’ Danger has always been a noted aphrodisiac, but this particular situation was new. Never before had war come so close to civilian life in London.

(LRB 21 February 2013)

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