by Brett F. Braley-Palko
PITTSBURGH – In the expanse and aftermath of two World Wars, British writers tried to grapple with a shifting patriotism by hyperfocusing on the domestic. Waugh’s social comedies about the Bright Young Things and Coward’s plays about contemporary London life infused humor into the everyday, while showing its vagaries as well. A whole generation of writers made a living in examining, dissecting, ridiculing the lives or ordinary (and extraordinary) characters that existed in the Oxbridge backdrop of one too many novels of that time.
But it was not only male writers who were achieving success. In fact, women contemporaries to Waugh were making strides in the literary circles of London, too. Except, somehow, their novels, often focusing on similar subject material to their male counterparts and more often offering a deeper pathos to their plots, get lost to second-hand books and Liberal Arts classes.
Myself, I am a fan of second-hand shops and have a couple Liberal Arts degrees, so it is a surprise to exactly no one that I have read my share of British women writers of this time. In fact, it is my preference to pick up a Pym over a Green; or a Bowen over a Forster. While these men can, of course, write – I prefer the subtle strokes of a Mitfords’ pen over the thumbing brush of a James.
Let’s examine for a minute the plots of Barbara Pym. Known for her social comedies, her patterned prose tends to center around quiet parishes in England and the internal lives of women as they navigate the parochial societies they inhabit. Yes, thematically, this may not excite the general reader, but it excites me. The layering of wit, the instances of caution, the monologues of doubt that represent Pym at her purist speaks more to me as a gay man living in a rural community in 2020 than most things I have read in recent years.
Or Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one). With her unfortunately confusing name, Taylor has been lost in the general discussion of fine female writers. One does wonder if it’s because of her name; but more realistically, it’s probably because her plots are seen as not marketable (read: men don’t want to read them). Sadly for most, the time one could be spending at the Claremont with Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey is often overlooked for a more contemporary novel.
And, last – but never least – I would be remiss to not mention Nancy Mitford. Yes, yes, her novels are often seen as beach reads without substance, but I defy anyone to not breathe in the oxygen that Mitford gives the aristocracy and the many idiosyncrasies that come with a peerage. Like cotton candy, her novels are feather-light, but melt in your mouth at the first touch.
These novels – and the women behind them – tell the same story their male counterparts are telling, but with a more subtle approach to the myopia of Britain’s changing social and political climate. While anchored in the mundane, they tell of the extraordinary expansion and contraction of an Empire in turmoil – just told from the point of view of a parishioner’s wife, a widow, or an Honorable lady. Female novelists of this time stand out to me as a more realistic approach to understanding the world around them than their male counterparts. While men made satire and war novels to understand the world, women anchored the zeitgeist into the everyday, making it far easier for me to experience with the protagonist than what the former options provided.
So many more women writers during this period remain at the bottom of a class syllabus, usually used as a ballast for the male canon. Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth von Armin – an entire oeuvre of British literature has its eye on the absurdity of modern living against the backdrop – in spite of the backdrop – of global warfare. And while it is no surprise that these women have been cast to the side in the retrospective, it is a shame that so many may never meet the Radlett children or Charles Arrowby or Stella Rodney. I myself find that, in the winter, the slow burn of a domestic novel keeps me warmer much long after I put back on my nightstand.