Henrietta Sees It Through – Joyce Dennys

I think Bloomsbury’s idea of reprinting 20th century middlebrow classics recommended by readers is terrific. The first half dozen books were published last year & my favourite was Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta’s War. First published in The Sketch, Henrietta’s War is a series of letters written by Henrietta to her childhood friend, Robert, who’s away fighting. Henrietta tells Robert about life on the Home Front in her village in Devon. She’s a doctor’s wife with two grown up children. The letters are funny, poignant, dramatic & ironic. They paint a picture of middle-class life during WWII. The letters were only collected in book form in the 1980s & it was thanks to the recommendation of Cornflower, who writes one of my favourite blogs, that Henrietta’s War was republished last year.

Now, the sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through, has been published. It’s 1943 & the rationing, shortages, bombing & general stress of worrying about loved ones are beginning to take a toll on Henrietta & her friends. But, the keynote of these books is their humour which I’m sure is what made them so popular when they were first published. Henrietta takes up weeding her garden with a vengeance & plays the triangle in her local orchestra,

In triangle playing, if you have only three Pings in a whole movement, and each Ping is separated from the next by at least eighty bars, and you aren’t very good at reading music anyway, it is extremely difficult to Come In at the Right Time. The Conductor was sitting with his head in his hands, apparently weeping, by the time we had gone through the movement twice. After that I threw my music on the floor and trusted to Womanly Intuition and Memory. After the Double Bass had played three loud zooming notes I Pinged once; when one of the cellos turned round and gave me a Look, I Pinged a second time; and at the bit where little Mrs Simpkins began playing in flats instead of sharps, I Pinged for the third and last time. This was correct. The Conductor said ‘Good, Triangle!’ and was I proud?

I sympathised with Henrietta & her dear friend, Lady B, when patriotism demands that they sacrifice old kettles & watering cans to the Metal Dump for salvage. But, it’s the Paper Dump that causes the most anguish,

We looked at each other with concern, for Lady B loves her books, and when she gave up her house and moved into her tiny flat they were the only luxury she allowed herself to take with her. We tiptoed round to the other side of our tin mountain, and there she was, tight-lipped, throwing one precious volume after another onto the Paper Dump. I saw her beloved Trollopes hurtling through the air, followed by the Shaws, and as each old and valued friend landed with a melancholy plop on the sacrificial altar, Lady B muttered, ‘Damn Hitler!’

Some things haven’t changed. Henrietta & her husband, Charles, go shopping in their Cathedral city & find the traffic appalling & the off-hand service in the shops infuriating. Henrietta’s glamorous friend, Faith, settles down & marries The Conductor. George, a handsome American soldier, brings a touch of glamour to the village & the book ends with a wonderful party to celebrate VE Day.

The letters have the charm of the everyday carrying on in a time of war, the stiff upper lip attitude that has become symbolic of the Home Front during WWII. I know not everyone was as patriotic as Henrietta & her friends. Marghanita Laski’s book, To Bed With Grand Music, is an illustration of a more selfish attitude to the war & its opportunities. But, I love reading about the Home Front. I admire the fortitude of the people who lived through such dangerous times & were willing to sacrifice their pleasures for the greater good. Their make-do-and-mend philosophy has a lot to recommend it. Henrietta’s ability to see the funny side of any situation & laugh at herself & her friends make these two books a joy to read & reread.

6 thoughts on “Henrietta Sees It Through – Joyce Dennys

  1. Hi Lyn,

    I enjoyed your review. And the book itself, as I too am having a Home Front moment. This second volume had interesting depictions of literal war weariness. I thought the letter describing the enforced weekend of rest for Henrietta's husband, where he spent a lot of the time asleep was really telling of the strain ordinary people felt and the super hard work happening on the home front.

    I also love discovering gracious characters such as Lady B in fiction – she was so large minded, forgiving and peacemaking. Such characterisation seems somewhat rare. Goodness perhaps does not make for gripping reading??? (Alexander McCall Smith is someone who pulls off goodness well. )


  2. I love reading about WWII on the home front — but I don't think I could bear to sacrifice some of my beloved books! I think I'd need some comfort reads during wartime. These sound very good and I'll have to look for them.


  3. I don't know why I've not yet read these as I love the sound of the story and it seems right up my alley. At the moment I seem to be picking up more post-WWII stories set in Austerity Britain, but I really need to pull out the first of these books and move it to the top of my pile.


  4. Lovely review, Lyn… but you've reminded me of that horrible Paper Dump scene, which I'd successfully repressed. Somehow that seems much worse to me than many other sacrifices people would have had to make.

    I'm delighted with Karen/Bloomsbury for introducing me to Joyce Dennys – I've since read another four of her books, and loved them all. Economy Must Be Our Watchword is my favourite, though sadly nigh-on impossible to find.


  5. I wonder why the Paper Dump scene had such an effect on us all?! I'm sure we could all imagine being in Lady B's position & shuddering at the thought. I agree that goodness is difficult to portray interestingly in fiction but Lady B is funny as well as good. Pure goodness often comes over as smugness. Just think of Fanny Price, although I felt fonder of her the last time I read Mansfield Park than ever before. I noticed the suppressed anger a lot more. This Lady B almost makes me forget the Provincial Lady's horrible Lady B!


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