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BOOK LIST: Books set in '20s & '30s

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Michelle Cooper, author of the wonderful 'Montmaray Journals' has compiled a list for me of books set in the same historical period - the 1920s and 1930s. There are some great recommendations here:

It seems to be compulsory for reviews of ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’ to mention Dodie Smith’s classic coming-of-age novel, ‘I Capture the Castle’, and it’s certainly flattering to have my work compared to such a beloved book. Both involve a teenage girl writing in her diary and living in a crumbling castle with her eccentric family – although I don’t recall any princesses, pirates, sea monsters, ghosts, Nazis or gory murders in ‘I Capture the Castle’. 

One reviewer also described ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’ as a modern version of the Brontës mixed with the Famous Five. After I’d finished feeling indignant (about the Enid Blyton bit, not the Brontës), I remembered my book did include Cornish smugglers, seaside caves, secret tunnels, a mad uncle, a tomboy and a loyal dog . . . so all those Famous Five books I read as a child must have had more of an effect on me than I’d realised.

On the other hand, reviews of ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’ tend to mention either ‘Downton Abbey’ or the Mitfords. As I haven’t seen ‘Downton Abbey’ and it’s not a book, I won’t discuss it here. 

However, I can’t resist an opportunity to rhapsodize about my favourite Nancy Mitford novels, ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, both set in the 1920s and 1930s, and based on the author’s eccentric, upper-class English family. 

If you enjoy hilarious, irreverent stories about innocent debutantes and their ambitious mothers, French dukes and exiled European royalty, country estates and London Society, you will love these books. 

Nancy Mitford also manages to include some sharp observations of 1930s politics – which isn’t all that surprising, given her family history (her sisters Diana and Unity were devotees of Hitler, while another sister, Jessica, ran away from home as a teenager to join the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War). 

There’s a lot of interesting non-fiction by and about the Mitford sisters. My favourites are ‘Hons and Rebels’, the first volume of Jessica Mitford’s memoirs, and ‘The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters’, edited by Charlotte Mosley.

‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, the final Montmaray book, is mostly about life in England during the Second World War. There are a lot of great novels set in this period, but among my favourites are the Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. This is a wonderful series that follows the changing fortunes of a wealthy middle-class English family throughout the war and beyond. The four novels – ‘The Light Years’, ‘Marking Time’, ‘Confusion’ and ‘Casting Off’ – are based on the real-life experiences of the now ninety-year-old author, who has just announced that she’s working on a fifth Cazalet book. Some other favourite Britain-at-war novels are ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy, about the experiences of Jamaican airmen stationed in Britain, and ‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters, which cleverly links the stories of four Londoners, all of them on the outskirts of respectable society because they’ve fallen in love with the ‘wrong’ people. Readers who liked Toby’s story in ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’ may also enjoy ‘The Charioteer’ by Mary Renault (although ‘enjoy’ probably isn’t the best word to use about a book set mostly in a military hospital). Finally, for those looking for some non-fiction that isn’t excessively long or academic, I recommend ‘Debs at War 1939-1945: How Wartime Changed Their Lives’ by Anne de Courcy, about the privileged young British women who joined the services, drove ambulances, nursed the wounded and worked in factories and on farms during the war.

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