Embracing the Past
Why is the Second World War still such a big draw for romance writers and book readers?
Stolen kisses in Anderson shelters. Girls drawing pen lines on the backs of their legs before going to dances. The cheeky grin of a GI as he waves goodbye from the train pulling out of the station…
All of them are familiar and evocative images from books and films dealing in this period of history. There’s no denying that the Second World War is a fertile ground for romance; a place and time that we can relate to and recognise as similar to our own, but which is also tantalisingly different and alluring.
As L.P Hartley famously observed in The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
So what is it about this particular “foreign country” that lures us back, as writers and readers, time and time again?
There are several reasons. The first answer, I feel, is entwined with the psychology of how people actually behaved during the war and why that proves attractive or resonant to us today. When I was writing the television series Land Girls, we researched many aspects of war time life – not just of the Women’s Land Army, but also the general behaviour and motivations of those living during those turbulent times. Our aim was to get a solid understanding of how our characters might behave within that setting.
Usually, human motivation is roughly the same in whatever time period you set your story – with people wanting the same things as they do now. Cave people wanted food, warmth and love. Same as we do now. What differs is the context of that behaviour, the social and cultural restrictions in place at the time which informs or limits those desires. For the Second World War, people were under a pressure cooker environment of uncertainty, stress and the threat of death. In a lot of cases, this environment lead to a liberation of feelings and action – as people sought to grab precious moments of life-affirming happiness where they could. Tomorrow a bomb might drop, so make the most of it now…
So despite all the fighting, uncertainty and heartache, many people found romance during those troubled years. For a start, there were an estimated 70,000+ GI brides – the result of mostly whirlwind courtships of English women by American soldiers. There were one and a half million babies born during the period. Many people found long-lasting love, short-term romance or lustful liaisons.
Under the spectre of war, people did – and still do – behave differently. Emotions are heightened and distilled – particularly in those worrying about loved ones overseas. You feared the arrival of the dreaded telegrams telling you that your husband or boyfriend had been killed in action. Add to this the real fear for your own safety from the bombs falling overhead and it meant that each moment of levity and enjoyment was mined for every precious sliver of pleasure. Dances in village halls would be a few hours to let your hair down and try to blot out the backbreaking work you were doing in the daytime or a chance to forget your troubles and anxieties. So the people attending such dances would be worried about their own lives or the lives of those they were close to – but layered over all this, everyone would be struggling with the big question of what would happen if Hitler actually won the war? That feeling unified the people in a single mindset. Did this lead to a need for instant gratification?
For Bea Holloway in the first series of Land Girls, we wanted to show what happened when an impressionable young woman met a charming GI – and how this fear of the future could shape and speed-up their relationship. Cal told Bea that they could all die in the coming months, and that they had to grab every moment of happiness. This wasn’t shallow manipulation on his part – not entirely anyway – but a genuine feeling that a lot of people experienced. In the series, it had the effect of making Bea fear she wouldn’t see him again. So Bea slept with him on the night of the dance, hours after only just having met him.
We decided that – due to “GI caused pregnancies” being a fact of life – this was a storyline we had to cover in Land Girls. So the first series charted Bea’s seduction at the hands of Cal, the resulting pregnancy and birth, followed by her abandonment by Cal and then her second chance with farm hand Billy Finch.
Even if people weren’t conscious of the heightening of emotions, there would be the issue of being intrigued by a new world. How many British women would have heard an American accent that wasn’t in a film? How many women would have been intrigued by tales of homesteads, ranches and brownstone neighbourhoods? And the same went in reverse – most GIs wouldn’t have chatted before to British people at length.
Another factor which attracts us to this time is the empowerment of women. If you want to write a novel about women taking a strong place in society, then the Second World War is a good place to start. As women took up the jobs vacated by men – in the factories and farms – they changed and grew. They embraced the new opportunities offered to them in a way that was denied their mothers and grandmothers. This was an issue of social change that I wanted to convey in Land Girls – as well as honouring the actual exploits of the brave women who kept our country from starvation.
Most women at this time either lived with their parents or with their husbands. So it was a culture shock when suddenly women were placed with other women in rectories, farms and private houses – and forced to bunk down together and make the best of it.
Add to this the vastly differing backgrounds of many of your roommates, the alien nature of the work you were required to do, and the enforced camaraderie, and you can understand how a generation of women took on a new independence and assertiveness. It would be this independence and assertiveness that would lead to many of them embracing romance when it was available. Women were much more in control of their own destiny. This was another facet I really wanted to capture in the series – making certain that the women were the protagonists and had control of their destiny, with men purposefully not being the cavalry who saved the day.
Another question that intrigued me - and is a source of interest for writers and readers – was what happened when the men came home. In Land Girls, Joyce’s husband returns from battle, discharged from the RAF, but he meets a different Joyce than the one he left behind. This new Joyce has embraced the independence thrust upon her and changed. John has changed too through his experiences of being shot down over France. Both of them are different people from the young couple who said “I do.” all those years before. What happens when you go home?
Another factor that attracts us to this time is class. Even though they have been eroded somewhat in recent years, the class barriers were still very prominent during this time. This led me to explore the other big storyline of series one of Land Girls – the forbidden romance of Lawrence Hoxley, the Lord of the Manor, with Nancy Morrell, Land Girl.
The attraction of writing and reading about romances that straddle the class divide is strong today – perhaps largely because it is an indicator of a halcyon time gone by. Nowadays, class is still an issue of sorts, although people don’t like to talk about it as much. The definitions are different and perhaps not as attractive as the times of the Second World War.
Simple nostalgia is another factor that makes the period attractive. It is a time within living memory for a lot of people; our relatives have stories of their time in the war and what they did. We look back at a time when everyone was pulling together – the Blitz spirit – and contrast it to our own society. The individual ambitions of the people were put on hold as they banded together to fight a bigger threat.
The Second World War – a time of darkness, peril, and indomitable spirit is perhaps, on the surface, an unlikely place to find romance. But all the factors affecting human behaviour during such times actually provide a rich source of inspiration to writers and readers of romantic fiction.
You can see why the Second World War is still a romantic place to visit…
(This article first appeared in Writing Magazine in 2014. Images copyright Corbis)