“Nobody can live in a seaside town without becoming more or less slack-minded.”
Or so says Henrietta, lead character in a couple of marvellous short books by Joyce Dennys, who spent the majority of her working life as an artist and writer in the Devon seaside town of Budleigh Salterton. The town and its inhabitants provide the subject matter for both her later paintings and the words and illustrations in ‘Henrietta’s War’ and ‘Henrietta Sees It Through’, both of which are tremendous fun and highly recommended. Initially written and published as an on-going series in ‘The Sketch’ magazine during WW2, selections were collected, edited and published by Andre Deutsch in the mid ’80s and are currently available in ebook format. As evocations of The Home Front in a sleepy West Country coastal village/town during WW2, the tales woven by the lightly fictionalised Dennys masquerading as doctor’s wife Henrietta are richly observed with numerous deliciously sketched characters. Written in epistolary form, the style is not a million miles from that of the wonderful E.M. Delafield and her ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, including an Austen-esque Use Of Capital Letters and mention of Bulbs. There is even a Lady B in evidence. ‘Provincial Lady’ was of course a barnstorming success story of the 1930s so it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to suggest at least a degree of cross-fertilisation at play here, the more so since at the time Dellafield and Dennys would have been living barely twenty miles apart.
If one were being unduly harsh one might dismiss Henrietta’s missives as not much more than propaganda intended to Raise The Spirits, yet there are nevertheless enough suggestions of disquiet and frustration in the descriptions of day to day life to argue that whilst they may be far from the harsher realities described in, say, Frances Faviell’s excellent ‘A Chelsea Concerto’, they are hardly sugar coated Toe The Party Line mimsy. As Henrietta asks in a typically astute and subtly throwaway manner: “Had you ever thought what problems this beastly war must cause to teachers of History who love both their country and the Truth?” As true today as it has ever been, and doubtless ever will be. Ouch.
Indeed, Dennys displays a barbed and wicked sense of humour throughout, as well as a feisty feminist stance, best displayed when Henrietta rails at The County Gentlemen about Attitudes To Women:
“‘They ought to be proud to come at their Country’s Need,’ said Colonel Simpkins, looking at me very sternly.
‘They are,’ I said. ‘Only they must get rather sick of being mucked about.’
‘What a disgusting expression,’ said Mrs Savernack.
‘What Henrietta means,’ said Lady B, ‘is that one day women are being told that their place is the Home, and the next minute they have to man the guns.’
‘And if they get their legs blown off, it’s supposed to matter less to them than it does to a man,’ I said.
‘And as soon as they’ve got used to manning the guns, the war will end, and they’ll be told their place is the Home again,’ said Lady B.
‘Bad luck, of course,’ said the Admiral, ‘but War is War.’”
All of which is followed by some marvellously biting commentary about babies, pram-pushing, members of parliament and the Future Promise Of Peace. This is Dennys at her charmingly steely best and although it may be stretching things too far, one wonders if there is something here of her confronting patriarchal and martial views expressed by her own father who died as a relatively undistinguished former professional soldier in the Indian Army around 1928. The family military connection continued, as it did for so many of these particular generations, with Joyce’s brother, Major General Lance Dennys who was to die in a plane crash in China in 1942, his name carved on the Budleigh war memorial that overlooks Lyme Bay from the top of Coastguard Hill.
Another name on the same memorial is one D. Ackland, a Budleigh resident who perished whilst visiting Guildford on 25th August 1944 when a V1 flying bomb fell on Aldersey Road. I mention this because some three years earlier, Henrietta had mused in ‘The Sketch’ ahead of a planned trip Up To Town:
“Suppose a bomb were to drop on me in London? Charles and I hold strong views about being blown up together if we have to be blown up at all, and I had a vivid mental picture of Charles and the children in deep mourning, and Charles saying: ‘She would go. I couldn’t stop her. Your poor mother always had a craving for pleasure and excitement’” Truth, fiction, strangeness and sadness.
As previously mentioned, the books are written in epistolary form, made up of letters from Henrietta to a childhood friend named Robert who, we are led to assume from the outset, is soldiering in some un-known and un-named place of secrecy. However some later references, and a little bit of arithmetic in working out probable ages, build the distinct sense that there is a more sorrowful root to this stream of letters. A suggestion indeed that Robert may in fact be a childhood sweetheart lost in the trenches of The Great War raises its head quite early, so it’s hardly a spoiler to point to some of the closing lines of the second book where Henrietta writes: “So we’ve beaten the Germans at last, and I don’t suppose I shall have to write you many more letters. All the same, writing to you has become such a habit I shall probably go on penning you long, chatty letters and dropping them over our garden wall onto your asparagus bed.” It is these occasional lapses into reverie that do much to pull the collection back from the edge of ‘Dad’s Army’ comedic parody (not that there is much, if anything, wrong with that). It is difficult to read a line like “When I was at Waterloo yesterday, Robert, I looked for you under the clock, and almost thought I could see you standing there. Where, like the Pale Hands somebody loved, are you now?” without an eye involuntarily watering and a thought for the vastness of emotion conjured by Jeremy Deller’s ‘we’re here because we’re here’.
It’s true, however, that the dominant and lasting flavour of these books is one of delicious humour and warmth; that thoroughly English tradition of Not Taking Oneself Too Seriously In Spite Of It All. The prolific illustrations are glorious too of course, with her characters as perfectly captured in pen and ink as they are in words. And to anyone familiar with the Devon coastline, immediately recognisable as Budleigh from just the few fluid lines that sketch out headlands and the roofs of beach huts. There is certainly something of Beryl Cook in Dennys’ illustrations, although it may be more accurate to suggest influences going the other way, for Dennys’ first, and perhaps most famous design work in the ‘Our Hospital ABC’ books from 1916-17 were published a whole decade prior to Cook’s birth. That said, it’s also true that by the time Dennys took up painting in her 70s, Cook was firmly in the public eye and so, perhaps as with a possible cross-pollination with Delafield in the wartime words, there is something of the same filtering into Dennys’ charming paintings of Budleigh life. Indeed All Of Life is in these paintings, from the view of characters struggling up Fore Street Hill (Dennys’ own charming house just out frame, now quite rightly sporting a blue plaque of appreciation) to the rather wonderful ‘On The Parade’ which depicts the startled and stoically blinkered reaction of some elderly inhabitants to an influx of barely dressed tourists. Painted in the 1980s, visually the picture is a charming echo of Henrietta’s observation some 40 years earlier that “Our Summer Visitors are with us once more. We are resigned to them coming down every year and cluttering up the place, putting up the prices in the shops, parking their cars in front of our garden-gates, keeping us awake at nights with moonlight picnics on the beach, and wearing trousers when nature designed them for skirts.” And aside perhaps from that line about skirts, some forty years on from the painting one could visit the Budleigh Parade, stand outside the same shelter and witness much the same scene. Plus ça change.