I’m not sure how many people will follow me if I make allusion to The Producers, a film and a musical about two dodgy producers who fall upon a get-rich-quick scam that involves launching a musical so bad that it is destined to close after opening night. The musical they pluck from its happy obscurity is Hitler in the Springtime, a thigh-slapping camp-fest in which glorious Aryan types (featuring a blond John Barrowman) support a mincing, prima donna-ish Hitler. Well, the novel Winter Games by Rachel Johnson had an unmistakeable flavour of Hitler in the Springtime about it, being that unusual creature, a funny story about Nazis. What’s potentially confusing is that it’s also, fundamentally, an upmarket piece of chick-lit, inspired by the aristocratic family history of the author. And at this stage in the review, you’ll just have to take my word for it that even if the politics are a bit dodgy and the whole thing a bit bonkers, it does sort of work and is certainly entertaining.
This is one of those stories with parallel plotlines, one in the past, one in the present, and as is almost always the case with them, the story in the past is the more compelling. The novel opens in 1936 with 18-year-old Daphne Linden, a don’s daughter in Oxford, being sent off to a German finishing school. Daphne knows she’s being sent away from home because her depressed mother recently lost a baby and her philandering father is busy seducing another student. There has to be a ‘human sacrifice’ for these various complications, and Daphne is it. She doesn’t mind, however, as a) the school she is going to is co-educational and Daphne is longing to meet that other species, boys, and b) as a sop, her father is suggesting her best friend, the buxom and reckless Betsy Barton-Hill, joins her later on. Once in Germany, the girls quickly fall into the clutches of cousins Siegmund and Otto, the former gung-ho for the Nazis, the latter outraged by the party and their treatment of the Jews. But much more important than politics are the romantic entanglements that arise during their time in Siegmund’s family chalet at the Winter Olympics. It’s the tone that cracks me up in this part of the narrative, however, which is sort of Enid Blyton on amphetamines, or more precisely, what happened to the Chalet School girls when they grew up and their hormones got the better of them.
In the present day, or 2006 at least, Francie Fitzsimon, Daphne’s granddaughter, is a travel writer for a glossy and pointless magazine. Much in Daphne’s life is glossy and pointless; it’s all about hanging out in the right places to be seen, and buying the right merchandise and lusting after her boss, Nathan, who is a complete jerk and she knows this, while being half-heartedly married to an advertising exec. If it’s not strung up in lights for you already, you should be warned that there are unsympathetic characters in this part of the story. The point is that Daphne’s life is supposed to be vacuous, and that Daphne herself remains half-formed and somewhat clueless because she is living ‘in a time of peace and plenty, when houses doubled in value every ten years, households threw away as much food as they consumed, and men didn’t die for their country, they did Yogacampus or BeautCamp Pilates.’ This is possibly true for a small section of media-obsessed childless people living in central London, and quite possible not true for millions of others. But this is not a book that is out to make general points. Instead, it’s a sort of apologia for the aristocracy who never understood what Hitler was about until it was too late, sent down the ages to a kind of metropolitan soul who has (self-righteously) too much money and plenty of critical judgement about everybody other than themselves.
Francie finds a picture of her grandmother with Hitler, and this sets her off on a semi-ironic Quest (she knows her actions follow a certain clichéd route, but that doesn’t prevent her genuinely hoping for enlightment from them), to find out what Granny did during the war. As the story unfolds, so Francie has to take a slightly wincing look at herself and her principles, and try to care about something more than her next purchase from Net-à-Porter. ‘You have nothing in your lives,’ an ageing but still game Betsy Barton-Hill tells her. ‘Not even a war.’ And this is doubtless a reasonable rebuke for a generation who have never had to want for a single thing, and yet have failed to take intellectual or moral advantage of such riches.
And yet, of course, the storyline set in 1936 is about two silly teenage girls, without a clue in their heads, skipping arm in arm in brand new embroidered dirndls towards trouble. And how their own parents believed that Germany was somehow related to Great Britain because Queen Victoria’s grandson was on a Ducal throne there, and that a second war would never happen, not after the devastation of the first. It’s not like the generations that went through the Second World War were intrinsically more brave and dutiful, they simply had courage and sacrifice thrust upon them. However you want to read this, I found the intergenerational themes in this novel very interesting, and the rest of it is a bit of a romp. If you loved Hitler in the Springtime, and could see the funny side of it, then this is definitely a book for you. Oh, and in all honesty, it might help to be female to read it, though I would hate to put off any intrigued males. It’s just that, in my experience (limited), men reading books by women that have even a whiff of politics about them can be very scathing. Please feel free to leave opposing examples in the comments.