Book recommendations, please!

I’m doing a spot of research into the period 1936-1960 in UK history and looking for things to read that will give me a real flavour of how people lived during this time. There’s SO much information about World War 2 I’m not so fussed about reading war stories, but am more interested in normal social life just before the war and for the fifteen years that followed it. I’m especially interested in literary life at this time – anything about writers or publishing would be excellent.

I’d rather read novels written and published during this time period than contemporary historical fiction, but really good examples of the latter are still welcome.

Memoirs and non-fiction that deals with this period are very welcome.

Penguin editors in 1950

Writers I’ve thought of already are: John Wyndham, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Greene, early Barbara Pym, later Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Non-fiction I already own: The Life and Times of Allen Lane by Jeremy Lewis, Family Britain 1951-57 by David Kynaston, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson.

Any suggestions gratefully received!


47 thoughts on “Book recommendations, please!

  1. Celia Fremlin’s The Hours Before Dawn. Although it’s a thriller, it’s a real eye-opener about what life was like for women post-war stuck at home bringing up babies with no mod cons and sleep deprivation. Plus it’s a damn good read! 😀

  2. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956) is a super dystopia, with the suburban 50s family escaping London. Anthony Powell of course – full of arty types in the 2nd volume. Colin MacInnes (Thirkell’s son I believe) just gets in with Absolute Beginners 1959 – VG on the young things of the time.

  3. I would have thought quite a few of the essays George Orwell wrote would be useful to you, even although they are not novels. Other writers that come to my mind at short notice are Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Marghanita Laski, Anthony Burgess, early Arthur C Clarke.

    I think you may have a surfeit of choices! x

    • I do hope so – then I can see what’s available on audio book to save my eyes and so on, so choice is very good! And thank you for the excellent suggestions. I read The Village by Marghanita Laski years ago and loved it.

  4. It’s been ages since I visited your blog. Last I remembered, you’d stopped. I haven’t been around much either, so it’s nice to see you’re still around in the blogging world.
    Nella Last’s War if you haven’t read this already. She was part of the mass observation project. It should be exactly what you’re looking for.
    The World my Wilderness would be good too.

    • Caroline, it’s lovely to have you visit! I am a very poor blogger these days, posting very intermittently. I’m still having a lot of dry eye issues, which prevent me reading (though I do a lot of listening) and also stop me reading friends’ blogs which feels uncomfortable, like I’m breaking an important pact. But from time to time I do a little waving here and it’s great to see old dear friends. Thank you for your excellent suggestions – I’ll be looking into them!

      • I know how you feel and what you mean about the pact. Nothing we can do when things are difficult. Especially with our eyes. Mine are playing up too. I hope yours will improve with time. Now that I’m blogging again, I’ll watch out for you. I do miss your book suggestions. They were always among my favorites. I got Nella Last’s book and might read it soon too. I saw the film and like it very much. The World my Wilderness is wonderful.

      • Oh Caroline, I didn’t realise you were having eye issues too. It is such an epic nuisance – I send all possible sympathy. But also really glad to know you’re blogging again. It’s a practice that does ebb and flow, I find, after the first few years. And bless you for your kind words. I’ve had an odd reading year, but there have still been some excellent books in the mix. Thank you for your kind suggestions, I own The World my Wilderness, so that one’s definitely coming off the shelf!

      • Thanks. It is a nuisance. Audiobooks are not my thing, so I’m reading far less. I’m looking forward to some end of year recap from you. Not that I won’t be visiting again before that.

      • I do find that audiobooks are a VERY different experience to reading, so can quite understand. It’s lovely to be in touch again – I am still a poor visitor but MUST make myself a new blogroll of my best blog friends to visit. I’d love to hear all about your reading, too.

  5. Elizabeth Bowen The Heat of the Day (wartime London); Patrick Hamilton The Slaves of solitude (another brilliant wartime novel). Henry Green is wonderful too from this period. also Elizabeth Jane Howard.

    • Thank you so much, Harriet, I knew you’d have excellent suggestions. Do you know, I read The Slaves of Solitude years ago but have very little recollection of it – must look back at my review! Had forgotten all about Henry Green and EJH (who I love).

  6. I work on C20th British history so can hopefully be helpful, although the only literature on publishing I’m really familiar with is mainstream/popular rather than literary. Would that be of interest? More generally, two wonderful books that I often recommend are Claire Langhamer’s The English in Love [post-war] and Thomas Dixon’s Weeping Britannia [long time period, but several chapters on 1930-60]. The Kynaston books are a good post-war overview. Ross McKibbin and Martin Pugh have both written good general histories of inter-war Britain’s social and economic history.

    • Laura, you are a total star. Fabulous non-fiction suggestions here, all new to me, all excellent. And yes please, mainstream/popular is fine for the publishing angle. I’m struggling to find anything much at all!

      • Had a thought re literary writers, Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns might be of interest? I haven’t read it myself but I remember people raving about it when it first came out. Otherwise, Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and Joseph McAleer, Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain might be of interest but also might be quite difficult to get hold of outside a university library.

      • That’s a very good thought, Laura. I remember that book coming out too, and it’s definitely worth a look. As it happens, I do have a university library on my doorstep – ta-dah! – so Rose and McAleer ought to be possible to locate and bring home (fingers crossed). Both sound excellent.

  7. On the Mass Observation front (I am also researching this period for a future novel), there are two other Nella Last collections – Nella Last in the Fifties and Nella Last’s Peace. Rachel Cooke’s excellent Her Brilliant Career tells the stories of ten groundbreaking British women of that generation and is eminently readable and illuminating. More Mass Observation diaries – this time covering 1945-1948 – are covered in Our Hidden Lives by Simon Garfield. Our Stolen Years by Martin Salter Smith contains diaries and letters between a Liverpool couple caught up in wartime from 1938-1946. Our Longest Days is a further collection of Mass Observation entries collated and edited by Sandra Koa Wing. Finally, Jane Fearnley Whittingstall’s The Ministry of Food contains recipes, tips hints and advice provided by that government department to households during the war years – there are some brilliant illustrations of ads and propaganda of the time too.

      • My pleasure. Hope your research goes well – good luck with your story too! Mine will feature dark forces, but then, as a horror writer you would expect that of me,wouldn’t you? 🙂 BTW, if you haven’t seen Victoria Wood’s excellent portrayal of Nella Last in the TV drama, Housewife, 49, grab a copy of that too. i would highly recommend it

      • I saw on facebook a photo of a bookshop window with a notice that said ‘The Post-Apocalyptic Section has been moved to Current Affairs’. Which amused me – I think we’re all on board with tracking dark forces these days, heh! And no I haven’t seen the Victoria Wood portrayal – I’ll bet she’s amazing.

  8. Anthony Powell’s twelve volume series Dance to the Music of Time pretty much covers this period—and it’s excellent as well.

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  10. Has anyone suggested Few Eggs and No Oranges, the wartime diaries of Vere Hodgson? Brilliant juxtaposition of the small things in everyday life in wartime London set against the big events of the time.

  11. I can’t let the opportunity go without advocating some Welsh writers from the period. Raymond Williams, Border Country 1960 , Rhys Davies, A Time to Love 1937 would be high on my list

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