The true age of austerity

Monday 10 February 2014

Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and 'Peace'David Cameron’s ‘age of austerity’ bears little resemblance to the original, an academic from the University of St Andrews has argued.

Professor Gill Plain, an expert in crime fiction and representations of war, suggests that reading books from the 1940s can give us an incredible insight into real hardship.

Writing in a ground-breaking new book on the literature of the 1940s, Professor Plain says the work of writers such as George Orwell, Stevie Smith and Evelyn Waugh has lessons for us all.

She said, “In the 1940s people lived, loved, loathed, and wrote important literary works, in circumstances we would today find unthinkable. It’s not just the physical danger and destruction of wartime, it’s the everyday reality of coping with rationing, movement restrictions, displacement, bomb damage, being cut off from your family and friends.”

In her new book Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and ‘Peace’, Professor Plain explores the ‘rich literary legacy’ of the Second World War and its aftermath.  She argues that the literature of the forties allows us not only to see historical events from a new perspective, but can also help us understand the forces that shaped modern Britain.

Describing how a ‘postwar’ sensibility emerged long before the war ended, Professor Plain says that what is happening in Britain now bears little resemblance to the original ‘age of austerity’.

Professor Gill PlainShe explained, “By 1947, some people were so desperate for houses that they squatted in disused army camps, while large parts of the countryside had been isolated by a catastrophic winter. There were power cuts and bread rationing, and the threat of a new atomic war.

“Yet although people had so little, and were so exhausted, they still gave their support to unprecedented reforms, including the foundation of the National Health Service. The original age of austerity was, paradoxically, born of optimism.”

The 1940s produced some of the finest poetry and novels of the twentieth century, suggests the author. Yet, unlike the modernism of the 1920s, or the Auden generation of 1930s, the 1940s are not usually thought of as a ‘literary’ period.

The academic suggests that following the ‘incredibly literary’ First World War and the Spanish Civil War, many writers felt there was nothing left to say. Yet, gradually, new voices emerged, with writers describing not just the horror, but also the boredom and humour of war.

The new book tells the story of a ‘decade of diversity’, drawing on hundreds of poems, plays, novels and memoirs, by writers from Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and Nancy Mitford, to Keith Douglas, George Orwell, Terence Rattigan and Evelyn Waugh.

“It is an incredibly rich range of writing,” Professor Plain continued.  “It’s an age in which people read voraciously, and when writers would use any form, any genre or any style they could to try to find words for experiences almost beyond articulation. This is why the writing is so iconoclastic and so important.

“These books, plays and poems speak for Britain in the 1940s, they give voice to emotions this often inarticulate nation found impossible to express. They also make us think twice about the true meaning of ‘austerity’.”


Note to Editors

Professor Gill Plain is available for interview on [email protected] or mobile 07815 120072.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Communications Manager, on 01334 467227 or email [email protected]

Ref: Austerity 100214

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