The best books about Britain before World War II that show the truth of daily life

Why am I passionate about this?

When I started researching the 1930s in Britain, I realised that I had only ever considered the period from the Irish perspective, as the tail-end of the long battle for independence. I had always seen Britain in the role of oppressor: Rich, where Ireland was poor; powerful where Ireland was weak. As I read more, a new picture of Britain began to emerge. The Great Depression, the numbers of people unemployed, the children with rickets and scurvy due to malnutrition. And with those things, the rise of socialism and fascism, both expressing the same dissatisfaction with life. I wanted to know more. And so I went looking for books to teach me.


I wrote...

Mummy Darlings: A Glorious Guinness Girls Novel

By Emily Hourican,

Book cover of Mummy Darlings: A Glorious Guinness Girls Novel

What is my book about?

It’s the dawn of the 1930s and the three privileged Guinness sisters, Aileen, Maureen, and Oonagh, settle into life as wives and mothers. Aileen at Luttrellstown Castle outside Dublin, Maureen at the great estate of Clandeboye in Northern Ireland, and Oonagh in Rutland Gate in London.

As Britain becomes increasingly polarized politically, the sisters discover conflict within their own marriages. Oonagh’s dream of romantic love is countered by her husband’s lies; the intense nature of Maureen’s marriage means passion but also rows; while Aileen begins to discover that married life offers far less than she had expected. Affairs are uncovered, truth exposed. As Britain begins the slide towards World War II, the three women realize their gilded upbringing hasn’t prepared them for painful realities.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Brideshead Revisited

Emily Hourican Why did I love this book?

A sweeping novel that seems at first to be suffused with the glamour of its characters and their lives; their vast estates, ancient family names, immense privilege. And then, as you read more, it becomes deeper and sadder. The struggle of good people to escape forces that are much stronger than they are. The failures of love and communication that lead to alienation and heartache. The story of a family, of the individuals within that family, and of the bleak ending of an era of ease and privilege. The writing is beautiful, and the characters will stay with you forever.

By Evelyn Waugh,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Brideshead Revisited as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is WW2 and Captain Charles Ryder reflects on his time at Oxford during the twenties and a world now changed. As a lonely student Charles was captivated by the outrageous and decadent Sebastian Flyte and invited to spend time at the Flyte's family home - the magnificent Brideshead. Here Charles becomes infatuated by its eccentric, aristocratic inhabitants, and in particular with Julia, Sebastian's startling and remote sister. But as his own spiritual and social distance becomes marked, Charles discovers a crueller world, where duty and desire, faith and happiness can only ever conflict.


Book cover of The Devil's Decade

Emily Hourican Why did I love this book?

This is a history of the decade that was published in 1973. What it lacks in the perspective of greater hindsight, it gains in the energy and immediacy that Cockburn brings to the subject. It feels vivid and urgent, and conveys the sense of fear and alarm of that time very well. Parts are almost an eyewitness account. In my reading of history books that deal with the time, this stood out as being accessible and lively. 

By Claud Cockburn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Devil's Decade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of Ballet Shoes

Emily Hourican Why did I love this book?

This is a children's book – the story of the three Fossil children, their peculiar upbringing, and the ups and downs of their lives at stage school – but it is a wonderful read at any age. Brilliantly infused with the texture of daily life in 1930s London, it creates a really specific and compelling atmosphere. The food they ate, the cost of clothes, transport, the make-up of their household, even the quality of the air they breathed, is all described, as part of a warm and engrossing tale. Nothing I've read quite transports you to that time in the way that this does. 

By Noel Streatfeild, Diane Goode (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ballet Shoes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

When Sylvia and her old nurse Nana agree to keep house for Gum, they know they will be looking after his fossil collection while his away on his travels. But imagine their surprise when one day he brings them something else - three baby girls whose names all being with 'P'! Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are not really sisters - even their surname is invented. The girls decide to 'put our name in the history books because it's our very own', and enrol at the Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. Each Fossil uses her individual talents to…


Book cover of The Road to Wigan Pier

Emily Hourican Why did I love this book?

The first half of this book is a deep immersion into the shockingly bleak living conditions of 1930s working-class families in the impoverished industrial north of England, then in the grip of the Great Depression. As an Irish person – and given the historic nature of the relationship between the two countries, in which Britain has always been the dominant and powerful one – it was genuinely eye-opening to me to understand how hard life was for ordinary English people.

Orwell’s writing was undertaken from the vantage point of his own experience. He spent months living with families in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and his descriptions of their lives are detailed and very vivid. The second half is an essay about the development of his own political conscience – interesting, but not essential in the way the first half is. 

By George Orwell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Road to Wigan Pier as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An unflinching look at unemployment and life among the working classes in Britain during the Great Depression, The Road to Wigan Pier offers an in-depth examination of socio-economic conditions in the coal-mining communities of England’s industrial areas, including detailed analysis of workers’ wages, living conditions, and working environments. Orwell was profoundly influenced by his experiences while researching The Road to Wigan Pier and the contrasts with his own comfortable middle-class upbringing; his reactions to working and living conditions and thoughts on how these would be improved under socialism are detailed in the second half of the book.


Book cover of The Murder at the Vicarage

Emily Hourican Why did I love this book?

I was tempted to put Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier here, but in the end, this won out, because it is less rarefied, and therefore more telling of the time. This is the first appearance of Miss Marple; gentle, even frail, spinster lady, with a keen eye, keen ear, profound knowledge of the human heart, and an impressive sense of moral rectitude. Christie’s judgments of people are psychologically astute, and her faithful rendering of middle-class 1930s life is a godsend to writers of historical fiction. The way she knits her characters and plots in and around small details like train timetables and servants’ half-days – as well as big issues like lust, jealousy, and the expectations of women’s lives, means her books are total page-turners, and valuable social records, all at once.

By Agatha Christie,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Murder at the Vicarage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Murder at the Vicarage is Agatha Christie’s first mystery to feature the beloved investigator Miss Marple—as a dead body in a clergyman’s study proves to the indomitable sleuth that no place, holy or otherwise, is a sanctuary from homicide.

Miss Marple encounters a compelling murder mystery in the sleepy little village of St. Mary Mead, where under the seemingly peaceful exterior of an English country village lurks intrigue, guilt, deception and death.

Colonel Protheroe, local magistrate and overbearing land-owner is the most detested man in the village. Everyone--even in the vicar--wishes he were dead. And very soon he is--shot…


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The Birthright of Sons: Stories

By Jefferey Spivey,

Book cover of The Birthright of Sons: Stories

Jefferey Spivey Author Of The Birthright of Sons: Stories

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an avid reader of queer literary fiction not only because I write it but because I’m looking to see my life experience captured on the page. As a gay man, a father of two young boys, and one-half of an interracial married couple, I know the complexity of modern queer living firsthand. In recent years, I’ve been astounded by the breadth of great LGBTQ+ books that examine queerness fully and empathetically. I seek out these books, I read them feverishly, and I become a champion for the best ones. In an era of intense book banning, it’s so important to me to elevate these books and their authors.

Jefferey's book list on capturing the complexity of the queer experience

What is my book about?

The Birthright of Sons is a collection of stories centered around the experiences of marginalized people, namely Black and LGBTQ+ men. Although the stories borrow elements from various genres (horror, suspense, romance, magical realism, etc.), they are linked by an exploration of identity and the ways personhood is shaped through interactions with the people, places, and belief systems around us.

In each of these stories, the protagonists grapple with their understanding of who they are, who and how they love, and what is ultimately most important to them. In almost every case, however, the quest to know or protect oneself is challenged by an external force, resulting in violence, crisis, or confusion, among other outcomes.

The Birthright of Sons: Stories

By Jefferey Spivey,

What is this book about?

The Birthright of Sons is a collection of stories centered around the experiences of marginalized people, namely Black and LGBTQ+ men. Though the stories borrow elements from various genres (horror, suspense, romance, magical realism, etc.), they're linked by an exploration of identity and the ways personhood is shaped through interactions with the people, places, and belief systems around us.

Underpinning the project is a core belief - self-definition is fluid, but conflict arises because society often fails to keep pace with personal evolution. In each of these stories, the protagonists grapple with their understanding of who they are, who and…


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