The best books on finding a new normal after World War I

Lesley Glaister Author Of Blasted Things
By Lesley Glaister

The Books I Picked & Why

Testament of Youth

By Vera Brittain

Book cover of Testament of Youth

Why this book?

This autobiographical study of Vera Brittain’s life in the time leading up to the Great War, through it and projecting into the inter-war years, brilliantly demonstrates the enormous changes that were wrought by the brutal and world-shaping conflict. Brittain is a fiercely intelligent, politically aware narrator as well as a likable, wry, honest, and vulnerable human being, and it is the combination of these traits which makes reading her account of the times such an intensely involving and emotional experience. Her book gives a real sense of what it was like to be a woman at the time, shielded by society from the dangers that all her beloved men-folk – fiancé, brother, friends – were sent to face. Grieving and determined to play her part, she gave up her (hard-won) place at Oxford to enroll as a VAD, and her experiences nursing men at the front changed her forever. This book, which I have read several times, was both an inspiration for, and central to my research for, Blasted Things.

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The Return of the Soldier

By Rebecca West

Book cover of The Return of the Soldier

Why this book?

Chris, a shell-shocked soldier who suffers from amnesia, returns from the front expecting life to be as he remembered. But he’s lost fifteen years of his memory and doesn’t recognise his wife Kitty, is horrified by how his cousin Jenny has aged, and longs only for Margaret, the girl he loved all those years ago. Despairing for his sanity, Kitty and Jenny summon Margaret, sure he’ll come to his senses when he sees her, only to find that he still adores her, dowdy, careworn, and poor as she is. The war is only glancingly mentioned here but its loss and damage aches between the lines. Told by Jenny, who loves Chris but starts to see Kitty in a new light, the dreadful snobbishness of the times is laid clear. The Return of the Soldier is a brief novel, romantic and witty, moving and bitter – I devoured it in one sitting.

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In the Mountains

By Elizabeth von Arnim

Book cover of In the Mountains

Why this book?

Immediately after the war, a bereaved woman returns alone to her family’s summer home in the Swiss Alps. It is a beautiful place, but she’s terrified of the memories it stirs, and haunted by the ghosts of those she’s lost. When a couple of lost English widows happen upon her house, she seizes eagerly on their company and the distraction they provide. She invites them to stay, and quickly forms an intense and rather desperate attachment to them. This novel gives a fine evocation of a time when so many felt displaced, when it was as if the tectonic plates of civilised existence had shifted the safe ground from beneath their feet. We see the journey of (eventually) a quartet of bereaved and war-shattered people towards a sort of healing, wholeness, and peace – as well as a new tolerance towards the differences of others.

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The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

By Juliet Nicolson

Book cover of The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

Why this book?

Enormously useful to me while researching for Blasted Things, was The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War. Taking us through chapters entitled feelingly with nouns: from Wound and Shock, through Resignation, and finally to Hope, Trust and Acceptance, Nicolson provides a chronological account of the period between the 1918 Armistice and the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920. It’s addictively readable, the history enriched by the recounted experiences of ordinary people from all walks of life, giving a rounded sense of the time, filled with detail about culture, music, the movies, fashion, class and so much more. This book provides a marvellously concrete and detailed account of the sensibility of a short and fascinatingly complex period.

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Antic Hay

By Aldous Huxley

Book cover of Antic Hay

Why this book?

Set in London in the early 1920s, Huxley’s Antic Hay follows a cast of young bohemian and artistic characters, all affected in various ways by the Great War, as they search for SOMETHING to give meaning to their lives. London has changed, the world has changed, and they are lost. Cripplingly shy Theodore Gumbril, the main character, (inventor of Gumbril's Patent Small-Clothes, trousers which contain an inflatable cushion in the seat) searches for love, and meaning, in the shattered society following the end of the war. His search for love – including the donning of a false, confidence-boosting beard, makes for an absurd kind of comedy. Antic Hay is a savage satire, a switchback of emotions, swooping between humour and despair – though the slight plot does sometimes get rather side-lined by intellectual discussions and I admit to skipping the odd page. However, it gives an excellent flavour of the mind-set of what is sometimes known as the ‘Lost Generation’.

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