Here in the UK, yesterday and today have been declared public holidays in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. She has already reigned for longer than any British monarch who preceded her. Even Queen Victoria only managed just under sixty-four years and she spent many of those years in seclusion.
I’m not prone to flag-waving or royal-watching but even I’m aware of how strange it will be to hear the phrases like ‘The King’s Speech’ rather than ‘The Queen’s Speech’. In my lifetime, the UK has always been ruled by a woman, so it feels like the natural order of things. That, in my lifetime, the UK has always been ruled by the same woman is extraordinary. It makes Queen Elizabeth one of the few bridges between the Britain my parents knew as adults and the Britain I now live in. Elizabeth was already Queen when my parents married. They’re gone. The world they knew is largely gone. The Queen is still here.
Although I was born only five years later, my knowledge of Britain in 1952 is less detailed than my knowledge of Britain in 1852, when Victoria was Queen. I was taught about Victorian England at school (even if much of what I was taught still had an imperialist gloss to it) but no one taught me about 1952 because it wasn’t regarded as history yet. So all I have is a magpie collection of details that caught my eye as shiny.
I know that 1952 was the year Britain tested its first nuclear bomb, heating up the arms race. It was the year that Alan Turing, the computer genius who was behind the success of the code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park, was convicted of gross indecency for having a homosexual relationship and was chemically castrated (He was pardoned in 2019. His image is now on the £50 note). Meat, bread and confectectionary were still rationed but the rationing of tea ended that year. The mandatory requirement for ID Cards, brought in during the war, also ended in 1952. The British de Havilland Comet became the first commercial jet airliner in the world but currency controls meant UK citizens could take only very small amounts of money out of the country and were not allowed to make investments or buy property abroad. None of these snippets of information go very far in helping me to imagine life in Britain in 1952.
So, this week, I’m using my reading to try and visit the Britain that Elizabeth became the ruler of seventy years ago. I want to see it through the eyes of three contemporary novelists looking to tell a good tale grounded in the day-to-day 1952 world that they took for granted and that I know little about.
One is a story of the tensions between a mother and a daughter when the mother decides to remarry.
One is a set of speculative fiction short stories, all of which focus on how people come into conflict with the natural world.
One is the story of a young woman leaving the dreariness of England behind to find a better life in Australia.
‘A Daughter’s A Daughter’ by Mary Westmacott (1952)
1952 was a busy year for Agatha Christie. She published the fifth Miss Marple book, ‘They Do It With Mirrors‘ and the thirty-second Hercule Poirot book, ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’ and opened her play, ‘The Mousetrap’ in London’s West End. Like Queen Elizabeth, the play is a British institution that’s still attracting crowds seventy years later.
She also took time out to publish her fifth novel writing as Mary Westmacott. As Mary Westmacott. Christie could leave crime-solving behind and focus on building credible characters and describing the relationships between them. It seems that, for the always prolific Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott was a personal passion rather than a commercial activity.
I’m hoping for a realistic but engaging story that gives me a glimpse into 1952 as seen by two generations of women. This is my first Westmacott novel, so I’m also curious to compare Mary Westmacott’s authorial voice with Agatha Christie’s.
‘The Birds And Other Stories’ by Daphne Du Maurier 1952)
This is new territory for me. Daphne Du Maurier is one of those writers who I keep meaning to read but have never gotten around to. I have ‘My Cousin Rachel’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ on my shelves and I’m intrigued by both but somehow there just hasn’t been time to get to them.
I picked Daphne Du Maurier for this 1952 Britfest because she was very much a member of the British establishment but her way of looking at the world wasn’t bounded by the class that she came from.
I know ‘The Birds’ only from the Hitchcock film. I’m hoping for a little more depth in the original text. This is a collection of speculative fiction so, on the surface, it doesn’t look like an obvious choice for getting a feel for life in Britain in 1952 but what we speculate about says a lot about where we think we are, what we fear and what we hope for. I’m curious to learn what these stories as a collection have to tell me.
‘The Far Country‘ by Nevil Shute (1952)
Nevil Shute is also a new author to me. I’ve seen the movie versions of his two best known books, but it was a long time ago and they gave me no feel for his writing style.
I picked Nevil Shute because I think he’s emblematic a change that was rippling through Britain when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne: the desire of the talented to leave behind the rationing and other restrictions of post-war Britain and make a new life abroad.
Shute was a prominent aeronautical engineer who’d made a substantial contribution to Britain’s war effort and who was so embedded in the British establishment by virtue of his work that he had a street named after him. Yet he found post-was England dreary and was amazed, when he visited Canada and Australia, at how much better the quality of life was for ordinary people there than for those living in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1950. ‘The Far Country’ was the first book he published after moving there and it deals with the topic of emigration. I’m hoping that it will give me an insight into the re-evaluation by those who’d served in the war of what they wanted from the Britain they’d been fighting for.