I’m on page 255-odd of To All the Living, when I come to the conclusion that this is a book in which everything happens because nothing happens. No one can burst through the muddle of incompetence, political grandstanding, general ignorance and low-level corruption. The tensions are many, but small scale. Then there is an explosion. The whole thing’s gonna blow. Monica Felton’s novel of 1945 is subversive, challenging, heartbreaking and at times very funny. This is satire that is louder than bombs.
I’ve never really been charmed by authors who try to pretend that they’re not discussing serious subjects by giving elements of their creation silly names. And so when I come across towns such as Blimpton and Dustborough, and characters named Lord Outrage and Otway Dolphin (which is, in fairness, as brilliant a name as it is irritating), I’m suspicious. But Waugh was doing it at the time, and maybe Wodehouse? It was fashionable. Felton has a keen eye for farce and the slightly surreal: ‘[there were] portraits of mayors with heads like cows and heads of deer with faces like defeated town clerks‘ and I’m soon won round. There are pithy aphorisms, too, about the choices made by the young women who have come to work in the fictional munitions factory, and observations about everything from the paranoia of middle management, the deadness of Welwyn Garden City (post-war, Felton would have a big say in the development of Peterlee and Stevenage), and the way in which war can transform the reputation of a man of ‘mediocrity…stupidities, narrow good-tempered complacency’ into that of a hero. There’s one amazing moment when one particular character is found out: not to be a murderer or committer of a spectacular but one-off crime – such a thing can be recovered from. ‘Petty meannesses, failings that are part of one’s nature and can’t be uprooted, these are the things that one tries to run away from.’
This is war, and yet the main hostilities are elsewhere: between those who belong and those who don’t, between those who understand and those who can’t, between those who can cling to power and those who never get it, between the idealistic and the corrupt. Private enterprise buys the state-owned factory for a song, but the state-owned factory has been undermined throughout by the local entrepreneurs, colluding together. But the civil service don’t necessarily come out of it all that well. Loyalty gets misplaced and we see the fatal results when rules are applied over-zealously or conversely not at all.
Over 400 pages we get to know the central characters extremely well and our views on them change as the novel progresses. We have some sympathy at first for junior labour officer Phoebe Braithwaite, willing her to do well when she makes her speech to rows of unmotivated new recruits; less so when she tries to second-guess her boss, the formidable Miss Creed. Dr Ruth Aaron is nervous but doesn’t realise she is terrifying. Creed herself is interesting: the most senior woman among the management, it would have been tempting for Felton to portray her more obviously positively. But there are times when we think Creed could have had a better deal. The munition workers are well-portrayed: from a cross-section of backgrounds, their stories are told with care. None is there to bump up the numbers. Morgan, who generally seems to care about his staff but who also verges on what we’d these days think of as creepy, is an intriguing character. Generally we wanted him to succeed but his brand of paternalism is rightly questioned at the end. At a time when public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy was about to become reality in the UK, Felton has Morgan challenged thus: ‘…pretending to yourself that because you‘ve been running a state-owned factory you’re building socialism.’ This is a cast of characters that I was sorry to part from.
There are times when the novel seems especially contemporary. Although our patience is less celebrated these days, this line is relatable: ‘We exist in a permanent state of suspension, waiting for the war to be over.’ And, later, ‘Patriotism is not enough. What we’ve got to have is patriotism and glamour.’
The story of the munitions factories is not well known. It should be. To All the Living is an important addition to the Imperial War Museum’s Wartime Classics series.
Thanks to the Imperial War Museum for the review copy and Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.