London 1941 and Emmeline Lake, Emmy to her friends, sees an advert in the paper for what she thinks will lead to her having her dream job, to be a Lady War Correspondent. Sadly for Emmy the job is working for the formidable Mrs Henrietta Bird sorting out the letters for the woman’s weekly magazine Woman’s Friend.
Emmy shares rooms in Pimlico with her friend Marigold who is known to everyone as Bunty, and it is this close friendship and mutual support that gives them, and one suspects many of other young women, through a world which is dominated by war. Everything from the lack of clothes to bombs are a part of daily life during this time and that’s not even considering the constant threat of death of your nearest and dearest!
Emmy is a nice girl, engaged to be married and she has known Bunty since childhood but she also carries out shifts on the telephone volunteering for the fire service and sees the men go out on call to rescue those when the bombs fall.
So when Emmy starts her job with Mrs Bird she is taken aback, but not quite a quivering wreck, even though the magazine’s agony aunt makes the word brusque sound like a stroke with a feather. She is given instructions of all the words and phrases which determine that the letter is unsuited to the magazine. The instructions rule that these letters should be cut up the very instant the banned word is read, and put into the bin. The words include: Marital relations, Pre-marital relations, Extra-marital relations, physical relations, sexual relations in general (all issues mentions, suggestions or results of), illegal activities, political activities and opinions, religious activities and opinions (excl. queries regarding church groups and services), The war (excl. queries regarding rationing, voluntary services, clubs and practicalities), cookery…
This would seem to cover many such letters however the page is headed up:
Mrs Henrietta Bird Will Help
There’s nothing that can’t be sorted out with common sense and a strong will.
Mrs. Bird is here to answer your worries. For a postal reply in confidence, send a stamped addressed envelope but please note that Mrs Bird’s postbag is a full one, so there may be a temporary delay.
Yes, you read correctly all you need is common sense and a strong will! This is the time of the stiff upper lip and there appears to be none so stiff as Mrs Henrietta Bird’s. Emmy is able to pass a few suitable letters to Mrs Bird whose inevitable response is along the lines of try harder, do better and the like but she spends most of her time chopping up letter after letter into pieces as very few are above the very high morality bar that has been set by Mrs Bird. But on reading a letter from In a Muddle written by a seventeen year old girl who has repaid her boyfriend who takes her to dances in a way that she knows is very wrong, she is moved to do something… but Emmy, is it the right thing to do?
This book starts off lightly fully creating a life of a young woman in wartime London but as it progresses the harsh reality of war-time is confronted and the humour of the first part fades into the background. This is a unique read which not only has wonderful characters but also a real sense of time and place which transported this reader with ease. It also highlights the role young women took during the war, something like being a volunteer for the fire service sounds relatively easy until you realise what those calls would have consisted of, and all of this on top of a full day’s work thinking about the problems of the readers of Woman’s Post!
This is a wonderful debut that I think would be perfect Sunday evening TV viewing such is the perfect mix of sweetness, female friendship along with some drama and a dollop of historical details.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Pan Macmillan for providing me with an advance copy of Dear Mrs Bird, this unbiased review is thanks to them and the author AJ Pearce for a delightful read.