Priestley's War: Social Change and the British Novel, 1939-1945

Article excerpt

AS ANGUS CALDER SUGGESTS in The People's War: Britain, 1939-1945, even though the Second World War is popularly regarded as a time when the British came together as a people in order to fight Fascism, in reality many people were opposed to the war and/or the way it was being conducted. Although measuring such dissent is difficult since elections were postponed, freedom of speech was limited, objectors were persecuted, and scientific opinion polls were rarely taken, well-documented government efforts to quell domestic opposition make it clear that Winston Churchill's Conservative-led coalition government considered it to be a dangerous problem. In addition to suspending certain freedoms, the government conscripted unmarried working-class women as forced labor, interned 27,000 "enemy" aliens, and took thousands of political prisoners. It also devoted considerable resources to the so-called "home front" in an effort to curtail espionage, sabotage, absenteeism, non-compliance, and sedition. The widespread use of the term "'home front" is very telling; the government was, in a very real sense, at war with its own people, or at least a significant portion of them. In an effort to win this war, the Ministry of Information saturated the nation with patriotic posters, pamphlets, and programs. It also censored news releases, entertainment, letters, and telegrams, canceled programs, and blacklisted performers.

For some Conservatives, government control of mass communications meant an opportunity to quell political opposition. As Paul Addison notes, Churchill, in particular, seemed to fear "that his own authority, and the authority of the Government, would be undermined" by Leftists. According to one of his associates, the Prime Minister considered "those filthy Communists" to be "more dangerous than the fascists" (Home Front, 343). In an effort to limit political dissent, the government threatened to suppress the Daily Mirror in 1940, and in 1941 it shut down the Daily Worker. Even the liberal News Chronicle was pointedly warned by the government to end its criticism of government policies. Similar efforts were made to limit political discourse on the radio as Asa Briggs documents in The History of Broadcasting in the U.K, and, in film, Ministry of Information censors restricted "the portrayal of class conflict, resistances and rebellions against the state, and criticism of government" (Landry, 27-28).

Of all the major media, only book publishing escaped direct government control. Although the Ministry of Information had the power to regulate publishers, for the most part it let them censor themselves and, as a result, books were one of the few media through which dissent could be disseminated openly. There were certain restrictions, of course; information about troop locations and the production of war materials could not be published along with anything else that might be of immediate value to the enemy. Such restrictions rarely applied to novels, however, since they were works of fiction. Indeed, the novel seems to have enjoyed special status as an art form: a government fighting for Truth and Freedom could hardly restrict the 'fruits' of a free society--in this case the English novel. Moreover, authorities knew from experience that regulating novels would be counterproductive since attempts to censor novels such as Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover in the past had generated tremendous publicity and actually stimulated circulation. For these and perhaps other reasons, the government determined that novels were best left alone and, accordingly, assigned no one in the Ministry of Information to oversee them.

This paper argues that novels were particularly effective as ideological agents because they provided a medium for dissent when others were restricted or unavailable. During the war, Leftists such as Olaf Stapledon, Rex Warner, and J.B. Priestley were able not only to remind the working class that they were fighting for a new and better world, but also help shape their postwar expectations. …