Books Magazine

The Unready Heart by Richard Sherman (1944)

By Erica

Not a writer readily associated with depictions of wartime London (or indeed with longer fiction), Sherman 's short novel focuses on the plight of one Barbara Loomis, who, having escaped to the capital from her home-town of Leeds, is disappointed to have her quest for personal autonomy rudely interrupted by the untimely advent of the blitz. Now finding herself involved in the task of evading conscription into the W.A.A.F, A.T.S. or (worst of all) the munitions factory, her somewhat blasé attitude is by degrees undermined by, among other things, her deepening involvement with an American correspondent (Paul McCarty), whom she encounters while working for the B.B.C. European Service ('Because surely no-one could accuse the B.B.C. of being "non-essential" and unrelated to war work'). Though she is taken aback by Paul's forthrightness in calling out her self-serving behaviour ('What you're best fitted to do is to be a parasite, but unfortunately there aren't many openings for that just at this time'), the often adversarial exchanges between them supply some fruitful dialogue on the wider conflict between public and private responsibilities brought into focus by the war:

"Look," he said. "Let's get this straight once and for all." His mouth was a compressed line of disapproval. "Don't you realise that if every woman thought as you did, this world would stop?"

"Well, let it stop. It'd be a good thing. It seems to be stopping anyway." She faced him, challengingly. "Also, I'd like to point out that if every woman thought as I did, this war might stop. In fact it might not even have begun."

It is worth noting that at the time of writing Sherman himself was stationed in England as a member of the US army, and clearly much of what follows is drawn from his own first-hand experience. Moreover, Sherman makes it clear that despite Barbara's feigned detachment from events, she is, in the event, no less susceptible than anyone else to the trials and demands of life in time of war:

[...] one always had that wretched pit of the stomach feeling when the alert sounded - but it never did to let oneself go. Also by this time everyone had long since formulated their personal routines and attitudes in regard to raids, and this happened to be hers: not to be disturbed, to keep on doing whatever she was doing.

Thus Sherman is apt in noting the 'life goes on' ethic so integral to the home front and idea of the 'people's war'. The novel also includes some prescient observations about the possible or likely shape of things to come. As Barbara's long-suffering friend Doris (whose life Barbara regards largely as a cautionary tale) observes in a moment of lucidity:

"People try to tell you that this war is going to wipe out class distinctions, and that when it's over what's left of the East End will merge into what's left of the West End and they'll all be one happy family. I don't believe it".

This is not to say that Sherman undertakes to speculate at length on the shape (or not) of post-war Britain; such reflections do, however, help to deftly locate the individual experiences of the characters within their larger context. That aside, the novel as a whole can be read as subtly recording the journey of its protagonist from conscious disengagement though to a position of commitment. Indeed (and I may be risking over-interpretation here), such a trajectory could conceivably be read as analogous to the path to US involvement in the war.


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