“A Matter of Authenticity”: Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half

It takes all day to get from Little Rock, Arkansas to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a trip I made last week, and so I had plenty of time for reading. From the teetering stacks on my study floor, I plucked Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) to take with me. I chose well. It’s that rarest and most valuable thing, perfect light reading. I hope that doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise. As in her other books, Evans here is funny, but also poignant. Her prose feels effortless—but the book is about what hard work underlies effortlessness.

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Their Finest Hour and a Half is a Blitz novel. It follows a young woman named Catrin Cole, who escapes her Welsh childhood by running away to London with a painter she has only known for a week or so, takes a job writing advertising copy, and then finds herself conscripted by the Ministry of Information. Her war work will be to write scripts for propaganda/morale boosting films, specifically to write women’s roles, which apparently men can’t do. After doing her best with some tragically lame shorts—warnings against loose talk and encomiums to the delights of carrots, grown in good British soil—Catrin finally gets her big chance, a feature (very) loosely based on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat to help with the Dunkirk evacuation.

The creation of the film brings together a set of wonderful characters: Edith, a seamstress who worked at Madame Tussaud’s until it was bombed; Arthur, a catering specialist who finds himself over his head when he is seconded to the production as its military advisor; Ambrose, an actor who was never as good as he thinks he was but whose career is now definitively on the skids; Parfitt, a writer who almost never speaks and only in short bursts, much of which consists of grunts; and Myrtle, a teenager mad about movies.

Equal parts heartwarming, engaging, and even delightful, Their Finest Hour and a Half is also smart about how historical events get represented, both by those experiencing them and by those who come later. By centering her novel on a film production—in which a complicated, somewhat underwhelming but still inspiring event is transformed into a flattened heroic epic, and in which every decision about how to tell a story passes through multiple people and committees, each with their own agenda—Evans shows us how all events, whether dramatic or not, whether in war or at peace, must be shaped in order to be understood. I appreciated that Evans wasn’t content simply to show up Londoners’ response to the Blitz as mere myth (“London can take it,” etc.). (I’ve been speaking of Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is the UK title; unaccountably, the US publisher has reduced that to the nonsensical Their Finest. By doing so, the book loses at once its allusion to Winston Churchill’s own mythologizing of WWII, the reference to the run time of the film, and that endearingly bathetic, even ramshackle half hour. I’m reminded of the way all programs in Canada are always announced as starting a half hour later in Newfoundland.)

By focusing on the worlds of theatre, advertising, and mass media, Evans shows myths to be more than just lies, ideology, or false consciousness. It’s not that there are no truths in a modern age, but that truths need to be told—they are representations. Every telling is a framing, the result of a series of choices. And Evans, who worked as a radio and television producer before writing full time, knows how hard it is to create those representations. Some of the novel’s best bits emphasize craft, whether it’s Ambrose trying out a series of line readings, Edith replacing old bead work, or Parfitt and his partner Buckley moving around bits of paper as they organize the plot of the film, before spending hours bashing out bits of script to hit just the right note in a scene. Yes, everyone is selling something, some vision of the past, but they’re not just lying.

No wonder, then, that Evans’s own craft—her own language—is so effective. Here are a few bits that caught my eye.

The narrator, here focalized through Catrin, describes the enigmatic Parfitt, who for several months won’t even talk to the new employee: “All communication had been via Buckley, as if the latter were the string between two cocoa tins.”

A character actor bridles at how much will be added to the film in post-production. He’s insulted that a gunshot will be indicated in the take by an offstage fingersnap: “‘I want to react to the sniper out there, and not the finger-snap in here, do you see what I mean? It’s a matter of authenticity. In fact, there’s no chance of actually firing a rifle is there?’”

A cab driver recognizes Ambrose from his 1931 film “A New Leaf.” We get a sublime description of the film and its making:

The angel-faced child who’d played ‘Sonny’ (‘I don’t know whose son I am, mister, so I might as well be yours…’) had not only fleeced the entire cast at poker, but had turned out to be playing with a marked pack, supplied to him by his mother.

That’s practically Wodehouse, with the risible dialogue, and the almost gentle hardboiled story of the hard-bitten child actor. Then we get a second joke, when the puffed-up actor, filled with surprised pride that he has been recognized for a role from ten years ago, learns that the only reason the cabbie remembers him is that it was the last film he ever saw, having found religion right afterwards.

Edith, the seamstress, reflects on her impending marriage: “She would shortly be installed as Mrs Edith Frith, a name unpronounceable to all but professional linguists.”

The girl Myrtle despairs when, after years of dreaming of visiting London, she finds it entirely underwhelming:

‘Is this really London?’ whispered Myrtle, suddenly, desperately.

‘It’s a suburb of London.’

‘But it’s just houses.’

‘I know.’

‘Just house after house after house. I thought there’d be things to look at. I thought it would be exciting. I told everybody at school I was going to see film-stars. I even brought my autograph book, but it just looks like anywhere.’

‘I know,’ said Edith, ‘I’m sorry.”

And just to show that Evans isn’t just funny (though, really, what’s more important?), here is Catrin escaping the worst night of Blitz in a crowded cinema showing the Jimmy Stewart – Marlene Dietrich vehicle Destry Rides Again:

And the audience erupted again, and Catrin found herself being pulled along by the crowd, caught up in a vast and vocal caravan determinedly heading Westward for the evening, and for an hour or two there was enough applause, there were enough celluloid gunshots and gusts of laughter and galloping music, enough songs and fist-fights, enough glamour and wit and plot and spectacle to blot out the real barrage, and for a short while, the theatre seemed safer than any shelter, and the noise inside was like a shield, keeping the night at bay.

This is a resonant, almost hortatory passage, one of the few unleavened by gentle irony and wit, the one that comes closest to embracing the myth of the Blitz (J. B. Priestley: “It took bombs to deliver us”) without examining that myth. But it feels earned to me, and in keeping with Evans’s belief in spectacle, illusion, and representation as constitutive of rather than merely a second-rate imitation of political reality.

Grey Tube Shelter 1940 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

In its interest in how the story of the Blitz has been told, Their Finest Hour shares concerns with Sarah Waters’s more overtly revisionist The Night Watch (2006). Waters’s register is different, darker, more traumatized. She’s worth reading, too. But the book that Their Finest Hour most reminded me of is Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices (1980), set at the BBC during the same time period. And when I think about the two novels Evans has written since Their Finest Hour—I wrote briefly about them here—I wonder if she might not be becoming our own Fitzgerald. What could be better than that?