For anyone who likes their entertainment paired with a side of cosiness and topped with a slice of twee, Dear Mrs. Bird may be for you. It follows in the footsteps of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (hereby known as The Guernsey Society, for obvious reasons), which dealt with difficult subject matters in a decidedly wholesome manner, and Call The Midwife, a memoir turned wildly successful TV series concentrating on young midwives practicing in the East End of London in the 1960s. What they all have in common is a gung-ho, jolly hockey-sticks attitude which tends to leave you blindsided when the everyday tragedy of war, or poverty, is matter-of-factly addressed.
Our heroine Emmy is a career girl in London, 1943. She lives with her best friend Bunty in Bunty’s grandmother’s flat, rent free. Emmy‘s greatest ambition is to be a “lady war correspondent” and when a newspaper recruitment advertisement catches her eye she seems right on track to realising her dream. Her life is nothing short of idyllic, bar her fiancé being hundreds of miles away from her on the front and her friends risking life and limb night after night working as firefighters while the city is being bombed from kingdom come by the Nazis. Oh well, keep calm and carry on, as they say!
It turns out our plucky heroine isn’t the sharpest twig in the pile when, on being hired following an interview, she discovers that her new job isn’t in the newspaper as she’d thought, but in a women’s weekly magazine called Women’s Friend, published by the same company, and her duties are to type up the problems sent in by anxious women for reply by agony aunt in residence, Mrs. Henrietta Bird. Mrs. Bird is an overbearing older woman extremely set in her ways and refuses to answer a list’s worth of problems, including vulgar things like anything to do with romance or silly things like feeling lonely while their husbands are away fighting Hitler. This leaves Emmy with a large pile of rejected letter that she simply can’t ignore, so she decides to set about answering them herself; first through private correspondence, then as she gains confidence, through the problem pages themselves.
Where The Guernsey Society flourished, using a captivating heroine and her cohort of eccentric friends to juxtapose the horrors inflicted by the enemy in WW2 Dear Mrs. Bird not quite fails, but certainly flounders. The characters are far too thin to care about; when disaster strikes and a terrible fate befalls a few I found myself mourning the idea of them, and the real life people they represent, rather than the characters themselves. Emmy is a well-meaning airhead with delusions of rather more talent than she has, her friends are realised versions of Make Do and Mend! posters and her love interest, who is not her fiancé – he runs off with a French girl early enough in the book to pave the way for a dashing soldier – is a damp squib, appearing in barely two scenes before popping up again briefly in some correspondence.
There are moments of excitement and tension, particularly in the well described scenes of the nightly bombings and their aftermath, but the main themes lie in friendship and comradeship and that old chestnut, keeping your head when all else are losing theirs. The letters and Emmy’s job are secondary to the challenge of living everyday life in a war zone. Bombings every night becoming so normal it’s not unusual to get dressed up and go out for a night on the tiles anyway, giving two fingers to the Fuhrer. Hopping over the rubble that used to be your neighbour down the road’s house. Getting engaged and then planning the wedding within a month, because who really knows who’s going to get blown up next?
Dear Mrs. Bird is a pleasant, occasionally engaging read, but I don’t think it uncovers quite what it wanted to, about the terrible tribulations of living in London in the early forties. Emmy is too nice but naïve, Bunty is basically an angel, Mrs. Bird is your standard battle-axe and all the secondary figures are as memorable as last week’s breakfast. There’s also a Very Annoying Device employed to emphasise Important Bits (see capital letters), which thoroughly grates after a while. If Dear Mrs. Bird can be compared to anything else it might be the second series of Downton Abbey; throwaway plotlines, characters there without rhyme or reason, friendships hanging in the balance, all overshadowed by a war. A little bit silly with some quite lovely moments of redemption, and just like Emmy, its heart in the right place.