London, 1941. Amid the falling bombs Emmeline Lake dreams of becoming a fearless Lady War Correspondent. Unfortunately, Emmy instead finds herself employed as a typist for the formidable Henrietta Bird, the renowned agony aunt at Women’s Friend magazine. Mrs Bird refuses to read, let alone answer, letters containing any form of Unpleasantness, and definitely not those from the lovelorn, grief-stricken or morally conflicted.
But the thought of these desperate women waiting for an answer at this most desperate of times becomes impossible for Emmy to ignore. She decides she simply must help and secretly starts to write back – after all, what harm could she possibly do?
“When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst. I’d had a rather cheerful day so far, despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I’d managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew. But when I saw the announcement, I could not have been more cock-a-hoop.”
So begins Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce, a book I devoured over a couple of rainy afternoons curled up on my sofa. Relentlessly practical and optimistic in the keep calm and carry on sort of way you imagine war time women to have been, Emmy’s energy was exactly what I needed to channel to get me through lockdown. Like the blurb says, Emmy dreams of being a war correspondent – though currently working as a secretary at Strawman’s Solicitors and a volunteer telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Service three nights a week. So, as you can imagine, she is over the moon when she sees in the paper that the Launceston Press, publishers of The London Evening Chronicle, is hiring a part-time Junior.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out quite like she thought. Rather than getting a position writing the news, it’s actually Women’s Friend magazine Launceston Press is hiring for. This magazine is pretty much what it sounds like – all crochet patterns, serialised romance stories, parenting advice and Henrietta Helps, the problem page. It’s this problem page that Emmy has been hired to type up letters for. Emmy quickly learns that having accidentally taken entirely the wrong sort of job is going to be the least of the problems in her role. The page is ruled by Mrs Henrietta Bird’s draconian hand. The old fashioned type, Mrs Bird refuses to answer questions that involve any sort of ‘unpleasantness’, which, for her, comprises pretty much everything of any interest – sex, politics, religion (with the exception of church fundraisers, of course), war, etc. The list of topics with which Henrietta won’t engage, presented to Emmy on the first day of her job, is extensive.
Obviously Emmy quickly takes the situation in her own hands, answering the listener queries Henrietta had been tossing in the bin for years on the DL.
And that’s when things start to get interesting.
Dear Mrs Bird is the quintessential comfort read. The language is delightful, with phrases like “cock-a-hoop” and “you’ll be smashing” scattered throughout giving Emmy and her friends voices that felt very much of the 1940s, which, coupled with typically stoic British throwaway comments about the war (my personal favourite: “if Hitler asks, tell him I’ve gone on holiday.”) providing what I felt was a pretty authentic insight into the time. Bombs were always a possibility, but life did not simply stop as a result.
The novel is very much a love story, but not in the sense you might expect from one of is genre. It isn’t a tale about Emmy sending off letters to a doomed sweetheart on the front, but instead a story of friendship. Emmy lives with her best friend Bunty (amazing name), and it’s these two women and how they navigate their young lives in the midst of war that is the heart of Dear Mrs Bird. How they support each other (no one is more thrilled about Emmy’s new job than Bunty), hold each other accountable, have fun together and when tragedy finds them – which, it’s a novel about the Second World War. You know that it does – navigate it together (well, with a few bumps along the way) got me right in the feels.
I haven’t read a lot of books set in the Second World War, but those I have were dominated by the high stakes, violence and tragedy of the situation – which totally makes sense. What I loved about Dear Mrs Bird, though, was that it was concerned only with daily civilian life, the daily grind of war – because it would have been a grind, and it would have been boring, frustrating and, at a certain point, normalised. Emmy’s story is one of how a person carries on their life despite the entire world’s descent into complete and utter chaos.
Which is quite a comforting message for right now, I think.