A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

on January 28, 2020

CW: Nazism (not positively depicted and nothing graphic)

At first I thought this story from 1940, starring an actual Nazi, was an odd choice to digitize — but of course we have Nazis again, somehow. And it turned out to be a surprisingly, even painfully, resonant read.

Proper young German Franz is sent to visit his mother’s English cousin, Sophie, basically to feel out the mood of the country for his father. He even dreams of learning enough about England to become a German Secret Service agent someday. Serious and literal-minded, he’s at first baffled by the frivolity and ironic banter of the other young people he meets. But he comes to love England — particularly Sophie’s daughter, Wynne.

But then Hitler marches into Prague, destroying both Franz’s hopes for the future and his faith in his government.

“They trusted the Fuehrer,” he said in a strangled voice. “They trusted him. He promised that he wouldn’t interfere with them, he said it was his sacred will to respect the Czechs–his sacred will, Roy!…” “He said we wanted to live our own lives and others must have the freedom to do the same. Those were good words–why has he gone back on them?” Frank was silent for a moment and then he cried, “Oh Heavens, what is that man doing to my poor country!”

I feel you Franz, I really do.

The extreme politeness of all the English people who meet Franz is also familiar. The family puts off the visit of a refugee — “for it was obvious to the meanest intelligence that Fernacres could not harbour a German and an Austrian refugee at the same time, and Wynne could not help feeling that it was a little hard on the refugee, and wondering where he would go…” And they carefully agree to disagree on any political topics. Franz is basically the racist uncle, except that everyone likes him, and he comes to recognize the errors of his thinking. (Though we never do learn if he stops believing in the superior Aryan race. Antisemitism and Jews aren’t mentioned once.)

There’s a fair bit to eyeroll at here, most particularly Franz’s rosy conclusions about the wonderful English, which are completely drawn from one small, highly privileged section of people. He’s completely ignorant of British racism, classism and — seriously, how? — colonization. But for a good eyeroll, nothing beats his cousin Roy’s reaction to the news about Prague.

“Oh hell! exclaimed Roy at last. “This has bust up our whole trip–I wish Hitler was dead.”

I feel you Roy, I really do.

Despite its limitations, being written in the actual time it was set makes this a fascinating historical portrait. Franz’s conflict evolves in a very believable way. And it’s deeply sad to watch these kind people going through just the beginning of a horror we know is coming.

Sophie has sat down on the rug and was watching Roy and Wynne, and when Dane looked at her he saw that her eyes were full of tears.

“It’s just that they’re so young,” she explained, shaking the tears away and trying to smile at him…. “So young and so good. It isn’t fair. I feel I ought to apologize to them.”

“For the war?” asked Dane, smiling a little; “but surely the condition of Europe isn’t your fault, Sophie?”

She shook her head. “No, for having them, Dane. I wouldn’t have had them if I’d know there was going to be another war just when they were grown up.”

I feel you, Sophie. I really, really, do.


One response to “The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

  1. […] more depressing than I was expecting — even the Nazi book was more lighthearted! It’s about selfish people and unrequited love, and it doesn’t […]

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