Good Old Anna

January 23, 2012

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Good Old Anna is a hard book to describe. It’s not exactly a wartime romance, except then it is, and it’s sort of a portrait of growing xenophobia in a cathedral town at the beginning of World War I, except then it’s not. And I don’t know that it ever really becomes a full-fledged spy novel. Basically, there are a lot of different threads, and Lowndes is only mostly successful at deploying them. And I’m okay with that, I think, because all those threads are pretty interesting. Good Old Anna was published in 1915, and it’s very much part of a moment.

Maybe it’s like this: most novels have plots. Some other books have themes. Good Old Anna looks like it has a plot, but really it has a theme, and the theme is Things That Happen to People When World War I Starts.

The person that the most of these things happen to is Mary Otway a widow living in the cathedral town of Witanbury with her barely-grown daughter Rose and her servant Anna, and the first thing that happens to her when war is declared is that her friend and neighbor Miss Forsyth calls her attention the the fact that, in spite of her twenty years in England, Anna is very German, and that maybe Mrs. Otway ought to think about sending her back to the Fatherland. But Mrs. Otway is pretty dependent on Anna, and, being a Germanophile, she’s unconvinced when Miss Forsyth says that xenophobia will soon be on the rise.

Miss Forsyth is right, of course. That’s why naturalized German grocer Manfred Hegner immediately changes his name to Alfred Head. Not that anyone ever forgets that he’s German, or that he bears a strong resemblance to the Kaiser, but perhaps it’s helpful to him when he’s spying on England for Germany. Meanwhile, we get to know Anna a little better and learn that, yeah, she’s very German, and considerably less attached to England than Mrs. Otway believes. Not so much that she’d spy for Germany on purpose, but enough that she’ll happily spy for Germany by accident.

And then there’s the romance. Or rather, romances. The two Otway women have eerily similar ones with friends-turned-lovers who are among the first soldiers to go to Belgium, both of whom are wounded within the first few weeks of the war. The romances also show up the looseness of the plot — what there is of it. The same things are happening to both the mother and the daughter and yet somehow those things seem entirely unrelated. We keep being told how devoted Anna is to Rose, but mostly it hardly feels like they know each other, and that goes double for Rose and her mother. I think Rose and Mrs. Otway having more page time together would have made the entire book a lot more solid. On the other hand, it might also have made it clear that they’re having the exact same romance with different people, so. There’s that.

In a way, though, the scattered feeling works out well, because we get to see how the war affects a bunch of different people, and it makes sense that the war is the only thing they have in common besides living in the same town — or the same book. Usually the characters make or break a book for me,  but here they were forgettable, and it was the play by play of the early days of the war as seen in England that wasn’t. In the end, I think this is a really good book, but not for any of the usual reasons.

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