So much of fiction centers on a single protagonist, maybe two, and a relatively small cast of characters*. Reading a book that moves the camera back makes a refreshing change of perspective. Novels like Grand Hotel, by Vicky Baum, and the recently republished Beowulf, by Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), pull that camera back so that we can get a sense of how many people even a lonely person can come in contact with and so that we can really get a sense of a place and time. Beowulf takes place over the course of one day during the Blitz, as characters who lodge in the same building and frequent the Warming Pan tea room, try to keep calm and carry on.
We begin the day with a never-quite-successful watercolor painter. Horatio is far past his prime. His wife has passed away and his only income is an allowance from a relative who feels obliged to Horatio. His carping and desperate hopes to sell a watercolor or two gives way to Selina Tippett’s worries about her tea shop, the Warming Pan. Before the war, it was a raging success. Since the Blitz started, however, business has fallen off so much that she might not make the rent.
Other characters pop in and out. We briefly meet Tippett’s firebrand partner, Angelina. We meet their waitresses. We even meet a colonel recently returned from India and looking for a job. All of these characters are linked to each other, although they might not know it. A patron at the Warming Room might have a boss who interviews the colonel for a job. One of the waitresses might gossip about a woman believed to have been killed by a bomb before that woman pops up to wail about her destroyed shop.
Beowulf is named for an ugly plaster dog that Angelina buys for the Warming Pan, believing it good luck. I was curious about the title of this book because it’s such a big name in English literature. A little digging around online showed me that scholars have produced thousands of words about what it means. But, by the time I met “Beowulf,” I was much more interested in the characters. I had completely forgotten about the dog by the time the characters began to gather in their neighborhood shelter for the night. For all that they had their own separate lives during the day, at night they’re all civilians hoping that the bombs land somewhere else.
I enjoy reading books by contemporary authors writing about their experiences before and during World War II. There are works of historical fiction that manage to capture what I think it would be like to live at that time, in those places affected by the war. But there’s nothing quite like stepping into a narrative that reflects what the authors saw and felt. Beowulf, because it’s meandering path through loosely connected characters, is a fantastic example of this kind of novel.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.
*Except for classic novels from the nineteenth century, which often go for a cast of thousands.