For our Valentines Day selection, we've chosen three historical novels based during and after World War I. At Swim, Two Boys is set in Dublin around the turbulent time surrounding the Easter Uprising and encompasses friendship, love and tragedy. The female protagonists of The Well of Loneliness meet as ambulance drivers during the First World War but their relationship is marred by the hostility of the times. The Paying Guests is set in a genteel but impoverished household where the men have not returned from the war and which is disturbed irrevocably by the unsettling influence of the new lodgers.
At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill
Set in Dublin and its near surrounds At Swim, Two Boys follows the turbulent year to Easter 1916. At its core it tells the love of two boys, Jim, a naive and reticent scholar, the younger son of foolish, aspirant shopkeeper Mr Mack, and Doyler, the dark rough diamond son of Mr Mack's old army pal. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the scandalous nude, the two boys meet day after day. There they make a pact: that Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, they will swim the bay to the distant beacon of the Muglins rock, to raise the Green and claim it for themselves. As Ireland sets forth towards her uncertain glory there unfolds a love story of the utmost tenderness, carrying the reader through the turbulence of the times like a full blown sail.
This 1928 novel was based on the experiences of the author and follows the life of Stephen Gordon, an Englishwoman from an upper-class family. Stephen finds love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I, but their happiness together is marred by social isolation and rejection. One of the best-known early lesbian novels, the book was banned on publication and still inspires controversy with some readers valuing its bravery and others critisising Stephen's expressions of shame and self-hatred.
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers. For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the 'clerk class', the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be. This is vintage Sarah Waters: beautifully described with excruciating tension, real tenderness, believable characters, and surprises. It is above all a wonderful, compelling story.