Huddled in a crowded tube station, you hear the booming echoes of bombs falling from the sky. The German Luftwaffe is back again tonight. It’s been months. You sense another sleepless night is ahead of you, despite your body aching for rest. Your stomach grumbles—food shortages are getting worse by the day—but no one is paying attention. Everyone around you has their eyes glued to the curved ceiling of the underground turned bomb shelter. The lights flicker as a bomb explodes somewhere above you. You wonder if this is it—this is the night a bomb crashes through the earth and ends it all.
Such thoughts were regular occurrences for thousands of English citizens during the Blitz. Londoners were subjected to a barrage of bombs every night for months, usually for several hours at a time. It was a period of uncertainty and terror for many. Although many British cities were struck by bombs during the Blitz, London was hit the hardest—over 40,000 lost their lives in the eight months of the Blitz. (There were other periods of bombings but the original eight months are generally considered the worst period.)
Why, then, would I even consider writing a romance novel set during such a horrendous time in history? Nobody in Britain would have been thinking about love and romance during such a time… Right?
When faced with a much higher than average chance of death on a nightly basis, a population will do things they wouldn’t normally do under normal circumstances.
There was a real sense of “now or never” in the air and, in Britain’s case, this meant that someone who may have hidden their feelings or their attraction to someone was much more likely to follow their heart.
Or, if not their heart, maybe just their pants.
Let’s look at the number of British marriages during the earliest years of WWII.
1938: 409,000 marriages
1939: 494,000 marriages
1940: 534,000 marriages
It’s common knowledge that a lot of couples got married before the men were shipped out, many of whom would have prolonged their courtship or engagement for much longer had the war never started. With WWI not that far in the past, everyone was well aware of the chances of the men not coming back home so if they wanted to have the chance to get married and spend a few passionate nights with their beloved, time was of the essence.
Many couples decided to take the plunge before their separation for not just romantic reasons but fiscal reasons too—if a man died serving in the war effort, his widow was given a pension. However, no such pension was provided to a dead soldier’s fiancée or girlfriend. Just wives.
There are countless stories of couples who got married after only knowing one another for a very, very short time—sometimes just days or weeks. More often than not, this led to a very awkward reunion when the man—practically a stranger before and now one emotionally and physically scarred by war—came home to a bride he barely knew. Divorce rates surged as the war progressed when couples came to regret their hasty trips down the aisle.
Some refer to the Blitz as the beginning of Britain’s sexual revolution, years before the swinging sixties. With the imminent threat of sudden death looming constantly, citizens were much more likely to be freer with their dating etiquette than years prior. Many women, afraid to be alone at night, scheduled dates with different men every night of the week on a rotating basis.
Bomb shelters were often dimly lit with plenty of shadowy corners where couples—married or otherwise—could quietly canoodle with some measure of privacy. But not quite enough privacy that none of their bomb shelter neighbors noticed.
Love affairs flourished during the wartime years with husbands away from home and children evacuated to the country. Soldiers from Canada and the US arrived by the thousands and England welcomed a mass of war refugees from countries overtaken by the Germans. But it’s not just lonely wives who found romance during this time. Plenty of husbands found new sweethearts while serving too. The number of illegitimate births raised by 30% between 1939 and 1942 and 70% of divorce petitions stated adultery as the grounds for legal separation.
British civilians were asked to keep journals of their daily lives during the war. These ‘Mass Observation’ diaries contain some amazing stories from the homefront and are a treasure trove of personal life snippets. One of my favorite Mass Observation anecdotes is of a young woman who decides she will finally sleep with her boyfriend. Disappointed with the experience, she notes she would have preferred a good movie or a cigarette.
Many Mass Observation diaries tell similar stories of active dating lives in between dodging bombs.
By 1943, venereal diseases were so prevalent among US soldiers based in the UK that educational films about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases were shown at army base camps to help deter promiscuity. Treatment clinics were set up, VD informational posters were added to bathroom stalls and, eventually and reluctantly, condoms were provided for free to soldiers. Unfortunately, STDs became something of an epidemic during the wartime years, raising 70% by 1942.
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So, yes, I will admit that the Blitz doesn’t seem like a very charming setting for a love story but you have to agree that the feeling of excitement and “living for the day” did in fact add an air of romance to the time. You can learn more about my new novel, The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, below:
A forbidden wartime romance begins just as German planes fill the skies over London in 1940. A playful and heartfelt read perfect for fans of Dear. Mrs. Bird, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and The Last Bookshop in London.
When Maisie Beckett arrives to work at her brother’s hobby shop while he’s serving in the war, she soon discovers it’s in financial ruin. She also finds London preparing for an impending Nazi invasion. Determined to keep the shop open and prove herself to her parents, Maisie moonlights as a pinup photographer to pad the shop’s till while the shop’s co-owner, Cal Woodbury, isn’t looking. Despite his secrecy about why he didn’t enlist, Maisie is drawn to Cal and enticed by his wit and shy smile.
Cal promised his best friend and business partner, Roy, he wouldn’t become romantically involved with Maisie, Roy’s sweet and beautiful sister. As German bombs fall on London every night and Cal’s bond with Maisie grows deeper, he learns some promises are impossible to keep. However, when Roy deserts the Navy and appears at Cal’s door, Cal is caught between his best friend and the woman he is falling for.
While London goes to war around them, Maisie and Cal face their own fight—finding their courage and recognizing their worth.
The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street is available at all major ebook retail websites and in paperback.
- Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner
- How the Blitz sent Britain sex mad (Daily Mail) by Joshua Levine
- Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 by Virginia Nicholson