Marie Belloc Lowndes published Good Old Anna in 1915, when it must have seemed red-hot topical. The novel’s action occurs during the first months of the War, in a cathedral town in Southern England; it actually begins on August 4th, when someone asks Mrs Otway: ‛What are you going to do about your good old Anna?’ – because Anna, who has been Mrs Otway’s servant for twenty-two years, is German.
Mrs Belloc Lowndes’ previous best-seller had been The Lodger, about a disturbing man who rents a family’s spare room, and may, they gradually realise, be Jack the Ripper. This novel continues the theme of the enemy within, adapting it to wartime.
It is one of those books published during the War that asks how far wartime urgencies should be allowed to impinge on the traditional civilised values of decent society. At first Mrs Otway, supported by the Dean of the Cathedral, feels that it should make no difference at all. Anna is a loved and trusted servant who has been with the family for so long that it is unthinkable to ask her to go away.
What Mrs Otway does not realise is that Anna has some secrets. A few years before the War, she had what she thought was a stroke of good fortune; a man asked her to look after some goods for him. She also innocently passes messages. Gradually, she has become become part of a spy ring, giving valuable information to the enemy – though without realising that she is doing so. The plot requires that Anna is very stupid, but the story remains just about credible.
Spy fiction was a dominant genre in the early years of the War for several reasons. The first was that it linked in with current anxieties; in this novel, the Germans are planning an invasion of the South coast. Secondly, part of its attraction must have been that it assured those far from the battlefield to feel that they too were relevant to the War effort. Their vigilance might save the country, maybe. In addition, the genre allowed novelists and short-story writers to tackle the subject of the War without straying into the unfamiliar territory of the battlefield. In this novel, Mrs Belloc Lowndes is able to explore questions about the War, but within the familiar setting of a cathedral close.
In doing so, she was fulfilling what many at the time required of a war novel: A critic in the Westminster Gazette in 1916 wrote of the better examples of war fiction:
They do not give realistic and yet artful description of actual battle — that is journalism; and when it is glazed with a surface of fiction it is very hard to read. The real war novel tells us how non-combatants behave under this particular strain, and shows us the humour, the goodness, the heroism and the treachery of daily life.
In this book, Mrs Otway, the Dean and others are definitely put under the strain and tested. They do not come out of it very well. The Dean, for example, is a good man, inspired by German idealism, and full of a wishy-washy optimism about human nature. He is shown to have been foolishly blind to the rise of militarism that was actually happening in Germany while he was thinking pious thoughts.
Other books of the time tackle the question of the disparity between wartime values and traditional ones differently, and some (I would think, for example, of E.M.Delafield’s The War Workers) defend the traditional way of life against those who would disrupt it in the name of the War. Mrs Belloc Lowndes, though, sees the war as a challenge that finds traditional English cosiness wanting. Her book must have been a bracing read back in 1915.
If you want to read this rather gripping novel, you can buy a new edition, with a very interesting introduction and useful notes by Jane Potter, which it as part of a five-volume set of Great War texts, priced at £450. Or you can download a probably less reliable text from Project Gutenberg, free, for your Kindle. The choice is yours.