Mrs Porter Calling is the third book in AJ Pearce’s glorious series The Emmy Lake Chronicles. Readers of this blog may know of my regard for this series, which is set in the Second World War and features Emmy Lake and her friend Bunty, young girls trying to make their way through the war. Dear Mrs Bird was the first in the series, where Emmy takes it onto herself to answer letters sent into the Woman’s Friend magazine problem page instead of the old battleaxe employed as an agony aunt. By the second book, Emmy is a roving reporter doing good deeds reporting on war work and encouraging women to do more themselves, and so we come to Mrs Porter Calling.
Emmy is established as the magazine’s agony aunt and features reporter by now, and is a married woman to boot, despite her husband Charles being stationed away in North Africa. Since Charles was only ever a supporting character, I’m afraid to say we don’t miss him (unlike Emmy, who does) but there’s plenty going on to keep the reader occupied. The Mrs Porter of the title refers to the Woman’s Friend’s new owner, The Honourable Cressida Porter, who has been left the magazine by her uncle in an attempt to make her useful, I think. Like many members of the aristocracy, she is essentially useless and has ideas of her own to develop the magazine, but they’re so far removed from reality, and especially the reality of the Woman’s Friend readership trying to make it through the war, that the staff try and fail to keep the tone and service of the old style, and soon lose readers. With her job, and the wellbeing of her readers at stake, you might think there was enough to occupy Emmy, but as ever, the main relationship of the books is that of her and Bunty.
The two of them open their house to a friend with three children and a husband away at war, and Bunty has a developing relationship with Harold, old friend of her fiancé Bill (killed in the first book). They also volunteer at the fire service and rescue some purloined chickens and all sorts goes on.
This series is absolutely charming and if you were so minded, you might say part of the tedious nostalgia that infects this country when it comes to talking about the war. BUT the Emmy Lake Chronicles do two things very well: first, it shows that the war years, far from being a marvellous thing we should be nostalgic about, were incredibly difficult, heart-breaking and painful for people who actually lived through them, and God knows we need a shot of reality into that conversation; and two, they pass the Bechdel test by some distance. These are real women with big concerns – making a living, having a fulfilling career, making and welcoming people into a home, wrestling with wartime, relationships with all people are discussed and explored. The books are masterpieces of real life, with characters you love and want to thrive against the odds.
Near the end, I got that feeling where you realise ‘a big thing’ was about to happen and braced myself for it, and lo and behold there it was. Just in case you thought things might work out ok all round. The series doesn’t wrap everything up in a big tidy bow – there’s plenty of mess and unresolved situations still there at the end, which contributes to the reality for me.
I love these books. And if AJ Pearce wants to give Emmy a rest and instead write the Guy Collins and Monica Edwards chronicles next, I am absolutely here for it.
Mrs Porter Calling is published by Picador on 25 May 2023.