The English Air | D. E. Stevenson #1940Club

“We must be very nice to him,” said Mrs Braithwaite, looking up at her daughter with large blue eyes.

“Nice to him!” echoed Miss Braithwaite in surprise. “Well, of course we’ll be nice to him. I mean, why shouldn’t we?”

On the 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later France and England declared war on Germany. Shortly after, the Soviet Union annexed the eastern part of Poland, with Germany claiming the western and central regions. Hitler decided to hold off his planned push towards France until spring 1940. Meanwhile the Soviet Union forced Estonia, Latvia and Lituania to sign a pact that allowed them to establish military bases in their countries. Finland refused to sign the pact. On the 30th November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland. The invasion did not go well for the Soviets initially, but three months later on the 12th March 1940, Finland had little choice but to sign what became known as the Moscow Peace Treaty. I give you all this as I had forgotten the bits about the Winter War in Finland and they are relevant to understanding some of what happens at the end of The English Air by D. E. Stevenson.

Firstly a big thank you to Liz @Adventures in Reading for mentioning that The English Air was a 1940 publication, because it was exactly what I needed this past week for the #1940Club with Karen @Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling and Simon @Stuck in a Book.

I am basically over the worst of the sinustitus infection that plagued me throughout the second half of March, but on a work day, I still come home incredibly tired. So on the good days this past week or so, I’ve been reading my latest Zola book, L’Assommoir, but on the tired, hard to concentrate days, I picked up The English Air.

Confession time – by the half way mark, this charming story had delighted me so much that I was pretending that EVERY day was a hard to concentrate day simply to spend as much time as possible with the rather ditzy but lovable Sophie Braithwaite, her very capable daughter Wynne, son Roy, her German nephew, Franz and step-brother-in-law, Dane Worthington.

The story begins in 1938 during a very English springtime with a rather unusual event – the arrival of cousin Franz from Germany. It is his first visit with his English cousins and everyone is feeling a little awkward about what is happening with Hitler in Germany. Sophie declares to everyone beforehand, “It will be much better not to mention politics at all…we don’t want any unpleasantness, Wynne. You must warn your friends about him.”

Early on we are given a sense of the Braithwaite family and where they fit into the English class system when we are told that it is the beginning of the tennis, bathing and cricket season, that Dane lives in the west wing of the house, that Sophie, although widowed is not in need of money, that they had planned to take in an Austrian refugee but put it off since Franz was coming instead and that Dane does not appear to work. Wynne is a Girl Guide’s leader and Roy is in the navy, and when with their friends they all have a very jolly time. So, a life of privilege and ease.

There were pretty carpets, good china, and an abundance of excellent food; there were magazines and papers and books lying about, and boxes of cigarettes for anyone who wanted them … there was all this, but above all there was peace. Peace, thought Franz, peace and happiness—yes, that was really the keynote of Fernacres.

This was my first time with D. E. Stevenson, so I wasn’t quite sure where all this was going. Was it social satire? An English comedy of manners? A WWII propaganada piece perhaps?

But no, this was simply a very charming, diverting, heart-warming story about a loving, well-to-do family in the final days of the 1930’s. There may have been a tiny smidgeon of farce and a smattering of propoganda but thanks to the letter exchange between Stevenson and her publishers included in the back of the book we know that she considered this work to be more a ‘period piece‘. The story finished in February 1940 and by the time it was published later in the year, Stevenson had some misgivings about releasing it at this time.

In a foreword written for the first edition, that remained unused in the end, Stevenson said,

So much has happened since February – innocent people have been killed, peaceful lands destroyed, and age-old dynasties have fallen in ruins. We ourselves have changed so fundamentally in spirit and outlook that it is hard to believe we were ever happy and carefree like Wynne Braithwaite and her friends….this was the way we looked at life, this was how we thought and spoke and acted in those blessed days of peace.

The English Air revels in its Englishness and jolly politeness, but Stevenson doesn’t completely ignore the issues of the times. The older characters remember the suffering of World War One and dread the thought of another war. It also becomes apparent that there is more to Dane and his mysterious disappearances than first meets the eye. Through Franz we see how proud the Germans were of their country and the hopes they had. There are mentions of hard times, Youth groups and concentration camps. Franz’s German aunt reminds him that,

Sometimes we hate and suffer, as we did in the war, and then we find that this was a tunnel too, and that the hatred was based on falseness and the suffering arose from mistakes. It is hatred that is the matter with the poor world today. Remember that, Franz. Hatred is deadly and kills all good things. Hatred blinds us to all that is beautiful … and so it is with the Fatherland which was full of so much goodness and beauty. People are being taught to hate….If we hate people it does not hurt them at all … it hurts ourselves.

It could be possible to see Franz’s change of heart during the story as being contrived or mere propaganda, but Stevenson reveals in her letters that she knew a German girl who stayed with friends who had a similar change of heart, declaring that she had even ‘watered down‘ her story as it would have been too ‘incredible‘. A number of the other scenes and comments in the book were also based on real events.

But mostly, The English Air, is sailing around the harbour, planning parties and negotiating the intricacies of small village life. The war begins to intervene in the second half of the novel, but despite a few hairy moments, we get an almost happy ending that satisfies the gentle reader. Although, as we are reminded in the letters at the end of the book, no sooner had Stevenson finished the book with Franz planning to go off and fight with Finland, the Winter War ended. If she had kept writing, a different solution would have had to be found for Franz’s storyline, as she hates a ‘book that does not finish neatly.


  • Her father’s first cousin was Robert Louis Stevenson.
  • The D. E. stands for Dorothy Ellen
  • The English Air is book 75 in the Furrowed Middlebrow series.

Favourite Quote:

I don’t always listen to things … at least I do listen, but, unless the things are going to be useful to me, I don’t keep them.

Favourite Character: Wynne of course. Plucky, smart and kind. Full of resolve to do good and to be useful, all the while having a very good time.

Favourite or Forget: I adored this book. It came along just at the right time when I need a delightful pick-me-up tonic. I will remember Stevenson’s name for future reference. Can you recommend any of her other books? Do you have a favouite? I noticed on Goodreads that many readers have said that this was not their favourite of hers, but I was completely enchanted.

More #1940Club reviews of The English Air:

Title: The English Air
Author: D. E. Stevenson
ISBN: 9781915014399
Imprint: Dean Street Press
Published: 3 January 2022 (originally published 1940)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 252
Dates Read: 3 March 2023 - 10 March 2023
Origin: Purchased in January 2023
  • This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.

24 thoughts on “The English Air | D. E. Stevenson #1940Club

  1. I’m currently reading a book from that Furrowed Middlebrow list: it’s called Beowulf, a Novel of the London Blitz by a *very* interesting author by name of Bryher.
    There’s something particularly poignant about reading books written during the progress of the war.


    1. Exactly, it’s why I enjoy reading the Thirkell’s too. I’m trying to get a list together of the FM books written about WWII during WWII – adding this one to it thank you 😊
      I think I first came across Bryher in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting?


  2. This is such a great review! And comes at a perfect time. I just finished my first 1940 read and was looking around for something light but not frivolous and this seems to fit the bill. I am a DE Stevenson fan and really do enjoy her books.Vittoria Cottage, Anna and her daughters and Gerald and Elizabeth which I recently read are all really good. My sister also recommended Five Windows.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The way you describe this makes it sound worth more than a quick glance, a period piece in all senses of the term. And Stevenson wasn’t an author I’d ever considered, so definitely one to be on the lookout for in the future!


    1. I was the smae Chris, but those blogger friends of ours who read more of the DSP books than I have (so far) gush about her books fairly regularly, so I decided to try her war-based one – I’m so glad I did!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wonder if the relative wealth equality of workers and bosses in the ‘first world’ after WWII, which really lasted only from 1950s to the 1980s, has gone for good and we are back again to the upper middle classes having lifes of leisure, with big houses and servants


    1. The main observation I can make about classes in Australia is that the distance between those who have and those who don’t is getting further apart. The once working class family transitioning into middle class (that I grew up in along with many of my friends) doesn’t really seem to exist any more.


  5. A lovely review. I had a moment of wondering if it was a work of propaganda (when she talks about the darkness beneath the surface of the German youth groups and compares it with what Franz realises about the British sense of duty) then realised it was more subtle than that. I’m so glad I helped you to fins this – I have enjoyed every one of her books I’ve read, if that helps. And may I share my review?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I had the same brief concern at that point of the story too. I was aware that Franz was judging all the English based on his experience with one class of citizens and wondered what he might have thought if he had spent time with a working class family in Newcastle for instance.


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