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Not many comprehensive schools possess chapels, but Magdalen College School Brackley, where I taught English for over thirty years, inherited one from the grammar school from which it took over in 1973.

During chilly assemblies in the chapel, my attention often wandered to some wooden crosses on the wall. These are ex-students’ crosses from First World War battlefields, sent home when they were replaced by the uniform Portland stone grave markers.

I never did find out the stories behind the crosses, but am delighted to learn that Andrew White (whom I taught over forty years ago) has taken up the challenge. He has investigated the journal of William ‘Jack’ Lidsey, who enlisted in the Ox and Bucks in August 1914, fought on the Salient and the Somme, and joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1916.

Andrew is well-qualified to write the book, since he spent many years in the RAF, and more recently has worked as a battlefield guide in France and Belgium.

Jack Lidsey joined the Royal Flying Corps as an observer with No. 16 Squadron. The squadron suffered severe losses in the run-up to the Arras offensive of 1917. Lidsey survived one encounter with the great German air ace, Manfred von Richtofen, but a second did not end so well, and the Red Baron claimed him as his 29th victim.

Andrew’s book is based on the detailed journals that Lidsey kept, in the trenches as well as in the RFC. It looks as though it will be well worth reading. Details are here.

William ‘Jack’ Lidsey in 1916
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This is a supplement to a post from last year, in which I described my wanderings round West London, looking at houses where Rose Allatini lived.

Recently, I happened to be in Hampstead, so took the opportunity to look at 142 Fellows Road, the house where Rose Allatini was living at the time when her novel Despised and Rejected was on trial under the Defence of the Realm Act as prejudicial to recruiting. (In the British Library there is a letter from Rose Allatini to Sidney Schiff, with this as the address.) It was presumably a multiple-occupancy house where she had a room (or rooms).

Why was she in Hampstead? The answer has to be that Fellows Road is just around the corner from Eton Avenue, where the family of her friend, George Owen, lived at number 35. I checked on this too, and it is rather a splendid house, with fine Arts-and-Craftsy decoration.

Big, too. Here’s a view of it from round the corner.

Owen was an actor, and his relationship with Rose Allatini is the basis of the Dennis/Antoinette relationship in Despised and Rejected. In 1917 he went on tour in a musical comedy, and Rose went with him. (This inspired theatrical episodes in several of her novels). The relationship was fictionalised again later in Girl of Good Family (1933). This time there is no trace of the homosexual content that got Despised and Rejected into so much trouble, though. In this book George becomes the actor David Abrams, who strings the heroine, Sacha, along, but won’t marry her because he is actually in love with a married woman.

My book, Rose Allatini: A Woman Writer will be available soon.(There have been slight delays, but nothing serious.)

Watch this space.

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For the past year I’ve been writing about Rose Allatini, and the book is nearly ready for publication. It should be available to buy by the start of June.

I’ve called it Rose Allatini: A Woman Writer. Why? Because Olive, the novelist heroine of …Happy Ever After, her first book, declared: ‘I want to be a woman writer, not a lady novelist.’ Her novel is called Hilary, and it is definitely not conventional romantic fiction. She explains:

I’ll never go into the sevenpenny editions, because Hilary, bless his heart, wasn’t written with an eye to please the British Public. The young person who enters the library and vaguely demands ‘something to read’ won’t like my book, because the heroine neither dies in the snow on Christmas Eve nor marries the eldest son of a peer [….] and to cap it all, my hero ends badly – no, they don’t marry – so you see that in the eyes of the young person I am wholly and completely damned.

Rose Allatini never was a popular novelist; she went her own independent way with remarkable integrity, producing nearly forty books under various pseudonyms over seven decades. Their quality is uneven, and reading through her work I sometimes found myself strongly disagreeing with her ideas, but all her novels are readable, and none of them are merely pandering to public taste.

Which is why I was disappointed when Persephone Books republished her novel about conscientious objectors, Despised and Rejected, last year, with an afterword stating that all her other books were ‘romances’ of the type typically published by Mills and Boon, and suggesting that she dedicated her later life writing potboilers.

In fact, her books are very various. Many deal with the Vienna she knew as a young woman; those written during the thirties raise the alarm about the spread of Nazism; during the Second World War she wrote about Austrian Jewish refugees in London; later books have much to say about music, and even more to say about spiritual healing.

My book has a chapter for each of the literary identities she assumed (R. Allatini, A.T. Fitzroy, Mrs Cyril Scott, Lucian Wainwright, Eunice Buckley). The novel that I write most about is Despised and Rejected, partly because it is such a striking and courageous book, but also because its publication history, reception and prosecution tell us so much about British culture during the Great War. I look at the novel in the context of her other books, and see the book rather differently from the mostly feminist and lesbian scholars who have given it most recent critical attention.

I have published the book myself (with the help of that excellent firm, Lulu). This is for a variety of reasons.

For a start, I thought it would be fun. I have self-published some little books before (such as Animals Like Reading!, a book of poems for children) and there is something very satisfying about making your book from scratch, choosing your font and design and so on.

Secondly, I realise that this is a book for a niche market, with remarkably few potential customers. So general publishing is out – which leaves academic publishing. University presses would, I think, take small interest in a book that would make few undergraduate reading lists. Other firms exist, of the type that mostly convert Ph.D. theses into books, but (like the University presses) they usually produce volumes that are far too expensive for the average human being to buy. Only libraries will invest in a copy, – and in these straitened times, not many of them. To produce a book on a little-known writer that would go on sale at £75 pounds or more would be pleasing to one’s vanity, but not really much practical use. With Lulu I can keep the price down to a level that the average enthusiast might consider.

Thirdly, publishing myself means that I can do what I like. I can go into detail about things that interest me, and can add the occasional chatty aside without worrying that I am letting down the academic tone. It’s my book, for others to take or leave.

Having said that, self-publishing has its downside. Over the past couple of months I have had big struggles with my word processor. Getting endnotes to behave properly has been a titanic battle, but I won in the end. And then there’s the question of proof-reading. I’m useless at proof-reading on screen, so there has been much scouring of proof copies (with some help from my wife). And just when I thought I’d got it sorted, I order a batch of what I thought was the perfect article, only to find a stonking great typo on page one. But I persevere.

Anyway, this is a heads-up that the book is on its way. More information will appear on this blog during the next couple of weeks.

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It’s good to read someone enthusiastic for Not So Quiet… by ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ (alias Evadne Price). On the Paris Review website, Lucy Scholes makes a strong case for the book (admiring it with fewer reservations than I did in my 2014 paper on Evadne Price and her rather wonderful life of untruths.)

The cover of the first edition of ‘Not So Quiet…’, presented by its publisher, Albert Marriott (alias Netley Lucas), as a factual account of the War.

Lucy Scholes is worth reading, but I’m going to register a disagreement with what she says about the later books that Price published under the Helen Zenna Smith pen-name:

By popular demand, Price—again as Helen Zenna Smith—went on to pen four consecutive sequels: Women of the Aftermath (1931); Shadow Women (1932); Luxury Ladies (1933); and They Lived with Me (1934). A victim of its own success, Not So Quiet is tarnished by its association with these unworthy, increasingly romp-like successors, none of which were able to match the powerful ingenuity of the original.

Increasingly romp-like? The books are pretty uniformly grim. In Women of the Aftermath, Helen is married to a crippled ex-soldier who psychologically torments her. In Shadow Women she is in a plane crash that leaves her facially disfigured, and is reduced to sleeping among the homeless on the Embankment. The final two lighten up slightly, in that she is saved from the Embankment and starts a hostel for homeless women, but it’s all pretty grim. What’s more, it’s all told in that imitation-Remarque style, of headlong present-tense stream of consciousness. There’s very little romping.

That stream-of-consciouness style was the trick that Price could do. After the ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ books, she wrote thrillers, and ince again used the breathless first-person style, which keeps the narrative going strong and fast.

The question is – how seriously should we take ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ in her first book? Her publisher encouraged her to write it, and he had a track record of issuing deliberate frauds. He sensed that the ‘realistic war-book style’ was an easy one to copy, and knew that Evadne Price was a clever pasticheuse, so roped her in. Did she deliberately write a fake? Or was her indignation at the war so strong that she overcame the dubious context of her commission to write something honest?

  • The cover of the book when republished by Newnes, now clearly a novel.

Not So Quiet... has its strong admirers, including Ms Scholes. What I feel, though, is that it’s just a little too much the book that modern readers feel women ambulance-drivers ought to have written…

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I’ve just added a new piece to my online ‘Pieces of Longer Writing’.

It’s the text of a paper I gave at an Arnold Bennett Society conference in Stoke in 1916, giving an account of Bennett’s work when he was at the Ministry of Information in 1918.

For a long while it was thought that all such MOI files had been disposed of after the War, but at Kew there is a large folder devoted to the work that Bennett was doing in the French section. It’s probably very incomplete, only retaining examples that might have been of interest after the War, but there is enough to give a sense of Bennett’s style as an administrator – crisp, clear and efficient.

I was especially struck by his exchanges with Conan Doyle, where he is trying to persuade Doyle to contribute a propaganda piece for the French press. Doyle had been put off by the previous inefficiencies of the official propaganda organisation, and was unwilling, but Bennett kept on hammering away at him.

The file also shows the sort of information that Bennett was receiving from France, especially about French distrust of the British after the German advance of March 1918, when it was the British line that broke.

The paper can be found at: https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/arnold-bennett-at-the-ministry-of-information/

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  • Cover of a Robert Blake thriller. Unknown date – probably later than the books described in Rani Sircar’s memoir.

Sanjay Sircar, a reader of this blog, has sent me an interesting footnote to my long-ago posts about the Sexton Blake detective magazines. His mother’s cousin, Rani Sircar wrote a memoir, Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing Out of British India (New Delhi: Rupa, 2003) in this she records that at school in Madras in the 1930s]: ‘the burning interest in my life was the continuing story of Robert Blake as retailed to me in Bengali.’

‘For at his point, when I was seven or so,’ she writes, ‘Robert Blake was the only detective I knew, thanks to cousin Chittanalini Das, my Baby-didi (“elder sister Baby”) who came to stay with us every time we were in Madras, and had an everlasting fund of Robert Blake stories. as soon as she had unpacked, I used to pounce on her with ‘Robert Blake. Robert Blake. What happened next to Robert Blake?’ For many years, I did not know whether Robert Blake was the fictional brother of the famous Sexton Blake of English detective fiction, or what their relationship was. My reading included some of Sexton Blake’s adventures only in the 1940s, but nobody I asked seemed to have heard of Robert. So I believed that Baby-didi made up the stories for me herself, until the other day when a friend, Sunil Mukherji, told me that Robert was indeed the Bengali incarnation of Sexton Blake, with a name-change presumably to obviate any possible misunderstanding about the ‘sex’ in ‘Sexton’, Robert’s doings were, it seems, sold in Bengali paperback [pamphlets in a particular ‘Library’ series].

‘In one Robert Blake story, this ace sleuth was sent out on some high-powered secret mission with half a pencil in the heel of his shoe. Only if his contact in China or Bavaria – I forget now which it was – could produce the other half of the pencil would the contact’s bona fides be accepted, I held my breath as half-pencil after half-pencil was proffered in many places; but only at journey’s end did the proffered half fit with the half-pencil in Blake’s heel, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I wonder if Robert Blake stories would thrill me now as much as they did then. They certainly seem to have had all the ingredients of modern thrillers.’

Apart from Robert Blake, apparently, Baby-didi ‘had no secular interest in her life… It is still a puzzle to me when she read up on him or why.’

Wikipedia tells me that the Robert Blake stories were by Bengali novelist Dinendra Kumar Roy, and they seem to have been original stories suggested by the Sexton Blake series, rather than translations of the English originals.

I wonder whether anyone has studied them, or made any cross-cultural comparisons. A few years ago I looked at some French pulp fiction featuring the detective Rouletabille. these books had much in common with the Sexton Blake adventures, but the differences were illuminating, too. A comparison between Sexton and Robert would make a great project. Do any of my scholarly followers out there read Bengali?

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I spent a pleasant day in the British Library at Boston Spa yesterday, looking at copies of the Star evening newspaper for 1918. Among the things that caught my eye was this advertisement for War Bonds, featuring Kipling at his most rhetorically fierce.

I’ve read quite a bit of war propaganda over the years, but rarely anything as fevered as this.

Kipling had been warning of the horrors of invasion since before the war (for example in the speech used as epigraph to W. Douglas Newton’s War). His language was always dramatic and his imagery forceful, but in this piece his imagination is surely overpowering him. By 1918 he must have known that there was no chance of the Germans attempting an invasion of Britain (always very unlikely, but even less so now than in the early days of the war). Yet he writes as though this is an immediate prospect.

My bet is that this was written during the grimmest days of the German Spring Offensive, when it looked as though Allied resistance was crumbling and Haig’s order was ‘Backs to the wall.’ He is reaching for extreme language to match an extreme situation. If that German offensive had been successful, France would have had to sue for peace on humiliating terms, and both France and Belgium could have permanently become vassal states of Germany

Or perhaps he had just decided that since he was writing an advertisement, he would use the techniques of the advertising man and ‘Hit ’em hard.’ During the war Kipling felt it his duty to do what he could for the propaganda effort. When Arnold Bennett took over the French department at the Ministry of Information, he asked Kipling and Conan Doyle to send him something, because theirs were names that the French knew. Doyle dithered and protested, but Kipling sent the goods straight away.

So – utterly sincere expression of fear and loathing? Or Kipling hyping up the situation to make a strong emotive statement in a good cause? Or a bit of both?

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It’s a long time since I was seriously collecting variations on the ‘white feather’ theme, but today I was delighted to come across a postwar variation on the theme in London Opinion, in early 1919, when everyone was asking when demobilisation was going to happen:

–>

It’s from that rather odd magazine London Opinion, which combines quite good cartoons with fairly poor stories and articles. I was checking to see whether its column ‘The Looker-On’ had commented on the verdict in the Despised and Rejected trial in October 1918. It had incited the prosecution, and indeed could not help commenting on the outcome:

I’d have thought that one thing one could say in favour of Northcliffe was that this reviewer at the Times Literary Supplement felt he could give praise where it was due, despite the proprietor’s opinions and the position he held in the government. That nasty man James Douglas (who almost certainly wrote this paragraph, though not the rest of the Looker-On column, which is mostly light and gossipy) is clearly trying to stir up trouble here.

I’ll write more about London Opinion tomorrow.

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There’s an interesting article on the BBC News website about the concrete sound mirrors erected on the British coast during the First World War. These were designed to catch and amplify the sound of incoming aircraft, and so give warning of air raids. The technology was apparently still being developed till the thirties, when it was supplanted by radar.

The article is here, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-46348917

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Commando comics have been on sale since 1961.
For those who don’t know them – they have a small, square format, containing 64 pages of black-and-white drawings telling a war story, most often about the Second World War. They are published by D.C. Thompson of Dundee, publishers of the once-mighty Beano. The Beano is not what it was. Is Commando?
I was in W.H. Smith’s the other day, and noticed the above cover. It turns out that recently Commando has been doing a series to mark the centenary of the Great War’s ending. Out of curiosity, I bought the magazine – number 5181 of a run of issues that has kept going for fifty-seven years (with the same personnel at the helm for most of that time).

It turns out that this is the last of a WW1 series about the Weekes family, who play varied parts in the war. Dad is a medic, Tommy and daniel are soldiers, Michael flies a biplane, Harriet drives an ambulance and Billy is in the navy. Mother is at home, worrying about them and praying. Each of the five has a comic in the series devoted to them, and this one is Tommy’s story, though he plays a somewhat passive role in it.
A caption sets the scene:

‘After four terrible years of war, November 1918 finally brought peace.’

We see British soldiers (and German prisoners) on a still smoking battlefield, burying the dead.
Dad and Tommy are missing, after a late German attack that included bombing a hospital. Assuming they have been taken prisoner, Harriet starts to drive her ambulance across no-mans-land to find them. Daniel insists on coming too. As they are driving, a German sniper starts shooting at them, even though the war is officially over. Harriet, as this frame shows, deals with him pretty efficiently.

Commando has moved with the times in this respect, anyway. In line with twenty-first century thinking, girls are now allowed to be tough guys.
In another respect, though, Commando is still exactly what it always was. When Daniel and Harriet find their father and Tommy in a German prisoner of war camp, they are horrified to find that the evil camp commandant has not told the prisoners that the war is over, and is still mistreating them. He is doing this, we gather, out of sheer Hunnishness.

After all the pieties of other markers of Remembrancetide, I actually find it rather bracing to come across this bit of unreconstruced British anti-German feeling, unaffected by the passing of the years or the changes in respectable fashion. Commando knows what it is doing. It has flourished for half a century by sticking to its formula of decent Brits versus Hunnish Huns, and it’s not going to stop now.

The last pages of the comic are a solemn reminder of the dead (Tommy didn’t make it back home.) But the tributes are to the courage and sacrifice of the British soldiers, with no suggestion that anone on the other side could be equally brave and decent. I’d actually say that there was more moral ambiguity in some boys’ comics of 1914-1918 than there is in this twenty-first century one.
Sometimes historians and literary critics are tempted to think that in the popular mind there is now only one interpretation of the Great War – the Morpurgo-style Futility myth. Commando No. 5181 shows that this isn’t necessarily so. In this little corner of popular culture at least, an older, simplistically patriotic interpretation still holds sway.

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