Vera Brittain, novelist

brittain-ac-rendered

‘And you say,’ the Judge continued slowly, ‘that these abnormal conditions are not uncommon as the result of shell-shock?’
‘That is so, My Lord. If every criminal case in our prisons could be traced back to its origins as exhaustively as this one has been traced, we should probably find war shock, or war anxiety, at the root of many.’

Vera Brittain’s 1945 novel Account Rendered takes the promising theme of the link between war and insanity. The central character, Francis Keynsham Halkin, is a promising composer who enlists towards the end of the Great War. Read More »

The York National Book Fair

I hadn’t been to an event like this for a couple of years, so enjoyed my visit to York Racecourse on Friday, to what is billed as Britain’s largest Antiquarian book fair.

I didn’t buy much, though. The fair is aimed at book collectors, and I’m more of a book amasser, whose books pile up uncontrollably. I’m a reader, and never unduly concerned about fine bindings or complete dust jackets. My book-buying policy generally is to go for the cheapest copy on www.bookfinder.com that doesn’t sound utterly revolting. Read More »

In No Man’s Land

From the diary of Duff Cooper:

November 11th, 1916.

Dined at 16 Lower Berkeley Street. After dinner, the conversation turning on sodomy, Blueie [Harold Baker] told us of a case where a man was accused of having committed it in No Man’s Land, i.e. between the trenches during an attack, taking advantage of a shell hole. This story was shouted to Sir John [Horner] who heard it unmoved and only grunted, ‘He must have been a handy fellow.’

Ticking off a ghost

landofmist

 

It’s supernatural month at the Sheffield Popular Fiction Reading Group, and I’ve been looking at  Conan Doyle’s The Land of Mist, in which Professor Challenger and the other characters from The Lost World are brought in to explore Conan Doyle’s great obsession – the world of the Beyond, as revealed to spiritualists. Thank goodness Doyle managed to resist the temptation to make Sherlock Holmes convert to spiritualism; in this book Challenger and Co are more or less reduced to puppets for his enthusiasms.

The book has several references to the Great War, as one might perhaps expect; it was the desire of so many of the war-bereaved to feel that their loss was not final that gave such a boost to the spiritualist movementt in the early twenties. Mediums were often accused of exploiting war widows, however, and perhaps that is why Doyle does not stress this aspect of things. Instead he twists the standard situation to comic effect: Read More »

‘Red for Danger’ by Evadne Price

Evadne_Price_at_work

With my interest in Evadne Price rekindled by Matt Houlbrook’s biography of Netley Lucas, I thought I’d take a look at one of the novels she wrote after her stint as ‘Helen Zenna Smith’.
Red For Danger (1936) belongs to that quintessential inter-war genre, the comedy thriller. There is a plot based on crime, big business and international intrigue, but the action is seen through the eyes of a hapless Cockney taxi-driver who wants nothing to do with such things. Read More »

‘Not So Quiet…’ – Netley Lucas’s story

Having greatly enjoyed Matt Houlbrook’s biography of Netley Lucas, I have now been taking a look at Lucas’s second autobiography, an odd book called My Selves, ‘by Netley Lucas and Evelyn Graham’ (Graham was the name under which Lucas achieved considerable success writing royal biographies). The book was published in 1934, after Lucas’s release from prison. It was the last of his books; after this he lapsed into literary silence (unless he had other identities which even the industrious Matt Houlbrook has failed to discover).
I was most interested, of course, in what he (they?) had to say about Not So Quiet…, the war novel he commissioned from Evadne Price (under a third identity – that of Albert E. Marriott, publisher). His version of events differs from hers, so I’ll print some of it here: Read More »

The crook who published ‘Helen Zenna Smith’

prince of T not-so-quiet-cover

In 1917 Netley Lucas was fourteen, but must have looked mature for his age. He got himself an officer’s uniform and used it to run up debts as, for a short but wild period he lived the high life. Inevitably, his luck eventually ran out, and he was sent to Borstal. After some more criminal activities, he changed tack, and became an author, first writing the story of his criminal life and then taking on the part of an expert, a criminologist writing with the authority of a reformed criminal. A further fall from grace put his reform in doubt, so he started a new career. Changing his name to Evelyn Graham, he took advantage of the public’s thirst for royal trivia by producing a string of supposedly authoritative royal biographies. When publishers got wary of him, he set up his own publishing company, which put out some interesting books, including Not So Quiet…, the novel about women at war that had all the marks of authenticity. Scandal and bankruptcy overtook the firm, and he ended up in prison again, after which he wrote another memoir My Selves, and lived for a few more grim and alcoholic years, coming to an unpleasant end in 1940. In just over a decade he lived through a variety of careers, each excessive, most spectacular and all were doomed to failure.
It is not a distinguished career, but Matt Houlbrook (previously the author of the book Queer London, which I strongly recommend) has seen that this rather seedy swindler’s progress tells us a lot about the post-war era in which he struggled and occasionally flourished. In his absorbing new book, Prince of Tricksters, he uses each turn of Lucas’s crooked life to illuminate some of the contradictions and uncertainties of the twenties. Read More »

Modern Troubadours

Thanks to Ann-Marie Einhaus for pointing me towards Lena Ashwell’s 1922 book  Modern Troubadours, an account of the musical and theatrical troupes organised by Miss Ashwell, which took entertainment to soldiers in France and elsewhere. (A digital versioncan be found at the Internet Archive.)

Ive just had a skim through so far, and I’m particularly struck by this description of the involvement of shell-shocked men into theatrical productions: Read More »

Michèle Audin’s ‘One Hundred Twenty One Days’

121_Days

This novel (first published in French in 2014) centres on two mathematicians, both damaged in the first world war, and both nursed by the same young woman. Mortsauf has most of his face blown away, so is one of the gueules cassées;  he marries his nurse, becomes a successful academic and achieves a  position of influence under the German occupation. Gorenstein, who is Jewish,  suffers psychological damage in the war, and in an unexplained fit of violence murders most of his family. He is incarcerated, but continues to do mathematics.
These two disturbed men are the focus of a novel that explores a disturbed century. The most telling chapters are about the period that has been even more troubling to France’s conscience than the Great War, the period of the Occupation, with its betrayals and shameful complicities. Read More »

‘A splitarse bus’

V.M. Yeates spots a German aeroplane:

It was one of the new DFWs – a nice-looking, very splitarse bus.

‘Splitarsing’ is a frequent word in Winged Victory  It appears in Arnall’s  Portrait of an Airman, too. The context makes it clear that it means ‘making a fast manoeuvre’, and the Oxford English Dictionary gives us : Read More »