The War and the Novelists: a talk in Sheffield

I shall be giving a talk in Sheffield on January 30th, on The War and the Novelists, looking at how writers of fiction responded to the Great War, both during theactual war years, and in the 1920s.

I’ll be suggesting that patriotic stories published during the war were not always mindless patriotism, but often were ways of dealing with current anxieties, and frequently outlined the difference between sensible and excessive ways of supporting the war effort.

I shall also be talking about the very various kinds of thoughtful war fiction that appeared in the twenties, long before the ‘war-books boom’ at the end of the decade.

The talk is one of a series of talks given by members and supporters of Reading Sheffield during January and February. Details are below. Some of the talks, including mine, are selling out fast, so do book early.

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‘The Waste Land – A Biography of a Poem’

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, even though it tells a story that has been told before – most notably in Robert Crawford’s very good biography, Young Eliot, which I read not so long ago. Well, good stories stand re-telling.

What I appreciated most about Hollis’s book was that he tells Ezra Pound’s story in tandem with Eliot’s. While Eliot was working through his personal crises to produce his greatest poem, Pound was facing a professional crisis, with his Propertius mocked and literary London turning its back on him. After this I understood why he felt the need to do something momentous – and headed straight down the blind alley of the Cantos

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‘Utterly Immoral’ – Robert Keable and ‘Simon called Peter’

Simon Keable-Elliott is the grandson of the novelist Robert Keable, and is understandably interested in his grandfather’s life and work – and especially in Simon called Peter, the book that caused outrage in Britain when published in 1921. It is the story of an Anglican clergyman who goes to war as a chaplain, but starts to lose his faith, partly because the soldiers are not interested in his religious message. He also becomes fascinated by the ‘painted ladies’ who cluster near the soldiers’ bases. Then he meets Julie, a beautiful and very obliging nurse, and he discovers the meaning of life. I read the book a while ago, and thought it highly readable tosh – but it was a huge best-seller (30,000 copies in a year) and undoubtedly spoke to some of the concerns and anxieties of it time. Utterly Immoral: Robert Keable and his Scandalous Novel is the fruit of Simon Keable-Elliott’s researches, and is whole-heartedly recommended to anyone interested in the period, or in representations sof the Great War.

The cover of the book shows Robert Keable with Jolie in Tahiti.

Robert Keable was born into a strict evangelical household; his father was particularly hostile to Catholicism and to the ritualism that the Oxford Movement had worked to introduce into Anglicanism. At Magdalene College, Cambridge, he had spiritually drifted Rome-wards, but became an Anglican priest, first in Bradford, and then in Zanzibar, where he was an enthusiastic missionary, teacher and scoutmaster. In 1914 he tried to enlist as an Army chaplain. He was rejected, maybe because Bishop Taylor-Smith, the Chaplain-General to HM Forces, was himself from the evangelical wing of the Church, and suspicious of anyone with a hint of ritualism about them. Keable later probably tried to enlist as a soldier, but was rejected on the grounds of physical unfitness. (Quite a few young clergymen did enlist, despite the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decree that being a combatant was incompatible with being a priest.)

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The poetry of George Willis

Having become interested in the war poems of George Willis, I have now acquired a copy of his Any Soldier to his Son. I have also taken a look at his The Philosophy of Speech at the Internet Archive.

The poetry book is a small but nicely made volume (publisher George Allen and Unwin), with a neat cover decoration attributed to C.R.W. Nevinson. There are six poems more or less in the style of ‘Any Soldier to his Son’, plus eleven others in a more conventional mode. The soldier poem I like best is ‘Employment base depot, 1917’, about the ragtag group of soldiers who for physical or psychological reasons were kept working at the base, and were not sent near the line:

We’ve a varied stock of ailments, we’ve some pretty things in scars,
You could stock a fancy-goods shop with our ribbons and our bars;
We’ve bullets in our kidneys; we’ve shrapnel in our lungs,
We’ve windows in our faces, and slices off our tongues;
We’ve some fancy complications both curious and rare,
From trench-feet in our fingers to shell-shock in our hair.

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‘New Army Education’

I learned to wash in shell-holes, and to shave myself in tea,
While the fragments of a mirror did a balance on my knee.
I learned to dodge the whizz-bangs and the flying lumps of lead,
And to keep a foot of earth between the snipers and my head.
I learned to keep my haversack well-filled with buckshee food,
To take my army issue and to pinch what else I could.
I learned to cook machonochie with candle-ends and string,
With four-by-two and sardine-oil, and any old darned thing.
I learned to use my bayonet according as you please,
For a bread-kinife or a chopper, or a prong for toasting cheese.
I learned to gather souvenirs that home I hoped to send,
And hump them round for months and months, and dump them in the end.
I never used to grumble after breakfast in the line
That the eggs were cooked too lightly or the bacon cut too fine.
I never told a sergeant just exactly what i thought.
I never did a pack-drill, for I never quite got caught.
I never stopped a whizz-bang, though I’ve stopped a lot of mud;
But the one that Fritz sent over with my name on was a dud.

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The Good, The Bad and The Extraordinary

The Sheffield Hallam University Popular Fiction Reading Group (1900-1950) has now reached its tenth birthday, and celebrations are planned. There will be an event at the University on July 19th (of which more later), and there will be a publication.

The Good, the Bad and the Extraordinary is a collection of reviews by members of the group, giving an idea of the wide range of books we discuss at our monthly meetings. The reviews are arranged in chronological order, from Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908, through to Torment for Trixie by Hank Janson, from 1950.

Popular fiction is a wide term, and we have treated it without bothering too much about a strict definition. This allows the reviews to cover everytthing from the seething romance of Ehel M. Dell to the sensible realism of Lettice Cooper’s National Provincial, but with detours for the unashamed swashbuckling of Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche and The Place of the Lion, a strange and rather disturbing theological best-seller by Charles Williams.

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Twenties Novelists consider War Poets

I’ve just put online a paper I wrote a few years ago. It’s called ‘I too am a Murderer’: Representations of War Poets in Fictions of the 1920s. You can find it by clicking here.

I first wrote it for the excellent Oxford centenary conference in 2014, where it was received quite well. I went on to deliver it at a meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, and also elsewhere.

It shows how war poets (especially protesting ones like Sassoon) who today are revered, were during the twenties often looked on as a threat by novelists including John Buchan, John Galsworthy and the playwright Patrick Hamilton.

My main reason for putting it online just now is that Mary Grover is kind enough to refer to it in an essay on Warwick Deeping in a forthcoming book that I am helping to put together – and I needed a definite internet link to go in the footnote.

The book is The Good, The Bad and the Extraordinary: Explorations in Popular Fiction 1900-1950. This is a collection of reviews of early twentieth century novels by members of the Sheffield Hallam Popular Fiction Reading Group – a wondefully varied collection, starting with Anne of Green Gables and ending with Hank Janson. I’ll be giving further details of the book as we near its publication date, timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the reading group’s foundation in the summer of 2012.


I’m watching ITV News, and the word Przemyśl jumps out at me from the bottom of the screen. It is one of the places where Ukranian refugees are being welcomed to Poland. But the name strikes memories, of course. This is not the first time it has been in the news.

In the autumn of 1914, the town was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of course. It was besieged by a huge Russian army that was poorly equipped, poorly trained and poorly managed. In time, though, force of numbers told, and in March 1915, the fortress surrendered, because of starvation and exhaustion. It was a grim business. The besieging Russians then, of course, were Britain’s allies.

This is far from the only reminder of 1914 in the past week.

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Geoffrey Hill on Owen, Rosenberg and ‘Pity’

This post is a recommendation to take a look at the lectures that the late Geoffrey Hill gave when Professor of Poetry at Oxford between 2010 and 2015.You can find them at: I don’t know how long they’ve been online, and this is probably old news to many people, but I’ve only just discovered the website, and am enjoying the lectures greatly.

A particularly stimulating one is ‘Mine angry and defrauded young a talk he gave in December 2014 about Wilfred Owen and war poetry.

A few years before that, when I lived near Oxford, I had heard him give a wide-ranging talk that argued ferociously with Owen: ‘The poetry had better not be in the pity – or it will not survive.’ I remember clearly his great white beard, his judgmental certainty and general air of an ancient prophet challenging our certainties as he delivered this verdict.

Geoffrey Hill
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Woolf, ‘Sapper’, Edgar Wallace

Sometimes the census just tells you what you already knew. Here is the return submitted by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, from an address oddly transcribed as ‘Rodmell, Lewes, Southease & Rodmell, Sussex, England’:

Click for a larger image

Living with the couple are Nellie and Lettie, brought to life so vividly in Alison Light’s book Mrs Woolf and the Servants.

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