At Brookes today, Jane Potter gave a paper called: ‘Hardly Worth Reading?’: the Great War Romance Novel.. “Hardly worth reading” was the snooty comment of one reviewer about the romantic fiction that Jane analyses in her Boys in Khaki: Girls in Print.

Jane gave a good tough defence of her right to study the genre. Two points especially stick in my mind.

She suggested that some people don’t like the material she studies because it’s not “safe”. We know where we are with Owen and Vera Brittain; their view of the war fits nicely with modern preconceptions and pieties. Berta Ruck’s Khaki and Kisses, with its surging emotions and fervent patriotism, is different. It’s unfamiliar territory.  Some people find it uncomfortable, even dangerous.

She made the second point with her OHPs of bright and colourful dust-jackets. She asked us to imagine these in a bookshop. Beautiful, sensational, exciting. War in the popular imagination was highly coloured and dramatic. Sold for up to 6/- when the average wage was a couple of quid a week, these books were luxury items. They remind us of an audience very different from ourselves.

I must read more romances.


  1. Posted May 16, 2006 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    My favourite review for one of my papers said ‘This paper begs the question, what is the point?’

    I didn’t stop reading comics, and I completely agree with Jane Potter about anything not St. Wilfred being ‘unclean!!’

  2. Jane Potter
    Posted May 17, 2006 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Glad to hear others feel as I do about the importance of these popular novels!

    I should give formal credit, however, to Phylomena Badsey, who put the word ‘safe’ into my critical vocabulary about the Great War romance, especially in relation to the reactions of reviewers to my book. At the recent ‘Britons at War’ conference in Northampton, she made a very cogent argument for literary and cultural historians to move ‘out of the comfort zone’ of long-held assumptions and readings of set texts and authors. We need to ‘question what is known and safe’, she said. The points I made at the end of Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print that ‘It is easy to condemn the generals as ‘Donkeys’, to agree with and extol Owen and Sassoon, to laugh knowingly at the satire of Blackadder Goes Forth. It is more difficult, but no less important to interrogate the ideology and language of writers who recorded the Great War in a different way and justified the sacrifices made in its name’ seem not quite to have got through to some readers of the monograph. Perhaps a stronger stance–and vocabulary, as that suggested by Phylomena Badsey–is what is needed.

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