Simon Called Peter

 Simon Called Peter is definitely not the worst Great War novel that I've read – that has to be H.G.Wells's turgid Joan and Peter (1918)– but it's the most enjoyably ridiculous.

Robert Keable's novel was a massive best-seller in 1921, but if the title rings any sort of bell with a modern reader, that's probably because the book gets a name-check in The Great Gatsby. It's among the possessions of the vulgar woman, Myrtle, and the book is used as an index of her vulgarity. As I recall, Nick, the narrator, reads a paragraph or two and flings it away in disgust.

Peter Graham, the hero, begins the novel “perfectly dressed” in “the frock coat and silk hat of the London clergyman”. He has a friend, Hilda; they do good works together, and become engaged, but one gets the impression they wouldn't do anything as unserious as holding hands or anything of that nature. He delivers a solemn sermon at the start of the war, and eventually decides that he too must go to “do his bit”.

So he goes to France as an army chaplain, only to find that the soldiers aren't very interested in his services. Worse, he finds that the country abounds with painted ladies: “Women like that, and men who will go with them, aren't fit to be called men and women,” he says. “There's no excuse. It's bestial, that's what it is.”

Then a twofold process begins – he begins to lose his faith, and he starts to meet girls – especially Julie, a South African nurse who arouses feelings in Peter that Hilda would be amazed by…

Other officers take Peter to a bar that he discovers is a maison tolerée, and to his surprise the girls turn out to be human, and to have feelings – even religious feelings.

Separated from Julie, he gets to know more about the French girls who do business near the Army camps, purely in the way of research at first, but then with a sort of religious righteousness; like Jesus, he is consorting with publicans and sinners. Sex and religion get confused in a heady stew of emotion that made this a very hot best seller in the early 1920s.

It takes Peter about three hundred pages before he goes to bed with Julie:

“With deft fingers she loosened her hair, and he ran his fingers through it, and buried his face in the thick growth of it. She untied a ribbon at her waist, and threw from her one or two of her mysterious woman's things. Then with a sigh of utter abandonment, she threw herself into his arms.”

Sex helps him regain a (somewhat altered) religious fervour, which Julie can't share – so she decides she has to leave him, for his own sake: “I love you so, Peter, that I can't marry you!”

She knows that without her he will begin a new religious crusade: “And thus did Julie, who knew no God… give Peter to Him.”

It may be tosh, but it's immensely readable tosh. And now I've got hold of Recompence, the sequel, which tells what Peter did after the war. I'll post a report when I've read some of it.


  1. Posted June 8, 2006 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Gosh, that sounds almost as bad as some of the stuff that I’ve been reading! I do love that silly, “I love you too much to marry you,” rubbish.

  2. Kayla
    Posted December 5, 2006 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    Actually, I believe Nick reads a full chapter, but doesn’t understand it becasue he just happens to be drunk.

  3. Posted December 5, 2006 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    But I bet the prose style made him feel drunker.

  4. Leah
    Posted March 25, 2007 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Nick can’t work out whether it’s absolute tripe or whether it’s the effect of booze. Anyway, I’m off to remove my mysterious women’s things…..

  5. Ishmael
    Posted November 21, 2007 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    “When I came back they had disappeared, so i sat down discreetly in the living-room and read a chapter of ‘Simon Called Peter’–either it was terrible stuff or the whisky distorted things, because it didn’t make any sense to me.”
    This is the actual line.Notice how Nick doesn’t even acknowledge the book as literature, but simply as “stuff,” implying that he indeed did not fancy the book, but justifies his statement by adding the possibility of the whisky’s distortion of his vision. This brings up another interesting fact: if his vision was blurred, why keep reading? Personally i’ve never been drunk and read a book, so i don’tknow how it works…

  6. Kyle
    Posted December 20, 2008 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    I believe Nick perceives the book as being a”Shit Stuff”,may be the fact that he was reading it in that party,in that room where vulgar people do speak non-sense Nick found the book ”Terrible stuff”.

  7. alyson
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    your wrong…nick never read any of the book, you should check up on that

    • Posted January 9, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      My edition reads: “When I came back they had disappeared, so I sat down discreetly in the living-room and read a chapter of “Simon Called Peter.” – either it was terrible stuff or the whiskey distorted things, because it didn’t make any sense to me.”
      Is your edition different?

  8. Eb
    Posted December 8, 2022 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    terrible book lol

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  1. […] I’ll refer you to George Simmers’ Great War Fiction blog.  Here are his entries for Simon Called Peter and Peter Jackson, Cigar […]

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