Way of Revelation

Wilfrid Ewart started his literary career by writing short descriptions of war for the Spectator, and on his return to civilian life was persuaded that he could turn his experiences into a novel. The battle scenes in The Way of Revelation (1921) are very convincing – terror and chaos, and men surprised into sudden bravery.

The story is more than a peg to hang battle pictures on, though; it’s a real novel with an epic sweep. The subtitle is A Novel of Five Years, and the sections are labeled

      • Illusion
      • Disillusion
      • Travail
      • Dawn
      • Peace

The hero, Adrian Knoyle is taken through most of the major battles of the Western Front: Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres, the latter months of the Somme, Third Ypres, the retreat of March 1918 and the triumphant but tough fighting of the last hundred days. During this time we see him gaining in confidence and professionalism as a soldier, while many of his friends are killed.

In counterpoint to the war is Knoyle’s love affair with Rosemary. It’d be tempting to fit this book into the same genre as Aldington’s Death of a Hero – a “war is terrible but women are worse” sort of book, but it’s actually subtler than that. Yes, Knoyle endures battle doggedly, and is poleaxed when he finds that Rosemary is unfaithful but Rosemary isn’t a villainess. Ewart is enough of a novelist to make us see why this girl, who is impatient and hungry for experience, doesn’t just sit quietly at home while her decent but slightly dull man is away.

The true villains of the book are the group of bohemian artist-types who attract Rosemary into their circle. They are into parties, drugs, poetry and the blurring of social distinctions (Ewart is a bit snobbish, and we are first alerted to chief baddie Upton’s moral character when we are made aware that he is not quite a gentleman.) The group is centred round a magazine called Rays. Is this an allusion to the Sitwells’ Wheels? Are these bohemians based on anyone in particular, or are they just a generalised personification of everything Ewart dislikes?

The bohemian scenes are more melodramatic than the war scenes, and less convincing. The battle pictures are good, but so are the descriptions of trench routine, and the officers’ off-duty existence. I liked the scenes ( a bit extraneous to the main themes of the novel) where officers from different backgrounds enjoy badinage and teasing one another. And there is a good picture of the officer poet who is desperate to be a good soldier, but fails every challenge miserably.

This was a massive best-seller in 1921, and is very impressive for a first novel. Ewart might well have gone on to greater things – except that on New Year’s Eve 1922 he was travelling in Mexico. He went out onto his hotel balcony to watch the locals celebrate the New Year by firing their guns in the air. A stray ricochet hit him in the eye, and he was killed.

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