The Fortune – Harold Firbank

Even more interesting than the character of James Murdoch in The Fortune (1917) is Goldring’s portrait of Harold, a more or less typical Englishman, but one who has been saved from conformity by acquaintance with his charismatic friend.

Harold is presented as something of a chameleon, taking on the values of the community he finds himself immersed in, or of a stronger personality. He loves his public school, is enchanted by Oxford, and excited by literary London – until the intelligent scorn of James makes him sceptical about each in turn.

He becomes a successful playwright, but enlists in 1914 out of a conventional (yet genuine) sense of duty. At first he is very dubious about the people he will have to mix with in the Army:

He did so hate that type of public schoolboy. There would be manly curates among them, he knew there would!

Gradually, though, he finds ways of adapting to military life:

It was as though his brain were now divided into two compartments, each completely separated and shut off. In the one was stored his Kultur: the other was overflowing with his military enthusiasms.

He even changes physically, becoming “red and beefy” and we are told that “in turning himself into an indifferent soldier, Harold’s personality had been diminished.”

Gradually he is confronted by the horrors and hardships of war:

“…he had watched a party of men one day having diner by the roadside near his lines. They had just come back from a spell in the trenches and were trying to find their mouths with their forks. Their hands shook so that they smeared their cheeks with gravy almost up to their eyes. Some of the poor dears encouraged one another with an overpowering humour and uncontrollable riots of laughter: others, different in temperament, sat like men struck dumb.”

Still, he acts the part required of him:

Only the realization of his rank, and that blessed vanity (a very present help in all the troubles of warfare) which made it impossible for him to give way before the men, saved him. He gave the necessary orders for a stretcher party quite calmly, and when a veteran subaltern of about nineteen strolled up and made a comment on the unwonted success of the Hun’s “evening hate”, his agitation had not betrayed itself. The incident put one more layer of military concrete over his artist’s emotionalism. He looked forward, rather wistfully, to the time when he should be as cool as the traditional gunner, as nonchalant as an officer in the Engineers…

His faith in the righteousness of the cause, and the distinction between German militarism and the British equivalent quite disintegrates:

Every evil passion raged in the men around him – the evil passions that the glucose school ascribe only to one’s enemies. Filthy lust, obscenity, disgusting cruelty, injustice, an utter absence of honesty of every kind: and permeating the whole military machine, favouritism and corruption and the most various forms of tyranny.

He is wounded (undramatically) and sent home, where he takes the stand as a character witness for his conscientious objector friend James at the tribunal. Eventually he is posted to Ireland, where he sees British military values in an even less alluring light:

Some of the actions of the troops, which came within Harold’s knowledge, sickened him more than ever of war; and the culprits were not always of the rank and file. There were stories of prisoners “executed” without trial, and for no apparent reason save sheer vindictiveness.

Things end very messily indeed. Goldring implies that if Harold had been as unthinking as many of his contemporaries, war would have been easy enough – but because he has come in contact with independent thought, personified by James, it becomes impossible.

This really is an extraordinary book to have been published in 1917.

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