Complicity with the War

I’ve been thinking about writers who actually welcomed the war. There seem to be three types:

  1. The Vorticists and others who thought that society needed a big shake-up, and war was the best way of “making it new”. They mostly modified this opinion after a while.
  2. People who disliked certain classes, and expected war to bring down its fury on them. So various people wrote about how glad they were that war would sort out the Trades Unionists, or the aristocracy, or the old Victorian guard, or the artistic avant-garde, or the irresponsible young, or the Jews, or whoever. (Elsewhere I’ve called this the King Lear effect, after the King who called down the wrath of the storm on the people he hated.)
  3. The moralists – who thought that war was good for the moral development of other people.

A prime example of the last is William J. Locke’s novel The Rough Road (1918).

The book’s protagonist, Marmaduke Trevor, lives in the sleepy cathedral city of Durdlebury, and personifies what is wrong with it:

The saturated essence of Durdlebury ran in Marmaduke’s blood: an honourable essence, a proud essence; an essence of all that is statically beautiful and dignified in English life; but an essence which, without an admixture of wilder and more fluid elements, is apt to run thick and clog the arteries. Marmaduke was coddled.

Marmaduke (who had been given the nickname “Doggie” by rougher boys when he was young), is a self-pitying hypochondriac, who has decided to devote his life to producing a history of wallpaper design (presumably this was the nanciest occupation that the author could think of – and maybe a link to the aesthetic movement, whose dubious manliness was a cause of great concern to tea-party moralists).

Shamed by the receipt of “an anonymous letter, ‘For little Doggie Trevor from the girls of Durdlebury’ and enclosing a white feather,” Marmaduke applies for a commission in the Army, but fails. Humiliated and dejected, he finally enlists as a private soldier, and begins the gruelling journey towards becoming an adequate soldier and man.

The novel develops a complicity with the war as it teaches the protagonist the big moral lessons that were already obvious to the author:

There can be noted a distinct stage in Doggie’s development. He realised the brutality of fact. When great German guns were yawning open-mouthed at you, it was no use saying “Take the nasty, horrid things away. I don’t like them.” They wouldn’t go unless you took other big guns and fired at them. And more guns were required than could be manned by the… artillery of the original British Army. New fellows, not at all warlike, peaceful citizens who had never killed a cat in anger, were being driven by patriotism and by conscience to man them.

The writer’s attitude is one of moral superiority and certainty throughout; the authorial voice never falters in its conviction that it is right. The book tells us that war has been good for the girls, too:

If the war has done any thing in this country, it has saved the young women of the gentler classes, at any rate, from the abyss of sordid and cynical materialism.

After all sorts of humiliations and suffering, Doggie gets his reward in the end, in the shape of a nice French girl who truly loves him.

Rather surprisingly, Virginia Woolf gave The Rough Road a generous review in the TLS.

2 Comments

  1. Andy Frayn
    Posted May 10, 2007 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I’m just starting to read this. It is, frankly, comical in the light of the later novels. A good counterpoint, methinks. When was the novel reviewed, George? Trying to get an idea of rough publication date. Thanks for the tip-off about this one!

  2. Posted May 11, 2007 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    The TLS review is in the issue dated 24 October 1918.
    The novel ran as a serial in Nash’s and Pall Mall Magazine through late 1918 into 1919, concurrently with Galsworthy’s infinitely superior novel, “Saint’s Progress” (which I’m half-way through at the moment, and which is shaping up to be one of the very best books about civilian life during the War. )


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