Herbert Asquith: Young Orland

Young Orland (1927) is one of those books from the twenties that uses the war as the climax to a longer narrative, and like many it shows the war less as a contrast to what has gone before than as a catalyst, speeding up previously presented patterns.

Young Orland has all the elements of a melodramatic Victorian novel – illegitimacy, sudden reversals of fortune, betrayals in love – but treats them very unmelodramatically. There are few secrets from the reader. We watch the characters stumble through the chances of life, which seem fairly arbitrary.

Life is shown as haphazard, a matter of chance linkings with long-term effects. Those who plan (e.g. the ambitious Tamlyn) do not get what they want. Others, arbitrarily, do. The virtuous are sometimes rewarded, but too late. A villain dies happy and unpunished.

War is just one more fact in the one-thing-after-another series, and intensifies the peactime characters of those involved.

All this sounds a bit serious, but it’s a fun book, with a marvellous sequence when an elephant is introduced into an Oxford college.

An interesting view of the war, expressed by Tamlyn, the insider: that it went on for so long because of democracy. Absolute despots would have called a compromise halt to things after the Marne, but democratic governments would have been deposed if they had dared. Since Herbert Asquith was the Prime Minister’s son, this point is maybe worth considering.

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