In my time I’ve heard one or two intemperate left-wing historians dismissing Great War generals as clowns, but I never thought I’d read a novel about a clown who became a general, and then went back to a career in comedy juggling. Well, now I have read William J. Locke’s The Mountebank.
William J. Locke
I’ve written about Locke before – his novel The Rough Road , which gloatingly details the humiliation of effeminate Doggie when he tries to be a soldier; and the story A Woman of the War, which makes a nurse suffer for her pre-war immorality. I’m not exactly a fan of this writer – yet I thoroughly enjoyed The Mountebank.
Andrew Lackaday was an orphan brought up by circus folk. His foster parents died and the circus closed, so he started with his own act, with a dog, and later with Elodie, a French showgirl. They tour the music halls of France with a clown juggling act. (Here I think we’re more or less in the same world as Locke’s 1906 bestseller The Beloved Vagabond, about a strolling musician having romantically bohemian adventures all over Europe.)
War comes, and Lackaday, fired by the example of the patriotic French, enlists in Kitchener’s army – as a private at first, but he gradually works his way up to Brigadier-General. Feeling that it might damage his credibility, he keeps quiet about his past as a “mountebank” in green tights and a fright wig.
By 1918, he has become someone else, a man of authority, and has met the noble and sophisticated Lady Auriol Dayne. They are mutually attracted, but he feels that his love can never be expressed, if only because he is committed, in a practical but unromantic way to his showbiz partner, Elodie (even though she has now grown a little stout).
Lackaday’s war does not end very well (and Locke allows himself a criticism of those in command that he would have shied away from during wartime):
In October his brigade had found immortal glory in heroic death. He had obeyed high orders. The slaughter was no fault of his. But after the disaster – if the capture of an important position can be so called – he had been summarily appointed to a home Command, and now was demobilised.
Locke wonders what will happen after the conflict is over to all those whose lives have been “illumined by the self-knowledge gained in the fierce school of war”.
Does the Captain V.C.of Infantry adored and trusted by his men, from whose ranks he rose by reason of latent qualities of initiative command and inspiration, contentedly return to the selling of women’s stockings in his old drapery establishment, to the vulgar tyranny of the oily shopwalker, to the humiliating restrictions and conditions of the salesman’s life? Return he must – perhaps… But does he do it contentedly? … Will not the war change he has suffered cause nostalgias, revolts?
Locke’s choice of selling stockings as the unworthy employment to which his soldier must return is an interesting one. Two other writers also pictured ex-soldiers in that role. In Richard Blaker’s Identity Discs, a soldier narrator sees an ex-comrade in that position, and realises that he has made an active choice to remake himself after the war into something different. In Mary Butts’s Speed the Plough, a soldier finds kinky happiness in pinning up the gown of an imperious customer. For Locke, though, such a loss of manliness is sheer humiliation. Lackaday feels the loss of his occupation bitterly:
The war had been such a mighty, such a gallant thing. Of course the genius of mankind must now be bent to the reconstruction of a shattered world. He knew that. He knew that regret at the ending of the universal slaughter would be the sentiment of a homicidal lunatic. Yet deep down in his heart there was some such regret, a gnawing nostalgia.
Lackaday can’t find a job in England commensurate with his talents, and eventually goes back to France and stout Elodie. He tries to re-start his career as a grotesque juggler, but he has changed as a person… Well, everything gets sorted in the end, and you should read it for yourself.
Like the other stories by Locke that I mentioned, this one maintains a positive image of the war, as something strengthening and regulating the individual. The post-war world, on the other hand, is presented as merely chaotic and dangerous:
England was no place for her. It was divided into two social kingdoms separated by a vast gulf – one jazzing and feasting and otherwise Sodom-and-Gomorrah-izing its life away, and the other growling, envious, sinister, with the Bolshevic devil in its heart… The Society life if the moment made her sick. A dance to Perdition. The middle classes were dancing, too, in ape-like imitation, while the tradesmen class were clinging for dear life on to their short skirts, with legs dangling in the gulf. On the other side, seething masses howling worship of the Goddess of Unreason…
So, according to this book, war is at once democratic (talent like Lackaday’s rises) and unifying – whereas in peacetime the nation disintegrates and class matters again. War promotes the right sort of decent person, whereas in the post-war world the it is the worst that seem to thrive. You thought war was bad for soldiers? According to Locke,peace is worse: “The flabby soulless octopus of civil life reached out its tentacles and drew all these heroic creatures into oblivion.”
But it’s a gripping book. I knew it was tosh, but I found myself caring about the characters, and I had to keep on reading to the end.