I’ve been puzzling about the immense success of that strange novel, Tell England in 1922. Rejected by twelve publishers who were convinced that war books would not sell, it went on to top the sales charts, despite a roasting from critics like Rose Macaulay (“Tell England has no beauty, and its silliness and bad taste are not the work of a writer.”)
Cassell’s marketing campaign certainly helped it and a dust-jacket that made lavishly sentimental use of an “England’s Rose” theme, long before Elton John:
Find many more book covers at http://www.greatwardustjackets.co.uk
Finally, though, I think this is one of those cases where a book’s limitations are what make it a success. Raymond was a young clergyman, and in many ways naive. His book expressed an idealism that the more sophisticated (like Macaulay) found crude and dangerous, but which appealed to a wide audience who needed to reject the idea that the war had been futile or meaningless.
His autobiography, The Story of My Days, written forty-five years after the publication (and overnight success) of Tell England, reveals how unconscious Raymond had been of the deeper currents lifting the emotional swell of his book:
Another thing that is a cause of wonder to me as I re-read the book is the indubitable but wholly unconscious homosexuality in it. The earlier part was written when I was eighteen or nineteen; the latter part in my twenties, and in those far-off days, ‘homosexuality’ was a word which – absurd as this seems now – I had never heard. It was not then the daily topic in newspapers and converse that it is today. But naturally I knew all the rude words like ‘buggery’ and ‘sods’. And these described practices that, so far from having any appeal to me, produced a grim recoil and a surprise that such things could be. I did not know that homosexuality could exist in embryo without even knowing itself for what it was, or desiring the least physical satisfaction, till the time came for it to die and be transcended by full and normal manhood. Its presence in the book is one more evidence of its author’s unusually slow progress towards maturity.
While Sassoon was struggling with the fact that his homosexuality could not be allowed literary expression in the 1920s, and when he returned to the war, an emotive subject that he could write about, wrote his homosexuality out of the account, Raymond could let a wash of homoeroticism merge with his high-church religiosity, not even aware that it was there.
And presumably his audience didn’t realise either. The happy innocence about such matters of the general public in the 1920s is shown by the reaction of Mrs Whitworth, the producer of Ackerley‘s play The Prisoners of War in 1925. After reading the play several times, she was amazed and horrified when someone explained to her that the two central characters were more than just good chums. he was persuaded to let the play go on,though, when it was pointed out that most of her lady subscribers would be at least as naive as she was.
The Story of My Days, by the way, is an excellent read. I’d originally intended to skim it, just looking for Tell England material, but i got thoroughly involved in the story of Raymond’s extraordinary childhood, raised without a birth certificate in a Victorian menage where a charming Major-General dominated a harem of womenfolk. The story is almost as strange as that of Ackerley’s upbringing, described in that marvellous book, My Father and Myself. Victorian soldiers were an astonishing breed.