So far I’ve only read one book by Nat Gould, the soldier’s favourite author. He was primarily a sporting novelist, and most of his novels have a horse-racing theme. Racecourse and Battlefield (1899) is no exception, and describes the races brilliantly. Gould would have made a fantastic race commentator – he combines excitement with clarity in a way few can manage. As its title suggests, though, this book takes the hero to war as well.
Alan Medway is a young man about town, “whose liberality was proverbial, and whose expenditure outran his income with extraordinary rapidity.” An audacious and reckless hero of the racecourse, he has friends who are soldiers, but he markedly lacks their self-discipline. When, finally, he is bankrupted by his own prodigality and humbled into seriousness, he takes a job as a war correspondent, traveling with his soldier friends to the Sudan to avenge Gordon and defeat the fanatical Dervishes who follow the Mahdi. There he sees the controlled and disciplined British soldiers dealing with the unregulated passion of the enemy. The Dervish assault is “a grand display of reckless bravery and useless courage”, but it cannot break the British ranks.
Hundreds upon hundreds of Dervishes fell, never to rise again, and thousands more trampled them down and hurried forward over their dead bodies, to be mowed down in their turn by the withering fire.
The enemy waste themselves in brave but futile and spendthrift assaults, while the British remain firm, disciplined and effective (Moreover, when native troops are trained by the British, they learn these virtues, too; under the direction of Colonel Macdonald, “the Egyptians and Soudanese withstood the shock as firmly as a British square.”) The book does not labour the point, but Alan’s weaknesses are those of the Dervishes, too. The moral lesson that he learns in the course of the novel is about the regulation of his excessive masculine energy, and the army is the agent of that regulation.
The book is therefore rather different from the sort of fable more commonly found in wartime, in which a timid, or uncommitted or effeminate man is transformed by war experience into a real man.
Those wartime books addressed the anxiety: “Will our men be up to the job of defending us?” Gould’s book seems to be answering a different anxiety – “What can be done about undisciplined dangerous energy?” This is a peacetime question, and one that clearly nags at people today. Think of all those reality TV programmes that show the unruly being tamed. There has been at least one about underclass scruffs being given military training, but there have also been shows about ladettes subjected to etiquette lessons, dogs being disciplined and toddlers being put on the naughty step.
I don’t know how typical this is of Gould’s books, but I can see its appeal for soldiers. To read his description of a horse race is almost as good as having a day out at Aintree, and his representation of the Army makes sense of military discipline in ways that are quite flattering to soldiers (The same could be said of Kipling’s stories, too).
I’ll read some of what Nat Gould was actually writing during the Great War, to see if his tone changes.