A while back I remember reading a reference in the Times Lit Supp to “D.H.Lawrence’s anti-war story, England My England.” This struck me as odd at the time. I suppose the writer’s reasoning is that the story shows war as rather nasty, and everybody knows that DHL had a rotten time in the war, so it must be anti-war.
But one of Lawrence’s own favourite maxims was “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” In other words, see what a story is actually doing, rather than what it’s supposed to be doing. And the logic of England My England, first published in 1915, is very much on the side of the War. Lawrence’s protagonist is Evelyn (though he became Egbert when the story was re-written for 1924 book publication) . He is an impractical man who has married into a wealthy family.He is built less for use than for ornament, and dabbles rather than works. He plays at farming, and lives on subsidies from his wife’s father. He causes an accident to his daughter, and his wife is getting sick of him. He goes to war, and meets the reality that civilian life has cushioned him from. He is killed, nastily.
In this story, it seems to me, Lawrence is very much one of what I’ve called the “King Lear” type of writer, calling down the power of the War to crush people he disapproves of. The writer’s animus against Evelyn/Egbert is obvious, and the Lawrence lets the War convincingly prove to the poor man what reality means. This story is not anti-War, but like many moral tales of the time, by all sorts of authors, it uses the power of the War to hammer home the writer’s point.
Today in the Library I took a look at the English Review of 1915, to see the story in the context of its first publication. In a letter Lawrence says that he had not expected any English magazine to accept the story, perhaps because it shows an English soldier getting killed, but the English Review decided to use it. Why? A bit hazily, I’d associated the English Review with Ford Madox Ford, and supposed that publication of the story was part of Ford’s encouragement of young, potentially subversive talent. Ford, however, had had to give up the editorship a few years earlier, having reduced the magazine to a financial shambles. The new editor was Austin Harrison, who didn’t turn his back entirely on Ford’s experimentalism, and shocked prudes by publishing Frank Harris. He was fiercely anti-German, however, having written The Pan-Germanic Doctrine (1904) an exposé of the Kaiser’s territorial greed. The wartime English Review is fiercely supportive of the war, and criticizing the Government when it is soft on Germans. In the same volume as England My England, there are attacks on Lord Haldane for his Germanophilia, and an article insisting that even naturalised Germans should be treated as hostile.
So where does England My England fit into this? Why should an editor like Harrison want a story like this? He certainly wasn’t interested in printing anything “anti-war”. My guess is that he liked Lawrence’s attack on a leisured arty, impractical class. Lawrence saw Evelyn/Egbert as a symbol of the amateurism that was wrong with England, and so did Harrison.
A couple of months after the story was printed, there is an article in the magazine by Harrison himself, entitled, We Must Have Responsibility. In this he makes a distinction between the politician and the man of action.
War is action; nearly all policy is theory.
He caricatures members of Asquith’s War Cabinet as ineffective dilettantes:
Five more gentle creatures never trod upon a War Office carpet.
Mr McKenna, humanitarian and pacifist; Mr Balfour, the dilettante philosopher, aristocrat, bachelor, and cynic; Mr Bonar Law, the impeccably safe controversialist; and Mr Lloyd George, whilom fiery demagogue of peace-time democracy. And to these must be added the sweet reasonableness of Sir Edward Grey.
No wonder Lawrence’s hatchet job on the dilettante Evelyn appealed to this editor. Whatever the author intended when writing the story, in the context of The English Review it becomes an attack on the Asquith government for lacking the ruthless professionalism necessary to win the War.