Morton’s Revisions to The Barber of Putney

In his preface to the 1934 edition of The Barber of Putney, J.B.Morton writes:

I have made some small changes, but in substance the book remains as I wrote it.

Since I’m dealing with it in my section on wartime writing (though it was published a few months after the Armistice) I thought I’d better check the first edition against my 1934 copy.

The bulk of the book is indeed the same, but there are indeed  changes. Most are cosmetic – little improvements in punctuation, but some are mystifying.

A character in the novel that I am very interested in is Eccles, the poet. Can we take him as a self-portrait of the literary Morton, who himself enlisted as a private? At first regarded by his comrades as a “rum cove”, Eccles gradually gains their confidence and becomes a close friend of Tim and Curly.  In a key chapter, “Routine”, Eccles, now a sergeant, has to take a squad to do “about the most unpleasant job that can come a soldier’s way.” They have to clear a sunken road of “bodies and fragments of bodies and splintered wood and mud.”

The job is done, and Morton makes the horror, and its effect on Tim, very clear:

Then his spade caught in something. It was something that made a tearing sound. He stooped over it. Then he drew back and almost cried out. His spade was caught in a piece of clothing, but there was something all mixed up with it… He tried to lift the spade, but something came with it, a hideous shapeless mass. A bloated rat moved away as Tim shook the spade from side to side… He was cold now and weak, and then suddenly hot… He didn’t mind treading on bodies now. he didn’t really notice…

Tim thinks “Suppose I’m sensitive,” but then wonders about Eccles. “Surely he must be worse. Were’nt poets sensitive devils? Yet Eccles managed all right.”

But then Morton tells us:

Eccles’s nails had bitten into the palms of his hands and, in a dark corner, he was retching.

All of this is in the 1919 version, and so is Eccles’s later death – except that fifteen years earlier he was not Eccles. He was  O’Hanlon. And his girlfriend was not Molly, but Grania. What forgotten reason could have caused the change? A real person called O’Hanlon that the fictional one could have been confused with? A political decision not to make the man sound Irish? Combined with a decision not to make the girl sound too arty?

A bigger change comes in the last chapter of the novel. It has been third-person omniscient narration throughout up to now, but in the epilogue of the 1919 version, an “I” appears, a writer producing a  rhetorical finish to a book he is writing.

“One lie, ” I wrote, breeding lesser lies, has a sacrifice made to it such as was never imagined by any heathen god. Millions of young men, strong and full of laughter, torn to red tatters. Women and babies starved, while their husbands  and fathers were passed through the flames of battle to an idol more frightful than Moloch…”

Curly reads this high rhetoric, and brings him down to earth. “Yes,” he said, “I s’pose it’s all very fine an’ all that, but it’s an ‘ell of a lot of words.”

The two of them go in to Tim’s barber shop, where he is continuing his pre-war trade. Curly falls asleep, and the book ends.

This device of the sudden irruption of an “I” into the novel helps to signal the ending, because it breaks the convention according to which the novel has been written up to that point. It’s not uncommon to find in middlebrow fiction of ninety years ago devices that, if they appeared in the books of those earnest young men and women whose novels are reviewed in the Guardian on a Saturday, would be hailed as daringly post-modern. (I’m gathering a short list of wartime works that start in the conflicted present, and then slide into a postwar future, and will post it here some day.)

In 1934 the author no longer irrupts. I wonder why. Did Morton now feel that the device was too “arty”? He hated artiness.  Now Tim himself is writing a piece on the meaning of the War. Not so convincing really.

Looking at the 1934 version, I had question-marked one passage that seemed likely to be a later addition.

When Tim and Curly are thinking about what would make a good name for their dream country cottage, they consider various options, and then Tim suggests “Journey’s End”.

Curly will have none of it:

Thought of that, but it’s too sentimental like. Want something straightforward. Journey’s End. Reminds me of “Mother, I ‘ear my dead sister’s voice a callin’. ‘ All your ideas of names are a bit like them novels, mate.

Was this, I wondered, a 1934 addition, written when Sherriff’s play was the most famous British addition to the war-books boom, and when some ex-soldiers were unhappy about what they saw as its representation of the soldier as victim? In his 1934 preface, Morton claims that his aim in republishing is to combat those “self-styled enlightened people” who want “to persuade the young that the war was ‘futile’; that those who fought were silly dupes swept away by an emotional appeal.” So is this passage a swipe at Sherriff?

Not a bit of it. It’s all there in 1919.

So very little seems to have been added in 1934 for any purpose except a literary tightening-up.  But I find those name-changes mysterious.


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