Early Gibbs

Having read some postwar books by Philip Gibbs, I was curious to see where he came from, and what he was doing before the war.

Master of Life is a novel from 1913. In some ways it has a lot in common with later books like The Middle of the Road. The hero, Titus Harsnett, feels himself an outsider, and has to make his own way through a confusing political world. Left a fortune and a huge industrial empire in Yorkshire, he goes back to his home town, and proceeds to make himself unpopular. He has been to Oxford, and has little sympathy with the grasping philosophy of the other factory owners; equally, he sees the revolutionaries as merely destructive. So nobody in the town likes him as he bravely discovers his own middle way. A strike brings the first half of the novel to its climax.

The trouble with the book is that Gibbs gives little sense of the actual industrial town. The characters are clearly, if unsubtly drawn, and their arguments are expressed at length, but Gibbs doesn’t ever describe the inside of a factory, or even much about the streets and homes. It’s all ideas.

Having sorted out the strike (by breaking with the other masters and giving his workers more money) Harsnett is persuaded to use his wealth to carve out a political career. The book gets less satisfactory. We are constantly told that Harsnett has great talent, but there is no evidence of this. He remains a naive do-gooder while others plot his advancement for him, and the Prime Minister’s offer of a ministerial place seems very unlikely. His innocence leads him into a friendship with a married woman, and the last quarter of the book deals (quite readably) with the crisis caused when her unpleasant husband is out for revenge.

In the later books that I have read, Gibbs makes his typical passive hero a newspaper correspondent. This works fairly well, because you can believe in the man’s reasons for hunting out other points of view and recording them in great detail. In this book, the hero is potentially a man of action, and his attention to others merely looks like dithering.

The year after this book was published, Gibbs became a war correspondent, and a very good one. The experience clearly honed his journalistic skills. Back to Life especially has a vitality in its reportage that this book definitely lacks. You know that the author of the later books has been there, and seen those things – in The Middle of the Road there’s a marvellous chapter describing the crowd outside a Dublin prison on the morning that an IRA man is hanged. It’s probably unjust to Gibbs, but I’ve feeling that this “trouble at t’mill” novel could have been written by someone who had never actually ventured north of St Albans.

Master of Life belongs to quite a tradition of novels that lecture the North about the industrial situation and preach a “faults on both sides” philosophy. In some ways it’s quite similar to (though less dramatic than) Charles Reade’s Put Yourself in his Place (1869 – but the IMDB says it was filmed in 1912, so I guess the issues must have seemed topical).

Well, the wimpy hero of this book gets very annoying after a while – never an impure thought in his head, and yet he hopes to get on in politics. Perhaps Gibbs got more worldly-wise himself later. His postwar heroes are still melancholy observers of a wicked world, but they stay as outsiders (at least in the books that I’ve read) and neither they nor anybody else think that they could become “masters of the world”.

Gibbs would make his name as a war correspondent. There are soldiers in this book, but he hardly notices them. They have been brought in to deal with the strikers, if necessary. An officer is harsh and businesslike; the men are just units following orders. Gibbs would learn a lot more about soldiers over the next few years.

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