The Testament of Dominic Burleigh

Forgotten novels are my thing, but few novels are quite as forgotten as the remarkable Testament of Dominic Burleigh by Godfrey Elton. That excellent new war verse anthology The Winter of the World prints one of Elton’s poems, but the biography in the back does not even mention his war novel. Nor does his Wikipedia entry. The book is a supposed memoir, written some time after the War, of a man determined unsparingly to expose his own previous hypocrisy and lack of authenticity.

As a young man, he becomes a fellow of an Oxford college, and is conscious of putting on a show to seem more knowledgeable and wise than he really was:

I suppose it was then that I began to cultivate the trick of talking like the people in H.G.Wells’s novels. I think I did it quite consciously; but I should never have formulated its implication – that it doesn’t matter how much thought there is behind what you say provided you say it in a certain manner.

He publishes a collection of poetry (which his memoir denigrates as insincere) in 1913, when “the war had not yet made poetry the lucrative hunting-ground of almost any young man with decent brains and friends upon the press.”
When war comes, and conscious of the pressure to enlist, he makes a point of going to a recruiting doctor, to ask about his knee. (“My father was visibly ill at ease; he couldn’t tell, poor man, how little chance there was in those first exacting days of any doctors accepting me.”) Later he joins the Territorials, because “One could do that without immediate danger, and the uniform was the same.” He looks just like a real soldier:

And I have little doubt that many… found me an inspiring example of young England’s resolution and sacrifice. And why not? For all I know, innumerable other such ennobling examples of manhood may have been thinking in those confusing days very much such thoughts as mine.

Burleigh suggests that his fellow-territorials (whom he despises) “were all unconscious fellow-conspirators, involved together in creating an illusion – the illusion that we were really anxious to find ourselves in the firing-line.” He finds himself hopeless at matters of practical soldiering – “But still I could use words. I read the manuals more extensively than most of my fellows, and technical phraseology… is always impressive”.

He eventually goes to France, where the book makes us even more aware of the disparity between conventional images of the soldier and military actuality. An officer goes mad, crawls over the parapet and is shot; his obituary reads: “Killed leading his men upon a desperate attack.” A chaotic episode during which Burleigh is conscious of behaving less bravely than some of the men under his command wins him the D.S.O.

He insists that he is not a special case, but that hypocrisy is endemic:

The things I have told of myself and shall tell are just the things you thrust deep down within yourselves, and instinctively, when they are drawn up to the light, you shudder at them… But they are in you all right, that’s my point…

In the retreat of March 1918, he runs away from battle and is wounded. He falls in with a band of deserters living a savage existence on the fringes of the battlefield; they are reduced to the most basic form of survival where pretence is no longer possible. “Filthy, bearded, gaunt and verminous” among “the lepers of society” he discovers a new authenticity: “I had deserted, and I was going to accept that stark fact, and build on it the rest of my life.”

Officially dead, and mourned as a war poet (“I believe that I represented myself as woken to new beauties by the trenches (the fly-blown trenches!)”) he is reborn to a new life that does not depend on social hypocrisy.

This is a strange book, resolutely unromantic about war, and yet granting war the power to change the life of its protagonist. Not, as in so many war novels and poems, by ennobling him, but by bringing him down to a brutal level where he cannot escape self-knowledge.

Know thyself – an old Greek proverb; why it was as old as the hills – truth rediscovered in every age? And wasn’t every age, our own age in particular, enormously organised to prevent the application of that truth? All down the ages… the tradition of chivalry… the romantic idea… Victorianism. What were they, all of them, but – soil for the lie to grow in? Pretending to be what you aren’t – were all the great literary and philosophic ideas no more than that? And scarcely once a century a Carlyle to protest.

Godfrey Elton wrote one other novel, but it doesn’t sound very interesting. After the war, he became a Labour politician, was raised to the peerage by Ramsay Macdonald and became one of the grey eminences of the House of Lords. A very different post-war career from that of his novel’s protagonist.

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