The novelisation of Journey’s End (“By R.C.Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett”) that I bought in Hay on Wye is an odd thing. Its main effect has been to make me appreciate the play.
The first 104 pages are set in England. We get Raleigh the schoolboy, hero-worshipping Stanhope, even when the latter gives him six whacks for missing cricket practice. As a school story it’s very ordinary – with neither the fun nor the emotional intensity of the best school stories. It fills out the hints that are found in the play, but to no very exciting purpose. Raleigh’s sister is a tomboy when she is young, but when soldier Stanhope comes home on leave, he realises she is special – though that specialness isn’t very vividly conveyed to the reader.
Then the rest of the book happens in the trenches, and is a fairly direct transposition of the play. Whole double-page spreads are simply the play’s dialogue, with a scattering of phrases like “said Trotter” or “said Osborne” to make it clear.
Those are the better parts. At other times the book spells out what the characters are thinking. The strength of the play is that as an the audience we very rarely have things explained to us. We hear the characters’ words and see their actions, but we have to imaginatively identify with them in order to work out the subtext of emotion behind the banter. In other words, it’s a good play.
Another thing that makes it a good play is that it observes the classical unities of place, time and action. One dugout, a couple of days, and a situation reaching its inevitable conclusion. The novel dilutes this.
More dubiously still, the book takes a less subtle editorial line on the war than the play does. Sherriff in his memoirs could claim that Journey’s End was a play “in which not a word was spoken against the war, in which no word of condemnation was uttered by any of its characters.” The narrative voice of the novel is less restrained. There is considerably more bitterness towards the general who ordered the trench raid:
“They weren’t fighting the same war, the infantry and these old portly generals.”
Stanhope’s father turns out to be one of those bloodthirsty clergymen who “would have bayoneted every German he saw with that cheerful energy which he put into all of his (or God’s) actions,” and who devotes his time to occupations such as “running a press campaign for the internment of yet more people with a thin strain of German blood in their veins.”
The play does not take political sides. Is it a picture of brave men enlisted in a futile conflict? Or does it show men taking on a terrible but necessary job, even till it kills them? It makes sense whichever way you look at it, which is a sign of its quality as a play.
So how much of the novel is Sherriff and how much is Vernon Bartlett? The dialogue lifted straight from the script is obviously Sherriff, but whether the rest is all Bartlett I have no idea.
And who was Bartlett? In 1917 he published Mud and Khaki: Sketches from Flanders and France. (There is an e-text of this available online.) It seems to be a set of upbeat little sketches of front-line life, many of which had appeared in the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. In his introduction he says: –
No words, then, can give an exact picture of these things, but they may help to give colour to your impressions. Heaven forbid that, by telling the horrors of war, the writers of books should make pessimists of those at home! Heaven forbid that they should belittle the dangers and hardships, and so take away some of the glory due to “Tommy” for all he has suffered for the Motherland! There is a happy mean – the men at the front have found it; they know that death is near, but they can still laugh and sing.
Which is not exactly the tone of Journey’s End.
Later in life he became a politician, winning a 1938 by-election as an anti-appeasement candidate. In 1942, with J.B. Priestley and others, he helped found the socialist Common Wealth party. In 1945 he kept his parliamentary seat as an independent, and in 1950 joined the Labour Party.
In 1954 he moved to Singapore, and became the South Asia correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. A varied life.