The “Enoch Arden” theme was a popular one in the early twenties. Tennyson’s poem tells of a sailor returning after a long absence during which he had been presumed dead, and finding his wife re-married. Tennyson resolved the story with much spiritual nobility, and so did many twenties writers.
There’s a story by Olive Wadsley, in The Storyteller of 1919 that is typical of the genre. It is called “A Father”. In this, John Warren is “a gentleman ranker of that order which has brains but little force with which to back them up, and which understands an abstruse problem in geometry better than a regimental command rapped out at pistol’s rate.” He had been listed as dead, but had in fact been taken prisoner. Three years later he meets the sergeant-major, who broke the news of his death to his wife, and who now tells him that she has re-married. Warren heroically decides to vanish again, for the sake of his wife and child:
Although he has renounced his wife, Warren longs to see his young son. In the humble guise of an electrician, he gains access to the rich mansion of his wife and her second husband. He sees the boy, who forms an instinctive bond with him, and immediately afterwards he overhears two servants talking; the new husband has been killed. The story is resolved with lushly sentimental appropriateness; Warren writes a letter to his wife, and then:
He went and sat in the park, as he had sat so often in his loneliness, but tonight the stars no longer seemed far away, nor his heart desolate.
This story demonstrates the dramatic potential of its situation, but also suggest that popular fiction can only resolve it by evasion. The second husband’s fortunate death can only be thought of as a happy ending if it remains unimagined.
Somerset Maugham’s play Home and Beauty (written 1915, produced on stage 1919) is a bracing antidote to this kind of sentimentality. Victoria is a vacuous society beauty whose husband was killed at Ypres. She describes how it affected her:
When my first husband was killed, poor darling, I went all to pieces. My bust simply went to nothing. I couldn’t wear a low dress for months.
After the standard respectable interval of a year, she marries Frederick, her first husband’s best friend, and dominates him with a whim of iron. Bill, the first husband returns. His disappearance is explained by a touch of amnesia, and a stay in a punitive German prison camp. He seems wonderfully unaffected by this ordeal, however, and is cheerful and positive, if flummoxed by the situation created by his wife’s remarriage.
The second act develops the situation brilliantly. Each of the husbands secretly feels that life with Victoria is stressful and demanding, and each realises that the situation provides a way out. Instead of competing for the women, they compete in the nobility of their renunciations.
Unable to choose between them, Victoria decides that soldiers are no longer fashionable as husbands, and decides to divorce both. The third act becomes an entertaining satire on the divorce laws of the time, and includes a formidably respectable professional co-respondent, who for a hefty fee is willing to play cards with a man in a hotel bedroom all night.
The two men begin as rivals, and end up as a jolly team, united in their friendship, and equally relieved to be rid of Victoria. Should we link this happy ending with Maugham’s homosexuality, or is it just a neat end to a play?
It’s a terrific play, and must have been wonderfully bracing in 1919, when stories like Olive Wadsey’s were only too plentiful. There is no sentimentality about soldiers, and they are not idealised. There is some satire on the women who stayed at home and thought that they were suffering as much as the soldiers.
MRS SHUTTLEWORTH (Victoria’s mother) :Victoria has worked like a dog, you know. It’s a marvel to me how her health has stood it.
VICTORIA: I don’t know how many committees I’ve been on. I’ve sold at twenty-three bazaars.
The satire is light-hearted, though, and doesn’t go deep. The play assumes that all its characters are rather average humans, essentially selfish, and hypocritical when it suits them. None of them has been profoundly changed by the war, for good or for ill; they are farcical types, all surface, and quite without depth.
If I’d seen this play after the war, I think I’d have enjoyed it more than Maugham’s more solemn The Unknown.