During the war, Douglas Goldring had roused much controversy with his novel The Fortune, which shows an officer becoming disillusioned with the war, under the influence of his sceptical friend.
In 1920, he published another pacifist novel, The Black Curtain, and I spent an interesting few hours in the Bodleian Library today, reading it.
The novel (like so many published in the early 20s) begins well before the war, establishing its main characters, and the peacetime world that they live in. Kane, Golding’s protagonist, is a journalist, rather bored with places like Barcelona, who comes back to England, to a world of rather petty artists and Bohemians, who can not see beyond their own concerns. There is a very effective scene showing the launch of the revolutionary magazine Kosmos, which is rather obviously Blast in disguise. Its founder is one Hawkins Moss, a whose “reputation for the new brutality had ensured his popularity in the Soul circles of Mayfair.” There are stories of him breaking a bottle of Bass over the head of a reviewer, and kicking an “unfortunate” down three flights of stairs in a brothel in Soho. When Marinetti came to London, Moss went into action, “borrowing the thunder of the ha’penny press” to silence the intruder. Wyndham Lewis, I presume.
Goldring gets in some good jabs at the Blast circle:
Writers with brains were coy of a manifesto devoted principally to abuse, in 1913, of those Victorians whom undergraduates abused in 1903, and whom the pioneers were now busy re-discovering.
The magazine launch makes Philip “want to go home and read George Eliot.”
In novels of this period there’s an obligatory scene where just one character can foresee that the war is coming. In this case it is a stockbroker friend of Kane’s, who sees the future more clearly than the Futurists, and joins the Territorials.
Comes, inevitably, the war, and Goldring shows England aflame with enthusiasm. His hero tries to enlist, but is rejected because of his heart condition. We notice, though, that the characters most enthusiastic for war are those whom the first half of the novel has shown up as most stupid. One rather nice old boy speaks enthusiastically:
“There’s one thing about this war that makes it different from any of its predecessors… and that is that we are in it from absolutely disinterested motives. We are fighting solely to protect the weak…It is a fight for Justice, Truth and Civilisation against a race sunk in the grossest materialism, a nation which has forsaken God.”
And so on. His daughter deflates him:
“It’s all very well to talk like that about the poor Germans, father,” Anne interposed in a cruelly brisk, matter-of-fact tone, “but you’ve really nothing but the Daily World to go upon. After all, the greatest friend you ever had – until a week or two ago – was old Professor Ehrenstein, of Bonn… Surely he and all your german friends can’t have handed themselves over to the Evil One, just for a lark! If the truth were known I expect the great mass of the Germans and Austrians – certainly the working classes – hate this war as much as we do. But I suppose their newspapers have lied to them, just as our newspapers have lied to us.”
And that, really, sums up Goldring’s view of the war. It is a fight between capitalist governments, and the stupid populace have been fooled into supporting it because of propaganda supplied by hireling journalists. This view of history depends on the assumption that the great majority of the people were very very dim, and could be tricked into giving their lives, or their children’s lives, for a worthless cause. I don’t believe it.
Kane is a war correspondent for a while, and sees horrors, though these are not detailed. He comes back and finds that his girlfriend, Anne, has become a militant pacifist campaigner. There is a very effective description of a pacifist meeting being broken up by “Australian soldiery and miscellaneous roughs.”
Kane and Anne marry, and campaign together, but late in 1918, Anne is arrested on rather specious grounds, and refused bail, despite being heavily pregnant. In a panic. Kane tries to find people who might help her – and there is a paragraph that it would have done Rebecca Lenkiewicz good to ponder before she wrote the sentimental suffragette play that is currently on at the National Theatre:
These people had made no end of a fuss about the treatment accorded to their members in prison, in the days before the war. But the organisation was now devoted to war work, the personnel were in khaki, and the secretary – when she heard the nature of the charge made against Anne – bundled Philip into the street without a moment’s hesitation.
On Armistice Day, things end grimly for the couple and their baby, and the descriptions of general rejoicing are bitterly ironic. The book ends with a Socialist promising that Lenin will bring in a new era of justice and freedom for all the working people of the world – a notion which, ninety years on, generates its own immense irony.
The book is interesting on Vorticists, and gives some picture of pacifist activity during the war, but in the main Goldring shouts his argument, but does not dramatise it. The case against the war is made rhetorically, but never made real.
Soldiers are given the role of victims:
…how honest and decent, by comparison, were the men who were, or had been, at the front of the front. He thought of the victims, to whose cries and groans he had once listened in a London hospital. Those cries rang in his ears at every hour of the day and night.
In The Fortune, Goldring had given a far more candid picture of soldiers, especially the ones stationed in Ireland:
Some of the actions of the troops, which came within Harold’s knowledge, sickened him more than ever of war; and the culprits were not always of the rank and file. There were stories of prisoners “executed” without trial, and for no apparent reason save sheer vindictiveness.
In the pacifist rhetoric of The Black Curtain, all the blame has to go on to the politicians and corrupt journalists. Soldiers are misguided victims; all the civilian populace are fools.
As a novel, this is thin stuff – even though it does venture into a few places where other novelists preferred not to go.