Since I’ve been re-reading E.W.Hornung, I thought I might as well take a look at his war memoirs. Born in 1866, he was too old to be a soldier, but volunteered for the YMCA. His 1919 book Notes of a Camp Follower on the Western Front recounts his experiences, and there is a chapter about the library he kept for the soldiers, and his record of the soldiers’ reading habits.
He singles out The First Hundred Thousand as the most popular book – “our four copies… were out almost as long as we were open, and all four ‘failed to return’.”
The success of this and its sequel
was the more noteworthy in view of the fighting reader’s distaste for ‘shop.’ It was the flattering exception to a very human rule; for I find, taking a good many days at random, that while all but thirteen of every hundred issues were novels, less than three of thirteen were books about the war. Some forty-nine readers out of fifty wanted something that would take them out of khaki, and nearly nine out of ten pinned their faith on fiction.
Hornung is pleased that “the older masters” of fiction held their own. A Tale of Two Cities was the most popular Dickens, followed by Pickwick. Charles Reade’s It’s Never Too Late to Mend, he says, “enchanted a Sapper, a machine Gunner, and a Red Cross Man in turn.” (As well it might. If you’ve never read it, give yourself a treat. The first half is a stunning prison melodrama, and then the second half, set in Australia, invents many of the situiations that would be developed in the twentioeth century’s westerns.) Stevenson, Kipling and Haggard were also popular.
Of modern authors, Wells was popular, but less so than Charles Garvice, “who in his turn succumbed to the lady styled the Baroness Horsey by her fondest slaves.”
I’ve not read any Garvice, but I’m intrigued by Hornung’s description of
a soldier with Just a Girl in his ruthless hand, and The One Girl in the World on his trembling tongue. The man might have been performing prodigies of valour up the Line, but his soul had been on leave with a lady in marble halls.
There’s a nice description of an elderly stretcher-bearer whose taste was generally for elevated non-fiction, but who, having become friends with Hornung, asked for Raffles.
I seemed to detect a streak of filial piety in the departure, and gave him as fair warning as I could; but only the book itself could put him off. He returned it without a word to temper his forgiving smile, and took out The Golden Treasury as a restorative.