At the weekend I was chatting on the phone with John Shapcott, who is organising the upcoming Arnold Bennett conference in Stoke, which looks as though it will be excellent. He made a passing reference to a story by Bennett called The White Feather. I have made a small collection of white feather stories, but I had never heard of this one. It turns out to be in Collier’s Weekly (an American magazine) for October 10th, 1914.
Today I called up the late 1914 issues of the magazine from the deep cellars of the Bodleian Library. They make for interesting reading. There is plenty of analysis of the war, most of it highly favourable to the Allied side, and condemnatory of German behaviour in Belgium.
The Bennett story, The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting, begins: “This is a true story, for the essential facts of which I vouch. The final spectacular incident has not yet actually happened, but it may happen at any moment on a fine day.”
The hero, Cedric Rollinson, is a twenty-nine year old making his career in manufacturing; he is a responsible man with a wife and children. When war breaks out, his company posts a notice saying that any employee joining the colours will have his place kept open, while the company will pay his family the difference between his soldier’s pay and his salary from the company.
Inspired by this, Rollinson hesitantly tells his wife that he is thinking of offering himself as an officer. Used to dealing with workmen, he reckons that he has skills the country needs.
[H]is wife startled him by answering seriously:
I’ve been wondering about it too, dearest.
In a moment they both knew that the matter was decided. He must go…. His wife cried and started to prepare things for him.
He has contacts who will vouch for him, and his application seems to be going well. Then he speaks to Mr Hawker Maffick, a director of the firm. Maffick and his friends at the club, Bennett tells us, had recently “amused themselves immensely of late by concocting messages to ‘shirkers’ and advertising them in the Agony columns of the ‘Times’ and the ‘Morning Post’/ Hawker’s own contribution to the solemn patriotic gayety had been as follows: ‘Cotton wool and glass case will be provided free of charge to any young man who does not feel equal to joining the army.'”
The patriotic Maffick, however, gives Rollison’s suggestion a chilly reception. The firm is willing to make up the pay of manual workers, but not of a manager whose salary is considerably more. He also weasels out of keeping a management position open till after the war.
If Rollinson enlisted, therefore, his family would face hardship.
He had to choose between his country and his wife and family, and he chose.
“Very well, sir,” he said, “I must stay here.”
That evening, on the way home, three smartly dressed girls bar his way. One stuffs a white feather into his waistcoat.
“That’s all you’re short of, you coward. Why don’t you enlist?”
And off the trio went laughing. This was the latest sport of bright and pretty creatures in London.
Bennett’s story is very typical of the white feather tales written at this time. The man wants to enlist, and the women who assume he does not are mistaken and insensitive. Like other authors of the time, Bennett is trying to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate war enthusiasm. Those who go in for easy gestures (the newspaper advertisements, the white feather) are shown up as shallow in comparison with those willing to make real sacrifices.
One reference that puzzled me slightly was when Bennett says that Mr Hawker Maffick was “a member of the august family of Maffick, some of whose characteristics have already been set forth by Mr H.G.Wells.” A bit of research suggests that Bennett is referring to Wells’s pamphlet The War to End War, which condemns those who enthuse about the war, and then make a profit from it – for example by cornering supplies of food:
Lord Maffick, emulating Mr. and Mrs. Maffick, swept his district clean of flour ; let the thing go down to history. Lord Maffick now explains that he bought it to distribute among his poorer neighbours that is going to be the stock excuse of these people but that sort of buying is just exactly as bad for prices as buying for Lord Maffick’s personal interior. The sooner that flour gets out of the houses of Lord Maffick and Horatio Maffick, Esquire, and young Mr. Maffick and the rest of them, and into the houses of their poorer neighbours, the better for them and the country. The greatest danger to England at the present time is neither the German army nor the German fleet, but this morally rotten section of our community. Now it is no use scolding these people. It is no use appealing to their honour and patriotism. Honour they have none, and their idea of patriotism is to ” tax the foreigner,” wave Union Jacks, and clamour for … universal compulsory service.
“Mafficking”, of course, had been a derogatory term for excessive patriotic behaviour ever since the riotous celebratory scenes that greeted the relief of Mafeking in May 1900.
Another thing that puzzled me more. Clearly this story was written as a message to England. So why is it in an American magazine? Or was there a British publication too?