Arnold Bennett’s ‘The White Feather’

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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?

9 Comments

  1. Posted March 5, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Bennett’s story sounds fascinating. Nosheen Khan argues (in Women’s Poetry of the First World War) that Bennett and his like are being attacked by Helen Hamilton in her poem ‘The Old Man Rampant’: “all raging dotards… chattering, senile folly” should “go, this very day, straight to the front.” Is Khan justified in assuming that Bennett might be the target of this kind of attack?

    Hamilton also writes a white feather poem, ‘The Jingo-Woman’, denouncing ‘dealer[s] in white feathers’ as self-appointed insulters who ‘shame us women’.

  2. Posted March 5, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I’d have thought that there were much better candidates than Bennett for the title of “raging dotard”. The Bishop of London, for example, who told soldiers to kill all Germans, including children.
    This story is a plea for sensible, rather than excessive, war enthusiasm.
    I haven’t read Nosheen Khan, but I wonder whether she is being led astray by the fact that Bennett was associated with Wellington House and the Ministry of Information. Like most people of the time, he fully supported the War effort, while being aware of its cost. His portrayal of the traumatised soldier in “The Pretty Lady” is very far from being unthinking pro-war propaganda.

  3. Posted March 5, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I’ve now found the Nosheen Khan reference (thanks to Google Books). She classes Bennett among the utterers of “chattering, senile folly” on the basis of a journal entry in which he wonders why “young men idling in the lanes on Sunday” are not at war.
    It is a question that Bennett himself answers in another journal entry (Aug 29th). He tells the story of Mrs Wood, a parson’s wife who told a young man he should enlist. “As parson’s wife and familiar with the village, she knew or ought to have known that the young man has a widowed mother depending on him. Mrs Wood is a very decent woman, and that she should have said such a thing shows how far the feeling of the middle classes will carry them.”
    What makes Bennett a very good realist novelist is that he always has a firm grasp on the economic realities of his characters’ lives. In this anecdote, and in the White Feather story, he is showing how financial family responsibilities prevent men from doing what their ideals might inspire them to do. In my book, he’s definitely not a “raging dotard”.

  4. Posted March 6, 2009 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    This from Ronald Blythe’s ‘The Age of Illusion: Some Glimpses of Britain Between the Wars 1919-1940’:

    The Haig-Llloyd George relationship was based less on mutual distrust than on total incomprehension of each other’s natures. After Passchendaele the Prime Minister began to withhold the reserves, fearing that if they crossed the Channel they would be wasted by Haig. There was a noticeable decline in the recruiting figures and an obvious reticence among males to march singing into the insatiable Flanders bog. This produced a strong resentment among the newly emancipated women against any man who, although legally exempted by the National Service Act of 1915 from military service because he was essential to war industry, still did not volunteer. A white feather in a game-brid’s tail was a sign of inferior breeding in sporting circles and the symbol had been given a wider application in 1902 with the publication of A.E.W.Mason’s popular novel ‘The Four Feathers’. Between the numbing effects of Passchendaele and Lloyd George’s miraculous fillip the streets were regularly prowled by women with handbags stuffed with feathers which they thrust into the lapel of any man still out of uniform and not actually on crutches. There was, too, a note of undisguised accusation in the song ‘We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go…’
    Ronald Blythe ‘The Age of Illusion: Some Glimpses of Britain Between the Wars 1919-1940’ (Oxford: OUP, 1983), P.5.

  5. Posted March 6, 2009 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Blythe’s comment, that after Passchendaele “There was a noticeable decline in the recruiting figures” does not make any sense. Conscription had been introduced a year earlier, and so voluntary enlistment was a thing of the past. There was indeed a drop in men entering the Army, I think, but that was because the available pool of manpower was drying up.
    I’m not sure that he has got it right about white feathers, either. 1914 seems to have been the peak time for white feathers, though doubtless the custom continued on a smaller scale in later years.
    Many men in reserved occupations, and those who had attested but had not been called up yet wore armbands to show that they were not shirkers.

  6. Sebastian Field
    Posted March 6, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re right, George, on both points. The passage caught my eye because I have been following your discussion of the White Feather phenomenon, and it seemed to me as I read that both assertions were pretty dubious (even with my limited knowledge). I’ve found the book enjoyable so far, but have to say that the first chapter did seem a bit overblown and flowery – those dubious assertions above are symptomatic of a general problem with the opening chapter. I’ll let you know how the rest of it is.

  7. Jess Owen
    Posted March 29, 2009 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    I have a feeling that Bennett’s short story was first published in the Saturday Westminster. Sept 19, 1914 pp. 13-4,then reprinted by Colliers.

  8. Posted March 29, 2009 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks very much for that information. British publication suits my thesis much better!

  9. Jess Owen
    Posted March 29, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it makes more sense for it to have originated in England. But you touch on an interesting point. Bonar Thompson “a professional agitator” according to a police report, has an account of ‘white featherism’ from the recipients point of view in his “Hyde Park Orator”.

    I wonder whether Bennett’s story had an influence in spreading the phenomena.

    It is, of couse, tied in with the whole question of recruiting, which,I have argued elsewhere,

    [http://groups.google.com/group/ww1lit/browse_thread/thread/fc5c4b3b1ea62c1a]

    was a far more complex issue than we are often led to believe.

    One recent publication, A.Gregory, “The Last Great War” has some interesting thoughts on this.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2009/03/04/arnlod-bennetts-the-white-feather/ […]

  2. […] once he had revealed he was a soldier. Stories in women’s magazines played on this trope, offeringfictional tales of white feather girls  whose “pluck” brought them into the arms of a heroic VC.  As music hall stars sang […]

  3. […] A Sketch of English Recruiting,” Collier’s Weekly (U.S.), Oct. 10, 1914. Thanks to George Simmer at Great War Fiction. Here’s an essay by George Simmer on white feather […]

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