The Feet of the Young Men

At the excellent Stoke conference, someone mentioned the novel The Feet of the Young Men, by Herbert Tremaine. It struck me that this was a book I had never looked at, and should have done.
It was published in 1917, by C. W. Daniel, an interesting firm which printed a mixture of Tolstoyan-pacifist writings, and what might today be called ‘New Age’ material, about spirituality and vegetarianism. In 1918 it would be prosecuted for another novel, Despised and Rejected by ‘A.T.Fitzroy’ (Rose Allatini). The firm kept going, publishing tracts on alternative medicine mostly, until 2004, when it was taken over by Random House.
The Feet of the Young Men (subtitled ‘A Domestic War Novel’) is rather good. It’s about Harry, a young clerk who doesn’t want to become a soldier. He is not a burningly idealistic pacifist – he just feels no connection with the war, and is suspicious of the hysteria of 1914. He sees the marching men, and is scornful:

Well, it was a pose created by the hysteria of the press. Miserable papers overflowed, guttered with gush about ‘Tommy’; what a daredevil he was, what a brick he was, and how all the girls went mad about him, how he loved his cup of tea, how he always wore a smile. The khaki men – clerks, porters, teachers, students – were mesmerised into thinking that they must behave like those fictional Tommies.

Harry keeps out of uniform as long as he can, despite being sacked by his patriotic employer.  In civilian clothes, ‘Harry felt that the citizens were looking at him more than usual and with some contempt and hostility.’ Meanwhile ‘posters glared from the hoardings. Lord Kitchener stared and painted khaki lads shouted ‘Come over and help us.’ Harry suffers the same consciousness of a scornful gaze that D.H.Lawrence felt so bitterly, and records so vividly in the ‘Nightmare’ chapter of Kangaroo.
He starts drinking, and one day, just before conscription is introduced, enlists when drunk. But then his friend comes back from the War, with a V.C. but shattered:

Mostly his nerves, the doctors said. His eyes had a strange frightened look; he sometimes faltered in his speech, but sometimes spoke loudly with a fluent violence. He forgot things. Once Eva had heard a scream when a door was  opened suddenly behind him.

Harry is interested in ideas, reading George Bernard Shaw and similar writers, but his opposition to war is less intellectual than instinctive. When he finally joins the Army, things do not go well.
The book that this one most reminded me of was Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others (1916). The heroine of that also simply wanted to get away from the War. In the end, however, she is drawn into political action. Harry isn’t, although after he has enlisted he hears a speaker from the No-Conscription Fellowship, and realises that this is where he belongs.
It’s a sad novel, and one that casts light on the sort of people who are rarely dealt with in wartime fiction. Well worth reading.

One Comment

  1. Posted June 28, 2009 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    P.S.

    The last chapter of Tremaine’s novel, which includes Harry’s death, is called, with heavily crunching irony, ‘It is a sweet and becoming thing’.

    That’s in 1917, and sets me speculating whether Horace’s tag ‘Dulce et Decorum’ was ever used unironically by 1917. In any case, as this novel shows, Wilfred Owen certainly wasn’t the first to give it a hammering.


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