Siegfried Sassoon’s Sherston trilogy more or less single-handedly invented the idea of the Great War as the catastrophic disruption of an idyllic Edwardian age. Pretty well all previous fiction of the twenties sees things quite differently, with the pre-war period as troubled and conflicted, and the War, though terrible, offering the potential, sometimes not realised, of a cure for national disunity.
I’m re-reading Memoirs of an Infantry Officer at the moment, and have been struck by the memories of placid rural England that come back to Sherston in ironic contrast while the Battle of the Somme is raging:
And the thought of the cook suggested the gardener clumping in with a trug of vegetables, and the gardener suggested birds in the strawberry-nets, and altogether there was no definite end to that sort of day dream of an England where there was no war on and the village cricket ground was still being mown by a man who didn’t know that he would some day join ‘the Buffs’, migrate to Mesopotamia, and march to Bagdad.
The vision of England here is an idyll seen from above. All of these contented members of the lower orders are staff, efficiently going about their useful business of providing young Sherston with his dinner, and strawberries and cricket pitch. A paternalist vision of social harmony.
What jars with this is the fact that during the Battle of the Somme Sherston is reading Hardy – first Tess of the D’Urbevilles, and then The Return of the Native. Now I can definitely believe in Sassoon himself reading Hardy at this time; many of his poems of the period are satires of circumstance, showing up war’s little (and large) ironies. But his fictional alter ego Sherston is a far less sophisticated character, and this reading matter jars oddly with his simple nostalgia for strawberries and cricket. Does any novel in English show more clearly than Tess of the D’Urbevilles the grim awfulness of rural life? Think of the chapter where the heroine is hacking turnips out of the frozen ground. A long way from the cosy image of the gardener’s trug of vegetables.
In the Sherston novels Sassoon is giving his own wartime experiences to a character very unlike himself (non-literary, non-Jewish, non-homosexual) but there are places where it doesn’t quite work, and this use of Hardy is one of them. If we readers really remember the Hardy novels, we are likely to think not of the contrast between war and rural peace, so much as the continuity of cruelty though both peace and war.