The Peculiar Major

Alan Hewer of Great War Dust Jackets alerted me to this  intriguing title, so I thought I’d take a look at the book, which is very definitely a curiosity.

The Major’s peculiarity is that he becomes invisible – not in the normal way that senior officers often disappeared from the trenches when times got rough, but because of a magic ring he bought in a Turkish market. When he puts the ring on his finger, he becomes utterly invisoble, clothes and all.

One reason I wanted to look at this book was that it was billed as having an introductory letter by H.G.Wells.  Unfortunately, this is not a testimonial to the book’s value, but simply a reply to aletter from Howard, who was anxious that Wells might consider this tale of a disappearing soldier to be a plagiarism of The Invisible Man. Wells generously replied that it could be no such thing, because his hero was technically not invisible, but transparent, a condition caused by science, not magic. Therefore he wished Howard luck.

The major starts off as a soldier in the Middle East, and discovers the power of the ring when he slips it on absent-mindedly, and is surprised to see his servant coming blithely into the room and stealing his whisky, as though he were not there. He tests out his powers, and then determines to tell his C.O. about what could be a war-winning weapon. In rather a good chapter, the C.O. hears his explanation, declines to see a demonstration, and arranges for the Major to have a good long home leave on medical grounds.

The Major goes back to England, and the long middle of the book, which I mostly skipped, is about rather predictable farcical consequences of the magic power. The tone has something in common with Alf’s Button, written at about the same time.

The book’s climax happens when the Major is on a boat intercepted by a  German submarine. He has a fight with a German officer, and travels (invisibly) in the sub to Kiel, where the War is just ending.  The Kaiser is fleeing, and the Major pursues him, ready to give him the execution he so richly deserves.  The Emperor he finds, however, is a broken man, fleeing his army. He has considered suicide but:

I can’t do it, and I’ll tell you why. I’m not afraid of the pain of death, and I have nothing more to lose on this earth. But what comes next? That is what I can’t face! I have seen them in my dreams – young women with babies at their breasts, white-haired old people, little children with golden curls and blue eyes, mutilated men who could not raise a finger to save themselves – I have seen them in one great cloud – a great cloud of faces peering down on me – accusing, shrieking, pointing!

The major’s fingers clutch the loaded pistol in his pocket, but

I only know that it was a sheer impossibility for me to fire a bullet into that quivering, tortured, helpless figure, abandoned by humanity – and by God.

I wonder if anyone has researched representations of the Kaiser in WW1 literature. This is a prize example, and very different from, for example, the portrayals in Alf’s Button (original version) or in Bernard Shaw’s The Emperor and the Little Girl.

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 21, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    WACKY. I need to read this book, clearly.

  2. Posted July 21, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Victoria – you’ll definitely enjoy it. I didn’t even mention the love triangle. Two girls crazy for an invisible man.

  3. The Shadow
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Time for a reprint, methinks! I’ll have to look for this. As for the Kaiser, how about Buchan’s surprisingly sympathetic portrayal in GREENMANTLE?

  4. Posted July 21, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Good suggestion, Shadow. Yes, there’s definitely at least a conference paper in this idea.

  5. Roger
    Posted December 13, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Buchan in Greenmantle and Kipling in his poem A Death Bed both depict the Kaiser in the same way as Howard.


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