(Book covers courtesy of Alan Hewer’s excellent Great War Dust Jackets site)
In a recent post on Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady, I quoted the 1917 parliamentary debate on prostitution and its effect of the soldiers. During this, Col Sir Hamar Greenwood reflected on the scandal of seven thousand ‘clean Canadian boys’ needing venereal treatment after a stay in England:
During a recent visit to the Dominion I met many fathers and mothers whose boys had been sent back to Canada debilitated and ruined for life because they had been enmeshed by some of the harpies who are still allowed to go very near the camps, and especially in this great Metropolis, and again and again these parents have said to me, ‘We do not mind our boys dying on the field of battle for old England, but to think that we sent our sons to England to come back to us ruined in health, and a disgrace to us, to them, and to the country, is something that the Home Country should never ask us to bear.
Brian Busby has kindly sent me in the direction of a 1929 novel by Peregrine Acland All Else is Folly, which presents the relations between a Canadian soldier and the ladies he meets in London in a more nuanced light. The novel’s hero (whose name, Falcon, hints at his similarities with Peregrine Acland himself) is home on leave after a difficult time in France. The woman he loves keeps her distance from him because her husband, though a drunken bully, is a prisoner in Germany, and she feels the obligation to be faithful until he returns. Falcon goes to a musical comedy, but feels it inane: ‘To go through all those months in the trenches – for this!’
He walks out, and heads for the Prince Rupert Lounge, where ‘most of the women wore too much make-up… But not much more than their non-professional sisters’. Myra has just snubbed a young English subaltern with an obviously high opinion of himself, but her eyes twinkle at Falcon. (Most of the women in the novel are instantly attracted by the hero, which makes one suspect that autobiography here is tinged with a big dose of fantasy.)
They go to her flat, and Myra turns out to be a Russian ex-art student whose lover has been killed. She surprises Alec by ‘the bitterness of her passion against war.’ She says, ‘ I am young, I am full of vitality. I don’t know that I could use it better than by giving a few hours of pleasure to some officer home, tired, from the trenches.’
She certainly gives Falcon pleasure, and Acland lapses into poeticism when he describes the pleasure that Falcon gives her:
Mutely, she told of the rhythm that sways the vast slow-moving seas.
Fiercely she showed him the fire that whirls the stars in their courses.
Limply she lay when the last wave of passion had burst like a breaker assaulting a cliff, ascending to heaven… falling.
Rather better written is a short scene when she refuses money from Falcon but he insists and starts peeling notes from a roll.
Myra laughed at him.
‘The more you hurry, the slower you are,’ she said – ‘and you trying to catch a train. Here, give them to me. My fingers are quick.’
Too quick, thought Alec, as he watched her dextrously strip off not five notes, but eight…
That, I reckon, is a little anecdote based on personal experience.
The episode with Myra redeems an otherwise unsatisfactory leave, before Falcon goes back to France, and the Battle of the Somme, his part in which is described in some of the very best chapters of war writing that I have come across – clear, credible and truly gripping.
Another Canadian novel that features a relationship with a London prostitute is Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed (1930) a book that is mostly devoted to making clear the brutality of combat.
As in Acland’s novel, there is a brief period of respite in London. The hero is taking a solitary meal in a restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, when a pretty girl asks him for a match. (In some future age there will be thesis written on the effect of our recent smoking ban on mating rituals.) They leave together, and go to the Hippodrome, where he is disgusted by the revue (and the ‘fifty girls in gauzy khaki stage uniforms’ singing ‘Oh it’s a lovely war’). ‘These people have no right to laugh,’ he says. There are soldiers there enjoying the show, but according to Davidson, they are all non-combatants – Ordnance Corps, Pay Corps and so on.
Gladys takes the (unnamed) soldier home, and he likes her so much that he arranges to stay with her for all of his ten days leave. It turns out that that is what most of her ‘boys’ do. As well as providing sex she comforts him, for example when the backfiring of a motorcycle panics him:
She puts her hands on my face and looks anxiously at me.
I try to laugh.
The intimacy between the two is well-described. He asks if she is happy, and:
Her body made a friendly, conscious movement. It is one of the many ways that lovers speak without words.
‘In a dozen different ways she makes me happy,’ says the narrator. ‘She is that delightful combination of wife, mother and courtesan – and I, a common soldier on leave, have her!
Both Acland and Harrison were writing a decade after the event, and these episodes in their novels may be tinged by nostalgia for cuddles past. What each of them does, though, is to present both the soldier and the prostitute as complicated human beings, linked by more than the sordid sex-and-money connection which is all that the parliamentary moralists were able to imagine.