When John Galsworthy is remembered now it is as the chronicler of upper-middle classes in The Forsyte Saga. His reputation among modern readers, I think, is as the provider of a superior soap opera, perceptive and well-written, but essentially not very challenging. His posthumous reputation certainly hasn’t lived up to the expectations of 1929.
There was another Galsworthy, who wrote rather wild satirical fantasies, and the Great War seems to have encouraged this Galsworthy at the expense of the other. I wrote a while back about his 1917 farce, Foundations, which imagined a post-war Britain riven by class conflict, and I have just been reading The Burning Spear, a book so little known that it does not appear in many standard lists of Galsworthy’s works, such as the one on Wikipedia. I have seen this novel ascribed to 1918, but the British Library and the Bodleian both list the first edition as 1919. Maybe there was an earlier serialisation?
The first printings of the book were anonymous; it was presented to the public as:
The Burning Spear, the Experiences of Mr. John Lavender in Time of War recorded by A.R. P—m
I’m flummoxed by those initials. Do they have a significance that contemporary readers would have chuckled over?
The book is a rollicking modernisation of Don Quixote. Where Cervantes’ hero believed in the truth of the romances, Galsworthy’s hero, Mr Lavender, is an elderly man who believes everything that he reads in the newspapers. Inspired by wartime editorials, he decides to become a public figure, and sets off with his valet Joe (down-to-earth as Sancho Panza) to lecture the populace on the need to support the War effort.
The absurd pair travel in an equally absurd car, one that has been converted to run on coal gas (see picture above). These were briefly publicised in 1917 as a way of conserving petrol supplies, and kept the gas in a huge bag attached to the roof of the car. I’d have thought the idea was lethally explosive. Mr Lavender’s car doesn’t explode, but is pursued by small boys, who throw stones at its ‘billowing bag’.
The lecture tour is predictably disastrous. As in Cervantes, the high ideals are undercut by humiliating pratfalls; Mr Lavender keeps on falling out of windows, and into ponds. In an imitation of Cervantes’ windmill episode, Mr L goes off to preach to farmers about doing their best for the war effort, and is disconcerted later to find that he has short-sightedly been preaching to scarecrows.
This physical humour never rises much above the obvious, but Galsworthy has an excellent ear for wartime cliché. Mr Lavender orates that British freedom can only be protected by the regulation of everything, and insists that every able-bodied man should be at the front, though none should be taken away from industry or agriculture.
Poor Mr Lavender comes to realise the difference between being a public man and being a man. As a public man, he feels it his duty to go and disrupt a peace meeting. He does so by standing to make a polite speech. When some roughs come in and start beating up the pacifists, he finds that his human sympathies are with those that as a public-spirited man he had denounced. Life gets complicated, and he finds it more and more difficult to be a responsible public man, starving German prisoners and lecturing the wounded to have a positive attitude.
In one chapter where he recalls the diatribes of novelists and bishops against the prostitutes that are exploiting soldiers (He is presumably thinking of the campaign by Conan Doyle and others that Arnold Bennett also signified his opposition to.) Going down a shady street, he sees a woman whom he assumes to be a lady of the night, and preaches vehemently to her, declaring dramatically that rather than soil some innocent young soldier, she should, if she must have prey, take him instead:
Madam… you must have perceived by now that I am, alas! not privileged by age to be one of the defenders of my country; and though I am prepared to yield to you, if by so doing I can save some young hero from his fate, I wish you to clearly understand that only my sense of duty as a public man would induce me to do any such thing.
She turns out, of course, to be a respectable lady.
The book is the sort of topical humour that has dated somewhat over ninety years, but it has its moments, and Galsworthy comes out strongly against the propagandists (Bottomley is name-checked a few times) who are using the War to stir up emotions for their own ends.
It’s clearly written during the War, but I’d like to know whether it was published while the conflict was still going on, or whether Galsworthy kept it from the public while he might have been accused of hindering the War effort.