Nigel Dennis

This is off the subject of the War, but it’s a literary mystery.
I’ve long been a fan of the writer Nigel Dennis, whose novel Cards of Identity was a big success in the fifties. (Last autumn there was a good production of his anti-religious satire The Making of Moo at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond.)
I had heard rumours of an early novel, which he later disowned, and Wikipedia offers this suggestion:

According to a letter published in The Guardian in May 2008: “In the 1930s, Dennis wrote Chalk and Cheese under the pseudonym Richard Vaughan. Legend has it that, before publication, every copy was destroyed in an air raid on a warehouse.”

I found Chalk and Cheese in the Bodleian catalogue, and read it the other day. It is the story of a teenage boy from a school in Africa that has been run on the lines of an English public school, only more so. He is sent to a progressive school in Austria, where he has to cope with many challenges to his preconceptions, the most difficult of which is the presence of girls, since it is a co-educational establishment. This is obviously closely based on Dennis’s own experience, since he was at school in Rhodesia, before being sent to the Odenwaldschule in southern Germany.
The mystery is that the book was published in 1934, when Dennis was only 22. It’s not a bad book, considering, and the main character’s relationship with a girl is rather well done. Their strong mutual attraction can only express itself through bickering.
But there were no air-raids in 1934, and the book was certainly published. As well as the copy that reached the Bodleian, another found its way to the Times Literary Supplement, which gave it a friendly, if slightly condescending review.
So did Dennis, ashamed of his juvenilia, make up the air-raid story? Or had the book sold so poorly that the bulk of the edition was still in the warehouse when WWII broke out?
As I say, it’s not a bad book, so why was Dennis so keen to disown it totally?
One reason might be that after publication it took on a new and unfortunate political meaning.
The book’s villain is a Jew. The hero comes to the new school, and finally adjusts to it, allowing that the progressive system and the Public School system each have virtues, and could learn from each other. The one character he never adjusts to is the clever American Jew, his fellow new-boy. At the book’s climax, he gives this character his come-uppance with a biff on the jaw.
After 1934, Hitler’s rise to power would have made the representation of this character seem obviously anti-Semitic.
Dennis’s aunt was the novelist Phyllis Bottome, who through the late thirties did much to alert the British reading public to the awfulness of what was happening in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. She would surely have made the young novelist aware that his book had the potential to appeal to some pretty nasty people. It may well therefore have become an embarrassment, from which the air-raid provided a merciful release.



  1. Posted July 20, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    The ODNB’s verion of the story is better than Wikipedia’s:
    “From there he moved on, at his uncle’s suggestion, to the Odenwaldschule in Bavaria, a progressive, co-educational establishment at the opposite pole, educationally speaking, to Plumtree and St Andrew’s. Dennis, whose youthful literary ambitions had been expressed in stories contributed to the Boy’s Own Paper (until a hot one from the Odenwaldschule caused the editor to disengage), was very soon writing a novel about this experience. Called Chalk and Cheese, it was published a few years later, in 1934, under the pseudonym Richard Vaughan. Dennis later chose to disown it.”

  2. Posted July 20, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I love all the literary detective work you do in your reading; it’s so interesting to read. Thanks for sharing it on the blog.

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