One of the best bits of news I’ve heard recently is that the ever-excellent Orange Tree Theatre will be presenting Allan Monkhouse’s war play The Conquering Hero later this year. (I read this a while ago andwrote about it. It’s a very strong and complex play, and I’m delighted to have a chance to see it on stage.).
This coming event was in my mind when, leafing through a 1919 magazine looking for something else entirely, I came across a review of Monkhouse’s 1919 novel True Love. The review was not entirely positive, but indicated that the book dealt with wartime, and that much of it was set around a newspaper clearly based on the Manchester Guardian. (Monkhouse, of course, worked on the Guardian for many years, as a reviewer of books and plays).
The Bookfinder website found me a reasonably-priced copy, and I’ve been enjoying it – though with some of the same reservations as that 1919 reviewer.
The career of the book’s hero, Geoffrey Arden, is not unlike Monkhouse’s. He works for the great Manchester newspaper as a reviewer, and also writes plays that are performed by the Repertory Theatre. The first section of the book deals largely with the production of his Alice Dean, (which is maybe a bit like Monkhouse’s own Mary Broome).
There is an element of roman à clef to the descriptions of the paper’s personnel. The Herald is definitely The Guardian. Lindsay, the editor, is presumably C.P. Scott and the slightly aloof Secretan I take to be C. E. Montague, whose satire on journalism A Hind Let Loose set the standard high for a generation of Manchester writers. But who is Round? Who is Burke? Who is Attar? Who is Imalian? Perhaps I’ll try to find out.
The keynote of the paper’s community is intellectual rivalry:
And always there was the close, not unfriendly, but real, persistent criticism of one’s colleagues. In the early days he had found the idea of this vastly exhilarating. [….] They played at being prigs. Never was such a set of boys. They were boys even when they verged on middle-age, and they would write like boys. It came of the inspiration of the great Secretan, who was an article of religion in the office, and of a religion unstaled. His ideals were austere, and he made fun with
a charming buoyancy. Of course he was a scholar and brilliance was mated with experience. He worked in politics without being precisely a politician.
A good deal of intellectual ragging went on amongst them all, with perhaps the exception of Secretan, who had always wit enough to extricate himself from the claims that might trespass upon his precious reserve. He was immensely generous and profoundly critical. He kept himself in a timid, arrogant seclusion, and you could imagine or you couldn’t what an overwhelming thing his friendship must be. Once he had startled Arden by saying that a writer should be able to perceive a distinct improvement in his style every six months ; perhaps Arden had added the word “distinct” himself, for to Secretan it would be redundant.
The novel gives a picture of the Guardian‘s reception in Manchester in August 1914, when it moved from strong advocacy of peace attempts to a measured support for the War. (‘England declared war on Germany at eleven o’clock last night. All controversy is now at an end. Our front is united,’ the paper announced on August 5th.) Monkhouse shows Manchester businessmen in a club berating the ‘radical rag’, despite this change in attitude, for lack of patriotism, and even accusing it of treason:
A stranger, intervening, wished to know whether a majority of the [paper’s] shares were not held by Germans, and whether the leaders were not written by men of German extraction. ” Don’t answer the fool,” said Burke, but the man kept reiterating : “Is that the case ?” Attar said, “I can assure you, sir, that several drunken men have said so.”
Arden has to defend himself from patriots like these, and also from pacifists like his sister, to whom war was a ‘monstrous wickedness, an evil to be resisted on all occasions and at all costs.’
Monkhouse presents Geoffrey as suffering the ‘unhappiness of perpetual and alternative opposition.’ For him:
It seemed that the world was divided into the warlike and the pacific, and there was no room for those of the middle way. They seemed to be weak even while they held strongly to what they could perceive of reason and justice.
He decides to enlist, but fails the medical. He then has an operation to make him fit for recruitment (though the novel is vague about this, as well as some other practicalities; we never know exactly which part of him is operated on – or at least I couldn’t work it out.)
The complication with his becoming a soldier is that he has fallen in love with an actress called Sibyl, a young woman who declares herself to be of German extraction. The scenes where they talk through their dilemmas are among the most interesting in the book. She agrees that Britain is in the right, but cannot disown her German heritage; he feels the duty to fight against the German army, but insists that he will not be fighting against the German people (a fine and precarious distinction).
During their honeymoon, the newspaper brings news of the sinking of the Lusitania, an atrocity that puts more strain on their relationship:
She read, and looked blankly at Geoffrey over the top of the paper, read again and laid it down.
” Perhaps it is not true,” she said.
” Let us hope so.”
” Geoffrey, do you feel any resentment towards me?”
“You?” he cried.
“That’s what I think of first. It isn’t all these poor people children, babies. That’s far away. I only feel it bluntly yet. It’s you and me. Have we made an awful mistake? Are you thinking she’s a German? Because I am. It’s my people who have done this. Tell me what you feel. No, don’t come near me just yet.”
Their anguished relationship continues by letter when he is sent out to France. He is upset to learn, not from her, that her German origins are causing her to be badly treated back in England. The story comes to a decisive end, but its conflicts and issues are not resolved.
As a glimpse of history, the book is very interesting, because of the picture it gives of the Manchester theatrical and journalistic worlds. As a novel it is less satisfactory. Its issues are debated at considerable length, but are not fully dramatised. It is not even very clear just what the anti-German bullying that upsets Sibyl consists of. One senses that Monkhouse was more interested in working through some of his own confused feelings about the War than in doing the novelist’s basic job of creating a set of fully believable and interacting characters.
By 1923 and The Conquering Hero he was able to take a firmer grip on the questions raised by the War, and to produce a piece that was less wordy and more challenging.