‘Defeat’ in Scribner’s

Thanks to Jane Stemp for pointing out that the copy of Scribner’s Magazine containing Galsworthy’s short story ‘Defeat’ is online as part of  Brown University’s Modernist Journals Project.

Galsworthy wrote ‘Defeat’ (originally as a one-act play, I think) in 1916, but it was not published in Britain till after the War. I had always assumed that he kept this ambiguous fable back during wartime out of an unwillingness to rock the boat. But since he was clearly willing to have it appear in Scribner’s (and as the prominently placed lead story), I now wonder whether it wasn’t nervousness on the part of British magazines that kept it in abeyance.

The story was a tricky one for editors on two counts. The first is that the central character is a German, portrayed sympathetically; the second is that she is a prostitute, plying her trade on the streets of wartime London.

Purity campaigners like James Douglas had done for Lawrence’s The Rainbow in 1915, and would attack Bennet’s The Pretty Lady in 1919. Magazines like  Nash’s (Galsworthy’s usual outlet at this time) would not want Douglas and his religious friends raising a stink against them. Scribner’s, clearly, was more broad-minded.

In Scribner’s, the tale was illustrated by Reginald Birch. This picture shows the meeting between the two central characters, who have both just attended a concert of classical music (‘ Women of her profession are not supposed to have redeeming points, especially when—like May Belinski, as she now preferred to dub herself—they are German; but this woman certainly had music in her soul.’)

She can’t prevent a tear, which is noticed by a young man, ‘Captain in a certain regiment, and discharged from hospital at six o’clock that evening’; he is made sympathetic by the music he has heard:

Still rather brittle and sore from his wound, he had treated himself to a seat in the Grand Circle, and there had sat, very still and dreamy, the whole concert through[….] With a month’s leave before him, he could afford to feel that life was extraordinarily joyful, his own experiences particularly wonderful; and, coming out into the moonlight, he had taken what can only be described as a great gulp of it, for he was a young man with a sense of beauty. When one has been long in the trenches, lain out wounded in a shell-hole twenty-four hours, and spent three months in hospital, beauty has such an edge of novelty, such a sharp sweetness, that it almost gives pain. And London at night is very beautiful. He strolled slowly towards the Circus, still drawing the moonlight deep into his [Pg 31]lungs, his cap tilted up a little on his forehead in that moment of unmilitary abandonment; and whether he stopped before the book-shop window because the girl’s figure was in some sort a part of beauty, or because he saw that she was crying, he could not have made clear to any one.

The shared feeling for music draws them together, and their capacity for feeling means that they can make human (though not sexual) contact despite the difference of nationalities. In the end, though, the capacity for feeling is what pulls them apart. Neither can resist the pull of patriotism.
Here is the woman at the end of the story. She has torn up the man’s money, and he has walked out: ‘She who did not care—who despised all peoples, even her own—began, mechanically, to sweep together the scattered fragments of the notes, assembling them with the dust into a little pile, as of fallen leaves, and dabbling in it with her fingers, while the tears ran down her cheeks. For her country she had torn them, her country in defeat! She, who had just one shilling in this great town of enemies, who wrung her stealthy living out of the embraces of her foes! And suddenly in the moonlight she sat up and began to sing with all her might—”Die Wacht am Rhein.”‘

It’s a very good story.


  1. Jane Stemp
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    I never checked the illustrator when I looked at the article, but I had come across Reginald Birch before: he illustrated several of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books. From Galsworthy to Little Lord Fauntleroy, quite a leap…

  2. Posted July 27, 2015 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    This helped me a lot. Thanks. ^^

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