Alan Hollinghurst and Ben Elton are not writers with a huge amount in common. Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011) is a subtle and canny analysis of ambiguous relationships and of the processes by which literary reputations are made and unmade; Elton’s 2005 novel The First Casualty (which I have just read) is a fast-moving and utterly implausible detective thriller, which doesn’t have one subtle phrase in all its 444 pages. (It’s a roller-coaster read, though – you’ll probably enjoy it, unless you’re terminally allergic to historical inaccuracy.)
What the two books have in common is that both are about the death of a poet obviously based on Rupert Brooke, and about the repercussions of that death.
In The Stranger’s Child, the dazzlingly aristocratic Cecil Valance is killed in battle in July 1916, leaving behind a legend that is maybe more impressive than his verse. Succeeding generations re-define Valance and rewrite his story. War hero, symbol of reaction, gay icon; these are the characters that different people find in his story, and what they find reveals a great deal about each of them. The Great War is an event whose meaning is unstable, always changing.
In Ben Elton’s book, the War has only one meaning. It is horrible and it is futile. A series of opinionated characters tell us so at some length, and no counter-argument is offered. The first chapter sets the tone; it shows a soldier, weighted down by his equipment, sinking and drowning in the mud of Passchendaele. That image sums up the War, and any character in the book who thinks otherwise is either a fool or a fraud.
(I warn you – the book is a detective story, and in discussing it I shall reveal some of its surprises. So if you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now.)
The main character is Douglas Kingsley, a police inspector who has worked for Special Branch in the past. At the start of the book, he is on trial for refusing to be conscripted. (The implausibilities start here. Wouldn’t police inspector have counted as a reserved occupation? And why is it a criminal court rather than a tribunal?) He has decided that the War is illogical and refuses to fight. The spectators in the courtroom sneer at him as a coward and a traitor.
He is imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs, where there are no other conscientious objectors. (Elton clearly does not know Allan M.Laing’s Carols of a Convict, written in the Scrubs: ‘D’ye ken the Scrubs where, far from gay,/ So many C.O.s were hidden away,/ Where they hardly saw the light of day/ As they sprang from their beds in the morning.’) Everyone on the prison despises him as a conchie, and many of the prisoners have a grudge against him as a policeman. He is horribly beaten up.
Meanwhile, in France, Viscount Abercrombie has been murdered. He is a junior officer, and a poet of the Rupert Brooke type (In case we don’t get the point, his most famous poem is called ‘Forever England’.) Just one death among the thousands, but his influential friends want the matter properly investigated. With extreme implausibility, Kingsley is smuggled out of prison and sent to the Front to investigate.
Eager to interview witnesses before the War kills them, he pursues them on a night raid in No Man’s Land, and out over the top in a massed assault. The part where spends time during a trench raid, chopping open a German to find a bullet that might be a clue, is especially ludicrous.
As a detective puzzle it is not very puzzling. Ben Elton’s political correctness is famous, so an alert reader knows that the murderer will hardly be the gay man or the suffragette or the working class socialist. The only other character introduced to us in enough detail to be a satisfying suspect is an officer of outstanding nastiness, and yes, he indeed turns out to be the killer.
What is interesting is his motive. Like Hollinghurst’s Cecil Valance, Abercrombie has moved on from writing patriotic verse. The experience of war has disillusioned him. He has written poems of protest, and is considering a public statement of protest, like Siegfried Sassoon. The nasty officer murders him to prevent him from doing so.
Hollinghurst only tantalises us with the existence of Valance’s disillusioned poetry. Various characters hunt for the manuscripts, but they remain only a possibility. Elton is braver, and gives us a few of Abercrombie’s lines (‘Young men bent double, coughing like hags’) that suggest he has been strongly influenced by the poems that Wilfred Owen would write a little later.
The murderer explains his motive:
This was a man […] who could do far more damage to morale than working class Socialists [….] could ever do. They had always been against the war. Abercrombie, like Sassoon, had been turned against it, which is far more corrosive.
Abercrombie is murdered, therefore, to prevent the publication of his statement declaring his opposition to the war effort and the resignation of his commission. He had written this, apparently in a letter to the Times. Elton seems to be under the impression that Sassoons’ statement had also been sent to the Times and published there. The Times is not, however, on the list of people and publications listed in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s Sassoon biography as recipients of the statement. Of these only the Bradford Pioneer published the text of the statement before it was read out in the Commons by H.B. Lees-Smith. The Times was among twelve journals who reported the parliamentary speech (of these only the Herald and the Labour Leader referred to it favourably).
I should like to discover just how much public debate was generated by Sassoon’s statement; I suspect not very much – partly because the Under-Secretary for War had made it clear in his response to Lees-Smith that the brave young officer who wrote it was now hospitalised with shell-shock.
Sassoon’s statement has been very influential in the years since it was brought to public attention again in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, but at the time it seems to have had little impact. (One interesting response, though, is Warwick Deeping’s novel, Valour, published 1919). To prevent a second such statement seems a thin motive for murder.
Both Hollinghurst and Elton imagine a Brooke figure who recants and reforms; one who begins by preaching ignorant idealism and ends up expressing a horror at the conflict that seems appropriate to twenty-first century readers who know their Wilfred Owen. They want a poet who follows the journey from eager patriotism to disillusion that is conveyed by, for example, the not-always-reliable anthology Up the Line to Death.
For a start, this is not fair to Brooke. He did not write in ignorance, but after he had seen the effects of war at first hand during the fall of Antwerp. When he wrote ‘Now, God Be Thanked Who Has Matched Us With His Hour’, he already knew that that hour was a bloody and terrible one.
Secondly, it constructs a narrative according to which battle transforms the poet, and brings him insight. Once can point to poets, like Sassoon, who started by trying out the high patriotic style for a few poems, before finding that a different one suited them better. But are there actually any cases of poets who wrote very good high-flying idealistic poems, who then switched to a disillusioned realistic style? I can’t think of any, and would be glad of suggestions. (And how far was Sassoon’s change in style caused by his experience, and how much by the example of Robert Graves?)
That a pair of authors so very different as Hollinghurst and Elton should give us versions of the same myth shows something perhaps about how pervasive this myth is in the early twenty-first century.