I hadn’t read a full-blooded wartime romance for a while, so when I saw a copy of Dearer than Life (1916) by Joseph Hocking among odds and ends on a table at Huddersfield’s terrific second-hand market one Tuesday, I couldn’t resist it, especially since it only cost a pound.
The novel begins in Belgium, with a heated, but not completely inaccurate account of the German punitive measures against guerilla franc-tireurs in Aerschot, where the Burgomaster and his fifteen-year-old son were among the 156 citizens shot, and four hundred buildings were burnt.
Hocking invents, I assume the story that the massacre begins when the Burgomaster’s son hears the ‘fat, bloated’ Chief of Staff had cast looks towards his sister and ‘had heard the words which he uttered concerning his intentions’. A servant remonstrates with him not to shoot the German for all their sakes, but he protests: ‘Better for the town to be burnt, better for us all to die, better anything than that!’
The murder of the German leads to retribution:
The whole town was given over to a drunken, lust-mad, devil-possessed soldiery [….] defenceless old women were trampled under foot and kicked by brutal soldiers, old men were mutilated, little children were bayoneted, houses were looted.
Excess of outrage followed excess of outrage. Families were dragged from their beds and turned naked into the streets, and worst than worst of these were scenes which I cannot mention.
Sodom and Gomorrah were virtuous compared with the deeds of the German soldiers in that hitherto quiet Belgian town.
This prelude sets the tone of the novel, in its sensationalism, its clear stereotyping of Germans and its fascination with the theme of rape (though that word is never used – there are hints and euphemisms and all sorts of roundabout expressions, but the actual act is too horrifying ever to be named outright).
When the story proper begins, the obvious hero is John Fortescue, a decent young man despatched to Belgium to bring the boss’s daughter home safely. He arrives just in time to hear the ‘guttural shouts’ of the German soldiers as they arrive. The house’s Belgian servants are panic-stricken, and it is up to Fortescue to protect Margaret (whom secretly he loves). She makes him promise, however, that he will shoot her rather than let her fall into the hands of the rapacious Hun.
When a ‘bloated German’ comes in at the head of a rapacious mob, ‘he knew that if he did nothing, she, Margaret, would be the victim of these men’s passions’.
‘Mr Fortescue! Keep your promise!’ she cried.
He shoots her, and is himself knocked down and left for dead.
Hocking makes the most of Fortescue’s daring return to England, his emotional meetings with Margaret’s relatives (who all agree that he did the right thing) and his growing friendship with Fanshawe, the man who would have been his rival for Margaret’s hand had she lived.
Fortescue enlists as a private soldier. Hocking was a committed Christian, and his religion bursts out emotionally when he describes Fortescue’s decision:
He must become a soldier, he must fight as long as God gave him breath, to kill the accursed thing which was again placing Christ upon the cross and crucifying him.
Fortescue has some interesting Army adventures, including the capture of a German spy, but the novel suddenly takes a surprising turn.
Margaret was not killed after all when Fortescue shot at her. She merely fainted. Luckily a German officer comes in before the bloated brutes can do their worst. He is Captain von Hulton, a German of the better sort, and (in just one of the book’s remarkable coincidences) had known Margaret before the War. He takes her away to his country house to recuperate.
When she comes round she is suffering from the kind of total amnesia so useful to fiction-writers of the period. She does not know who she is, and does not even know there is a War on. Von Hulton loves her, but does not want to force her. He wants to bring her round to love him, so that she will accept him willingly.
Those familiar with fiction of the period will know where the story is heading. Indeed, when we discover both Fanshawe and Fortescue as prisoners of war just a few miles from von Hulton’s house, the novel becomes a little predictable.
It is none the less readable for that. Hocking writes a fast-moving narrative with tremendous gusto, and knows how to appeal to his readers’ imaginations, as well as to their sense of indignation.. I assume that the book sold very well, since my copy is from the ninth edition, with an inscription dating it to 1918.
Rape, or the prospect of rape, is found in very many fictional representations of why Britain was fighting the War. Of the German atrocities in Belgium, the relatively few rapes seem to have affected the public imagination at least as much as the (more plentiful) execution of hostages. In many narratives, the British soldier is shown as rescuing a woman (often but not always Belgian) from gross and lustful Germans. Sergeant Michael Cassidy, in Sapper’s story ‘Three to One’ describes a typical situation:
Mother of heaven! ’twas awful! There was six of them in all, six of the dirty treacherous swine. They’d been drinking hard, and the old lady that kept the café was trussed up in the corner [….] The old man was bound to the table, but they hadn’t stunned him [….] They’d got the daughter – a pretty girl, of maybe twenty – in a chair. Well, I needn’t say more, but every time the poor old man tried to get to her, they pulled the table back and roared with laughter.
The girl is saved, of course, by the teamwork of an English officer and an Irish sergeant.
Fantasies of rape (more powerful because hinted at rather than explicitly described) fuelled the national indignation, and determination to fight.
The copy I bought in the market was a prize awarded to a Dorothy Coldwell, for regular attendance at the Honley Wesleyan Sunday School. I wonder how old she was. I imagine her reading it with bated breath, with eyes wide open in astonishment, and with knees clamped tight together.