In many ways Philip Gibbs is the archetypal male middlebrow writer of the inter-war period. Immensely prolific, he appealed strongly to the thoughtful decent middle class, worried about the way the world was going and wary of extremes. The title of his 1923 novel The Middle of the Road conveys how he portrayed himself – a man of common sense, making his own path between reaction and revolution. The typical Gibbs hero is a walking Guardian editorial. I am never entirely convinced by Rosa Maria Bracco’s contention in Merchants of Hope that all middlebrow fiction is about finding the middle way, resolving conflicts peacefully and establishing continuities – but there were plenty of novels like that in the twenties, and Gibbs’s are good examples. The label ‘Galsworthy-and-water’ could have been made expressly for him.
Heirs Apparent (another of my finds at the Chaucer Head bookshop in Stratford-upon-Avon) is also from 1923, and takes as its subject the problem of Youth – the post-war generation that prefers jazzing to seriousness. Like all his books it is very readable. Like all of them it tells you interesting things about the period. Like all of them, it has its weaknesses when considered as a novel.
Gibbs is an odd writer. Beginning as a journalist, he became a novelist in the early years of the twentieth century, producing a run of novels about social issues, like A Master of Life (industrial relations) and Intellectual Mansions S. W. (about ‘advanced’ lifestyles). His Street of Adventure (which I’ve not read yet) is about journalism. In wartime, he became perhaps the most distinguished of the official war correspondents embedded with the troops, the one who conveyed best the fortitude and suffering of the soldiers. After the Armistice, his non-fiction Realities of War was a bracing corrective to complacencies about the conflict (He was very tough on Haig). After the War he produced an astonishing stream of both non-fiction and fiction. Some of the novels – Back to Life is a particular case – read more like reporting than story-telling. The Middle of the Road has a story, but threads on to it scenes of contemporary conditions in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, and Russia (and is well worth reading as an account of how the horrors of postwar Europe struck an intelligent and sympathetic observer). After finishing the book, it is the reporting you remember, not the characters.
I don’t know how many books he wrote, but bookfinder.com lists over a hundred titles.
In his day he was highly regarded, mostly for his wartime reputation, I think. By now he has almost disappeared. His Wikipedia entry is sketchy and there is almost no critical writing about his fiction, despite his insights into topical issues.
Heirs Apparent is typical of his fiction in that it explores a problem taken from the headlines – in this case, Youth – and begins with scenes designed to worry the typical serious and concerned liberal reader. Young men at Oxford are wasting their time in drunken parties and stunts. Julian, the hero, is on his final warning, and decides to leave the University before being sent down. His (platonic) girl friend Audrey actually is sent down, for coming back to college late (and destroying a fellow-student’s property when clambering in at a window).
Breezily, Julian decides that he has had enough of education, and wants to dedicate himself to Literature (so he begins to write a verse drama). Gradually the events of the novel teach him that life is serious and earnest, and that enterprises begun in fun can end in pain.
If that sounds moralistic – well yes, Gibbs can never resist pointing a moral. Yet his depiction of the pleasure-loving young people is sympathetic. He understands why they are kicking up the traces, and avoiding seriousness. They work very hard at avoiding thinking about the War which had loomed like a heavy cloud over their childhood. Once they start to consider what a previous generation went through, survivor guilt makes them change the subject. They are conscious of their avoidance strategy, and refer to the war as ‘the Great Unmentionable’.
Gibbs, on the other hand, cannot help but mention the War. As in all his books, it is the touchstone by which characters are judged. You can tell that Julian has finally got onto the straight and narrow when he begins to reflect:
Those fellows in the Great War – some of them, anyhow – had found some queer gladness in suffering lice and mud and shell-fire for the sake of England, or some ideal inexplicable to themselves.
The parts of the book that would have most appealed to readers in 1923 as topical are those dealing with the newspaper magnate Buckland, who is clearly based on the propagandist and fraudster Horatio Bottomley. (Julian’s father works for Buckland, and Julian only gradually comes to realise how much it has cost his father to subjugate himself to the monster, in order to keep the family in comfort and pay for the Oxford Education that his son has thrown away.)
Buckland’s paper is called The Week, and is closely based on Bottomley’s John Bull. During the War it had been ‘The Soldier’s Friend’; it supports the little man against the Establishment, whips up hatred of foreigners, and spreads scandal. Gibbs makes it clear that the Week is the worst form of journalism because it follows its readers’ prejudices; Buckland tells Julian:
I’ve been devoting a good deal of space lately to spiritualism [….] It’s most important as a means of circulation.
(A reminder of The Road to Endor, which suggests that the gullible do more of the deceiving than the deceiver does. Gibbs even makes Buckland say: ‘Also, I don’t mind telling you that I believe in fairies’ – a dig surely at silly old Arthur Conan Doyle, whose simple faith in the Cottingley fairies had done much for sales of the Strand.)
Bottomley’s Victory Bonds swindle had landed him in prison in 1921, and Buckland’s similar scheme has similar results. As topical satire, the character would have excited eager recognition among Gibbs’s 1923 readers. And yet… As a character in a novel, Buckland is flat. He is so obviously a villain, and has no inner life. We are never encouraged to wonder what made him the man he is. A greater novelist would be deeply interested in such a man (think Trollope’s swindlers, or Merdle in Little Dorrit.) Gibbs seems more interested in telling us what he thinks of him.
But then, few of the characters in this novel have much inner life. The nice people behave nicely; some of them have wrong ideas, but they learn the error of their ways and then prosper. The bad characters are signalled as such from the start, and continue to behave pretty badly. Gibbs does not do much in the way of ambiguity.
Julian, like all of Gibbs’s central characters (or at least those of the half-dozen novels that I have read) is essentially passive. Things happen around him and he observes. Even his love affair is started and ended by the older woman, not by himself. The novel’s denouement – the exposure and conviction of Buckland is something that he plays no part in causing; he simply watches aghast as the facts come out. (The novel was adapted into the film High Steppers (1925) and the plot summary of this indicates that the movie-makers made Julian a lot more proactive: “Learning that Buckland is actually an embezzler, Julian gets a job as a reporter on a muckraking publication and sets out to expose Buckland.”)
Finally, Gibbs seems a lot more interested in opinions than in psychology.
Gibbs’s characters are very likely to start editorialising. Sometimes this is tedious, but it can be fun, as in this list of things that middle-class England was afraid of in the 1920s:
They were fairly wallowing in self-pity, and quaking with fear for the future. They were afraid of every damn thing – afraid of trade unions, labour unrest, the income tax, American competition, France, Germany, Russia, H.G. Wells, the Rising Tide of Colour in the Mohammedan world, Bolshevism, Dean Inge, and above all, and always, afraid of the younger generation.
So if you judge Gibbs by the standards of ‘good novelists’ (Conrad, say, or Forster) you have to pronounce his work thin. What Gibbs lacks is negative capability, the ability to lose himself in a character or situation.
Having said which, he is part of an important (but neglected) strand of English fiction – the tradition of topical, scandal-breaking journalistic novel-writing. Charles Reade’s Put Yourself in His Place is very much the Victorian equivalent of Gibbs’s novels about industrial relations (like his General Strike novel, Young Anarchy, which has much in common with Heirs Apparent). He is also, as I said at the start, very readable. The characters may be a bit pasteboard and the opinions may sometimes crowd out the action, but this was a novel where I kept on turning the pages because I wanted to find out what would happen.