War washes the slouching, selfish hypocrisies and all the slosh and humbug out of a man’s life.
If I had to choose one sentence to encapsulate the attitude to the War of the stories in the fiction magazines that one would do it. It is from ‘Benjamin Comes Back’ by Warwick Deeping (Story-teller magazine, February 1916).
The story is included in volume I of a new collection The Lost Stories of Warwick Deeping, edited by Frederick J. Studenberg and Dr. Debra Buchholz. The editors have sent copies for review to Sheffield Hallam University’s ‘Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection’. I’ve been given the first volume to look at, and will be writing a full review later. At the moment, it’s ‘Benjamin Comes Back’ that has got me thinking about how the War was portrayed in fiction of the time as a transforming, positive experience..
Benjamin is a soldier who has come home from Flanders,‘with a smashed shoulder, two frost-bitten toes, and a kind of ferocious curiosity as to what was happening at home.’
What he sees in Brockenbridge, his home town, does not impress him. An able-bodied man trundling a milk-can on the station platform expects the wounded soldier to get out of his way. Other young men (variously ‘sleek’, slinking and ‘sulky’) are slouching around the town with no intention of enlisting. The reader is left in no doubt of Ben’s superiority:
He had come from a world of great happenings, a man who had escaped death, a man who had seen what other people had only read about.
(Experience is the key thing here; Ben refuses the offer of a newspaper scornfully, with the implication that this will not tell him the truth about the War.)
Ben goes to see his girl, but she has jilted him for a plump civilian. He sees her with new eyes: ‘War is a bitter and fierce refiner. Benjamin’s eyes saw more deeply into the realities of life.’He realises that the girl he had fancied before the War was just ‘a plump, garish, overdressed young woman staring at him with shallow insolence.’
The War has raised him above her level. Luckily (and inevitably, one could add, since, like many of Deeping’s magazine stories, this one follows the conventional pattern of romantic fiction) there is another girl waiting for him. She is obviously much more worthy of him, because when we first meet her she is at work, hoeing the family half-acre. (Her brother has enlisted, so she is carrying on in his place, producing the vegetables that the country needs. ) ‘And her eyes were honest.’
When the pair have come to an understanding, she inspires Ben to go and challenge the ‘slackers’ who have not enlisted. He does so, by words and example.
And thus it was that Brockenbridge lost nine-tenths of its young men. For a week, Benjamin haunted the town, merciless, unanswerable, a plain challenge to its manhood. And one by one they went away, recruited by a man whose grim eloquence lay in his eyes.
(A twenty-first century reader would want to read an irony into that ‘lost’. How many will return? Deeping gives no signal for such irony. the logic of the story tells us that they are lost now, and if enlisting means that they will be lost to Brockenbridge, it will mean that they have found themselves. Death will only make their transformation more worthy.)
Presumably the story is intended to have the same effect as Benjamin’s challenge, shaming slackers and sending them to the recruiting office. This is, therefore, the kind of story that might be dismissed by many as simply propaganda, saying the things that the government wanted to be said. I disagree. There is more to it than that.
For a start, this is not a story written because the government ordered that such stories should be published. As a writer Warwick Deeping had many faults, but insincerity was not one of them. Many of the things her believed were snobbish, and some were by modern standards nasty, but he believed them with a sometimes uncomfortable ferocity.
Nor can this be easily denigrated as a story written by the older generation persuading the younger men to fight. Warwick Deeping was thirty-nine in 1916, and too old to be conscripted, but he had enlisted early in the war, and had served in Gallipoli in the Royal Army Medical Corps. (He had qualified as a doctor before pursuing a literary career.) Even if only on the fringe of that catastrophic campaign, he knew that war was not glamorous. In this story he does not hide the ‘mess and beastliness’ of the Western Front:
the muddy roads in Flanders, the dreary fields, the rain soaking down, the greyness of it all, those water-logged trenches, the bodies of men whose brown clothes were stained all red.
With stories like this one, I often ask myself: is the author using the literary form to proselytise for the War, or is he using the War as a setting that makes the values inherent in his literary form more compelling and relevant? In this case, as in many, the answer is probably: a bit of both. The story does definitely put pressure on readers to enlist; yet its values are not notably different from those of Deeping’s pre-War work. The sincere hero among the sneering multitude; the shallow woman exposed for what she is; the hard-working un-showy woman proving a fit mate for the decent man, these populate his writing throughout his career.
Ben is a typical Deeping hero. Set apart from others in his community by being honest to his own set of values, he is a man repressing anger; he is variously described as ‘fierce’, and full of a ‘savage impatience’. He has ‘an immense scorn’ and a ‘merciless sincerity’; his air is that of ‘ a fighting dog who had no wish to be meddled with.’ His body-language is often that of frustration: ‘rapping his leg with his stick’, ‘beating his right heel on the pavement and saying nothing.’
Painfully repressed violence is the mark of many Deeping heroes (In Sorrell and Son, Sorrell has to fight hard against his urge to do violence against his tormentors). Mary Grover, in her very good book on Deeping, links this to his own social frustrations and uncertainties.
The War finds in Deeping an able propagandist, but in the war Deeping finds a cause that justifies the ferocity of his own emotions. Before the war he was a minor historical novelist, appearing mostly in rather down-market publications. His writings about the War and its effects, and especially Sorrell and Son, made him a best-seller.
Deeping was very definitely not alone in using the trope of the fortunate War; many other popular authors also presented the conflict as transforming lives for the better; finding unexpected qualities in previously conventional citizens; exposing hypocrisies; bringing lovers together; reconciling families; showing pre-war conflicts to be trivial in comparison with the great moral crusade offered to the nation. The popular literature of the War years expresses again and again an idea that the reading public wanted to believe: that this war, with all its horrors and sacrifices, would produce an England that was a better, cleaner place than the divided and compromised pre-war nation.
In Deeping this maybe becomes something more. Ben’s repressed anger finds enough expression to shame the other men of the town into doing their duty. The implication is that he has sparked the beginning of their transformation, which will be completed by the War, so that they too will come back with new eyes and new hearts, no longer sulky or slouching. Deeping is definitely one of those writers with a fierce desire to transform society, who co-opts the ferocity and cruelty of war in his own cause, seeing it as the potential agent of change that will sweep away the hypocrisies and weaknesses that make him so angry.