‘Non-Combatants and Others’

Yesterday evening’s rather good Radio 3 talk on Rose Macaulay’s 1916 novel Non-Combatants and Others is available online at http://bbc.in/1sExkNU

It is by Sarah Le Fanu, Macaulay’s biographer, and gives a clear picture of the novel, which I seriously recommend to anyone interested in fiction of the War.

A subject that Ms le Fanu didn’t deal with was the book’s publishing and reception history, though this is interesting because it shows that a book questioning war enthusiasm could find both a commercial publisher and an audience in 1916s.

Surprisingly, this novel was published by Hodder and Stoughton, although Macaulay was by no means a typical Hodder author. In the decades before the First World War, Hodder had expanded from its origins as primarily a publisher of religious books to develop a list of popular fiction. Between 1914 and 1918 its greatest best-seller was Buchan’s Greenmantle. The firm strongly supported the War effort, and published 134 books and pamphlets that were sponsored by Wellington House, the largest number of any publisher.

Macaulay’s earliest novels had been published by John Murray, and she was with Hodder because she had won their £600 competition with The Lee Shore in 1912 (This is a sad book about someone who forever finds it difficult to fit in – a characteristic Macaulay theme). According to Hodder’s ledgers, 9,000 copies of The Lee Shore were printed, of which 7,873 were sold before the end of the financial year ending March 31st, 1913.2 The book kept selling modestly through the War years, and there was a new edition in 1921 (10,000 printed) that did well during the twenties, presumably helped by the success of Macaulay’s post-war novels.

We don’t know what the reaction at Hodder was to Macaulay’s manuscript of Non-Combatants and Others, but they clearly decided that although her politics were out of step with those of most of the firm’s productions, she was one of their authors, and they published her book. Non-Combatants and Others was published in 1916 at 5/- a copy.  Hodder printed 3,000 copies, indicating that their hopes for the book were moderate. Of these, 2,586 had sold by March 31st, 1917. It seems to have earned Macaulay no more than £62/6/- (no generous advance this time) while the publishers made a modest profit of £48/19/2.  the book was supported by at least some advertising. This is how it featured in the H & S  fiction ad in the Manchester Guardian, July 1916:
noncom

The book’s reviews were half-hearted at best. The Times Literary Supplement felt that ‘impossible as it is to exaggerate the misery and horror of these times, we feel that her note is, somehow, forced, and that her very style, with its careful elimination of sentimentality, contributes towards a general effect of exaggeration.’

Over the next six years the edition gradually sold out. Hodder did not reprint it, probably because it was so much a novel of the War years.  The figures show, though,  that Macaulay’s book managed to reach a respectable audience, despite its pacifist message and lukewarm reviews. (The readership was larger than the raw sales figures might suggest, because many sales would have been to libraries). They also show the publisher in an interesting light. Hodder and Stoughton, despite their commitment to the War and their involvement with Wellington House, did not stand in the way of an author who wished to express dissident opinions (and a disturbing view of the effects of the War on soldiers). As a writer with some reputation and an established readership, Macaulay was able to find a publisher and an audience for a novel that challenged the consensus of war enthusiasm.

 

8 Comments

  1. dawggzilla
    Posted June 25, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others is available from Gutenberg.org in several file formats at:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35807

    • Posted June 25, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for mentioning this.

      • dawggzilla
        Posted June 26, 2014 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

        I’ve long enjoyed using Gutenberg, but it was very difficult before ereaders. Before, I had to print a huge file, or read on a computer display. Now its trivial on a ereader, phone, or tablet.

        Besides having the major file formats, EPUB and Kindle, they also now let you transfer files directly to Google Drive, Dropbox, etc. This means you can grab the book on your PC, and have immediate access to it on your phone or tablet.

  2. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted June 27, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    “[H]er very style, with its careful elimination of sentimentality, contributes towards a general effect of exaggeration.”

    “Sentimentality” was thought to be a splendid thing back then.

    • Posted June 27, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Maybe it’s one of those words whose meaning has subtly changed over time.

      • Jonathan Lighter
        Posted July 2, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        The OED thinks not, nor would that be consistent with my own reading.

        As J. F. Vance and Maria Bracco have shown independently, sentimentality was a leading characteristic of British and Canadian “middlebrow” war fiction right up till WW2. It was probably no less true in the U.S., where much WW1 fiction took the form of magazine stories about gallant English officers and demure mademoiselles.

        And here’s a shameless self-promotion:

        http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/20/opinion/lighter-world-war-i-language/index.html

  3. Posted July 2, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan – the OED does note a change in meaning:
    Sentimental: Of persons, their dispositions and actions: Characterized by sentiment. Originally in favourable sense: Characterized by or exhibiting refined and elevated feeling. In later use: Addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion; apt to be swayed by sentiment.

    The change seems to have happened at some time in the 19th century, but even today there are phrases like ‘The ring has sentimental value’, not necessarily using the word pejoratively.

    Thanks for the link.

    • Jonathan Lighter
      Posted July 2, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

      But see the OED treatment of “sentimentality,” which is the precise word in question. No change in meaning is indicated.

      The adjective “sentimental” is a slightly different case. For this the OED records a shift in the critical *attitude toward* the referent rather than a change in the referent’s meaning.

      Here it’s a trivial point, of course, except as it underscores Vance’s and Bracco’s conclusions.


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