This month at the Reading 1900-1950 reading group we’re looking at the work of Ethel Mannin. I’m reading her Confessions and Impressions (1930), an alternately fascinating and annoying book of memoirs. I was struck by her comments on Journey’s End:
The reason why we have so little great art of any kind today is primarily because of our chronic self-consciousness. Therein lies the secret of the greatness of Journey’s End. Sherriff wrote quite simply and un-self-consciously about something which he knew, something he had observed and felt. The title had nothing to do with Shakeskpeare so far as he is concerned – it was the name of the trench he was in. He had no literary ideas to air when he wrote the play, no tiresome little ideals to postulate.
This is interesting as an indication of the status of Journey’s End in 1930. She firmly labels it ‘great art’. Yet she insists on its artlessness.
Which is typical of many critics of war books and poems, then and later. The work is valued insofar as it is an unmediated chunk of raw experience, and the critic prefers not to notice that it is a made, considered thing. Journey’s End, of course, is a very carefully crafted play. It is not just experience thrown down on the page, but a considered and quite intricate reworking of material that Sherriff had originally tried and failed to shape into a novel.
This passage occurs, slightly oddly, in the middle of a discussion of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who, like the Sherriff of Mannin’s imagination, is also ‘simply being himself, knocking up masterpieces by accident.’
D. H. Lawrence is another who has ‘the supreme lack of self-consciousness of the natural artist’.
I think that this is the first time I’ve ever seen the rather repressed and gentlemanly Sherriff compared with Lawrence. I don’t think I’m convinced.