F.W. Harvey’s poetry achieved considerable fame during the Great War, but he has never become a sizeable presence in more recent anthologies. (Which is why I posted one of his poems here yesterday; I was willing to bet that not very many people knew it.)
He has his enthusiastic supporters, though, in Glocestershire and elsewhere, and interest in him has increased since his archive of papers has been made available to scholars. (To see a video news report about the archive, click here.)
The most recent sign of this interest is the publication of Harvey’s novel, A War Romance. This never reached the bookshops in his lifetime, despite several attempts to interest publishers, and had been thought lost. A copy turned up among the papers, however, and now it is available to readers, nearly a century after its composition, thanks to the editor, James Grant Repshire, and to the History Press. They have kindly sent me a copy for review, and I have read it with considerable interest and enjoyment – even though I can see why the publishers of the twenties and thirties decided to reject it.
The novel’s main character, Willie, is clearly based on Harvey himself, and Willie explains; ‘I have tried prose, but my best thoughts always run into verse.’ About which his author comments; ‘Full marks for Willie, who has perceived that miracle that form alone imposes.’
Harvey’s poems generally inhabit their forms with distinction; his novel is not quite sure which genre it belongs to. There is some childhood idyll, a compelling sports report of a cricket match, an almost- steamy account of an affair with a married woman, a pious sermon or two, some war vignettes, a daring escape from a prisoner-of-war camp, and a wild romance about a girl who has enlisted in the army as a male. The book is rarely dull, but it doesn’t really cohere.
I enjoyed his account of his happy childhood, and especially the character of Clemmy, the one-legged governess. The trouble with happy childhoods, though, is that they are less useful to the novelist than unhappy ones. He tells us that his mother is a ‘castle of nobleness’, and lists her virtues, but gives up on describing her novelistically:
Must I sink to the level of the popular novelist and tell you the shape of her nose and what she wore? Very well, it was an English nose, and her clothes were English too. The whole lot was English.
So now we can get on…
He admits that his parents are ‘hastily and insufficiently sketched’, because what he really wants to give us (at this stage of the book anyway) is his spiritual journey. We are told of his growing feeling for the Glocestershire countryside, and his developing certainty that he is a poet. School and university days are sketched, and then after university he joins a law firm in ‘Eccleton’, an industrial town where he feels alien:
It is more often wet than not wet here, but one never hears the music of rain. Where is that sweet lisp in grass and garden; where the hoofs of those faery horses that gallop on thatch; and splendid and gusty drumming upon windows facing wide windy spaces; the little giggle of water falling into eave-butts. What passes here for rain is no more than fog and smuts dissolved in filthy dew.
In Eccleton he does legal drudge-work, suffers from depression, and has an affair with a married woman. This affair ends in o0ne of the novel’s bursts of melodrama, and he walks out of the job, to clear his mind and soul.
Then war comes. In the early twenties when he wrote this account, Harvey still wants to express the enthusiasm of 1914. Willie’s brother Eric has a vocation for the priesthood, but enlists in the Army, idealistically believing in the War as a great force for social cohesion, bringing together the classses. His attitude is like that of that of Donald Hankey, who enthusiastically called the war ‘An Experiment in Democracy’, and claimed that: ‘For once a national ideal had proved stronger than class prejudice. In this matter of the war all classes were at one – at one not only in sentiment but in practical resolve.’
Willie is equally keen on enlisting, but is less certain what he is fighting for:
‘I think it is Gloucestershire – and what she means… We would rather die for that, than live for Eccleton – and what it means.’
His pious brother reminds him that the men of Eccleton are enlisting too, and Willie redefines his motive: ‘Call it Gloucestershire – though it is rather some mixture of adventure and beauty bred out of her.’
It matters to Willie that he is with the Gloucesters, among men of the county:
When (no doubt under press of casualties) the War office recruited indiscriminately to any regiment, it offended something deeper than mere preference.
The soldiers, we are told ‘were joyful in one another’s company’.
What is more:
Circumstances should not vanquish that joy. It illuminated billets here, and barns in Flanders. It did not fall in the filthiest trench, with grunted oaths for common speech – oaths which have been seized upon by smart journalists to prove (in prose or poetry) the obsession of things that were never in their hearts – hate and despair. One can show war as the horror it is, without telling lies about soldiers. Soldiers were far the least comfortable, but far the most happy of England’s population during the war.
Later chapters do something to ‘show war as the horror it is’ (‘Agonised men lay helplessly lingering out existence in No-man’s-land.’) He writes of the spirit of 1915:
The sense of active crusade had gone, and was succeeded by that of a dogged endurance which coupled itself in the English character to a kind of humour incomprehensible to the rest of the world.
This had not (in 1915) turned to the hopeless anger and weariness which possibly manifested itself in later stages.
That ‘possibly’ reminds us that Harvey was removed from the War’s later stages. Taken prisoner while on a daring solitary patrol in No-man’s land in August 1916, he spent the rest of the conflict in prison camps. In those camps he was himself subject to much ‘anger and weariness’, but perhaps was more able to maintain a in image of happy fighting men than those who had to keep on struggling through the last two years of the War. perhaps, in prison, he needed to maintain that image.
Like Harvey, his hero Willie is taken prisoner, but, unlike Harvey, has not become an officer, so is expected to do labouring work. The last chapters of the book describe a daring escape from captivity, of the sort that Harvey himself plotted but never accomplished. His companion in escape is a woman who had disguised herself as a man to enlist, and the account is excitingly done, if not altogether credible.
So the book is something of a mixture. The publishers who received the manuscript in the early twenties turned it down. Possibly this was because they had a glut of war books in their warehouses, for whom there were few customers now that the War was no longer current news. Readers were now looking towards fictions that prepared them for the postwar world. Probably, though, the publishers’ readers also reacted negatively to the book’s haphazard form, and to the sometimes annoying authorial addresses to the reader. (‘When is something going to happen? You want the story. Now, now, gentle reader! Like many other people you want something for nothing. What you call the story is easily written, and I am as impatient as you….’)
When, in the late twenties, there was a revival of interest in literary representations of the war, Harvey submitted his manuscript again. But claims that soldiers were ‘ far the most happy of England’s population during the war’ were not what the readers of All Quiet on the Western Front and the audiences of Journey’s End wanted to be told.
This is not an entirely satisfactory book. Harvey was a good poet and a good essayist, but he was not a born novelist. Yet there is much here that is enjoyable and worth reading: anecdotes of country life, and descriptions of country characters especially. The account of the War, though one wishes it could have been fuller, is a corrective to some of the ways that 1914-18 is usually portrayed today.
This book will be of great interest to those who are already admirers of Harvey’s poetry, but more general readers will also find much to think about, especially in its depiction of how an idealistic young man of 1914, with a desire to be a poet, but was fretting at circumstances that sent him to Eccleton and thwarted his sense of romance, found in enlistment an escape from banality, and an opportunity for self-expression.