W. Pett Ridge and the future war

I knew, of course, that before 1914 there were plenty of Future War novels and stories, making the British public’s flesh creep with the prospect of invasion.
Still, it was a surprise to come across this in the middle of W. Pett Ridge’s rather cosy family saga: Thanks to Sanderson (1912). heading for work, Mr Sanderson chats with the station bookseller:

Bookstall clerk, rather anxious concerning the intentions of a foreign gentleman whom he calls William, occasionally becomes so apprehensive that one can almost hear the tramp of German soldiers marching past the church and over the bridge, with Messrs. Smith’s wooden shelves and their contents as the principal objective.

James and his acquaintances discuss the topic briefly on the train, but they soon

find in flower-gardening a more acutely interesting matter for discussion, and specimens are taken from buttonholes and passed around for discussion.

Pett Ridge obviously doesn’t take the war threat very seriously, but this vignette is still an interesting little snapshot of pre-war public opinion.
W. Pett Ridge is one of those turn-of-the-century bestsellers who were famous in their time, but now almost entirely forgotten.

We shall be discussing him at the Reading 1900-1950 book group next week. Judging by Thanks to Sanderson, he is a chronicler of lower-class life, and rather good. The book is about a family going up in the world. The father begins as a railway ticket-collector, is promoted to inspector and then moves on to higher things. The son gets a position with a City firm, and gradually betters himself; the daughter has a musical talent which her family encourage. The mother began her life as a parlourmaid, and is now the family’s bedrock, even though they sometimes worry about her dropped aitches.
It’s one of those novels where nothing very dramatic happens (or it hasn’t happened yet- I’m still only two-thirds of the way through) but the writer has skill enough to get you involved in the small adventures of daily life, and to care about the people.
Pett Ridge had long left behind his own working-class origins by the time he wrote this novel, but he shows a real sympathy for those struggling to better themselves in an uncertain world. It’s a precarious undertaking; we see other families collapse while this one prospers.
The book’s background detail is convincing; he was a good observer, and takes us to various places of work, as well as to entertainments such as the amateur minstrel show, where railwaymen black up to entertain their families and the general public. He passes my test for novelists, because he’s good about money; he knows what things cost, and he shows how money concerns shape the characters’ lives.
I shall read more Pett Ridge, starting with The Amazing Years, a 1917 novel about a family during the Great War, seen mostly through the eyes of a servant.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 29, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Later in the novel, Ridge has another dig at invasion panics. Commenting on how all the menfolk leave a suburb between nine in the morning at six at night, he says:
    ‘The great Continental Power, whose intentions sometimes alarm the press and excite the service clubs, has doubtless made a note of the unprotected state of London suburbs.’
    Since most of the women in his book are on the whole more formidable than the men, I don’t think he means it.

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