Few best-selling novelists are quite as forgotten as William Pett Ridge (1859–1930), who a century ago mapped the fascinating social borderland where the upper-working classes meet the lower-middles. Social mobility is his theme, and he has the knack of getting you to care about his characters as they tread the uncertain paths of early twentieth-century life.
Pett Ridge was no more than a name to me before he became the month’s author at the Sheffield Hallam Popular Fiction reading group recently. The book of his that I read was Thanks to Sanderson (1911) and my review of it can be found on the group’s website. Sylvia’s review of his 1923 novel Miss Mannering can also be found there.
Most of the group enjoyed the novels, and I began to wonder what Pett Ridge had written during the Great War years. I soon discovered The Amazing Years (1917), which is available free online at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL7185884M/The_amazing_years . The book is the story of the Hillier family of Chislehurst, as told by their servant Weston, who has been with them since their early struggling days in Brockley.
There came Mr. Hillier’s good luck in the City with the agency in Basinghall Street, and we moved to The Croft, where I was told to make no reference to Brockley, and to disclose to the maids of the house, or to the servants at any other house, no particulars of early days that had been imparted to me in confidence or gained by observation.
The novel begins in late July, 1914. The family is planning a foreign holiday, but ‘rumours about trouble on the Continent’ forestall the expedition. Troubles multiply, and get nearer to home. Mr Hillier’s business is an agency for an important Austrian firm, and the declaration of war wipes him out financially. Then their house burns down. The family can no longer afford to employ Weston, but she, unlike them, has accrued savings over the years. She finds a place for all of them together in Greenwich, and they begin to reorganise their lives.The book is the story of how calamities turn out to be not disasters but opportunities.
A trope frequently found in literature of the War years is that of the Fortunate War. Disruption and challenge shake people out of their complacent habits, and they become better, in all sorts of ways. This is what happens to the Hillier family, whose children have previously been rather self-centred. The older son, a songwriter, enlists and becomes an enthusiastic soldier:
Master John said that everyone was eager to get out to the front. Now that the Germans had been turned back from the Marne, and were on the run northwards, the fear at Caterham was that it might not be possible to arrive at the fighting district in time to take a share in the lark.
Daughter Katherine takes the opportunity to be useful, and gets a job in a bank, despite her snobbish mother’s pleas:
“The news is bound to reach Chislehurst,” bewailed Mrs. Hillier. “And when we eventually go back there, I can’t see, for the life of me, how it is to be explained.”
“We must put it down, mother, to temporary insanity on my part.”
“That wouldn’t answer,” she declared seriously, “because everyone is aware that there have been no signs of it on either your father’s side or mine.”
“Hadn’t thought of that,” admitted Miss Katherine.
“Weston,” said Mrs. Hillier, appealing to me, “is it, or is it not a fact that in many cases a girl behaving in this way would, by some parents, simply be cut off with a shilling ? ”
“If you wanted to do so, ma’am,” I said, “you’d have to borrow it.”
“Not very tactful of you, surely, to throw my misfortunes in my face.”
“Has to be done, now and again, in order that you should be reminded of them.”
Mr Hillier, who had never been very happy with his City job, applies for a job at Woolwich Arsenal. Working with his hands brings out the best in him, and he is soon promoted.
Even the snobbish mother becomes less silly when John is reported missing – but he soon turns out to be a prisoner, wounded but safe, and all goes well. Pett Ridge’s novels were always, I think, comfort food for his readers, and this book must have been very reassuring to his wartime audience. Crises arise, but they are always quickly settled. People rally round to help one another, and hard work is the transformative agent that improves unsatisfactory characters. The War brings opportunities, and also a new democtatic spirit. When Weston’s nephew hears that Hillier is doing well at the Arsenal, he asks: “How does he manage about his aitches?”
“It’s my belief,” I declared, “that half of his success is due to the fact that he doesn’t bother in the least concerning them.”
The book communicates a sunny certainty that not only will the family (and England) get through the War, but that they will even emerge better for the experience, because it has been a shared ordeal, and they have all been in through together.
There is an episode towards the end, though, where one character fails to receive Pett Ridge’s usual kindly generosity; he is the man who refuses to be part of the united community. Perhaps the passage struck me especially because last week I was re-reading Rose Allatini’s Despised and Rejected, with its anguished accounts of Tribunals where sincere conscientious objectors pleaded in vain. Pett Ridge’s version of the subject is rather different:
Young Pinnock was of the very few who declared openly a resolve to take no part in the war ; he had a thousand and more arguments, and the important one, which he repeated at his doorway, and occasionally shouted across the street, was that the trouble on the continent of Europe was not of his making. This we had guessed, but it did not prevent us from saying that young Pinnock ought to take his share as the rest were doing ; that he constituted an undesirable example to youths who were growing up, that the drill would make a man of him, and perhaps induce some girl to offer her admiration. Pinnock found a new contention, each day, to support his attitude, and when he caught sight of my brother-in-law, rushed out to present it ; Millwood was always able to knock the suggestion over with no trouble, and the youth returned to his shop to ponder, and to build up a fresh one. He exhibited an air of great confidence one evening on producing the statement that his mother had begged and prayed of him not to enlist, declaring that his departure was likely to be followed immediately by retirement to a bed which she would never leave.
This statement is challenged.
It proved that his mother was, in fact, anxious that he should go ; it happened that she was the only parent in her road at Charlton who had not made some contribution to the services, and she declared that her position was not to be envied. Pinnock tried, later, the plea that if he joined up, the shop would close (Millwood said the world was not likely to come to an end on account of this), that there were texts in the Bible supporting his attitude (Millwood, as a new and careful reader, was able to produce some war-like quotations from the Old Testament), also that his principles would not allow him to take life, (Millwood remarked that the possession of a rifle, and the sight of a Prussian aiming a bomb, would modify these views.) Finally, and before appearing at the Tribunal, young Pinnock announced his intention of arguing that he had no right to set his own existence in danger. That, he said, was the point. Life was entrusted to us as a high and sacred charge, and any man who, wilfully and with his eyes open, exposed it to peril was to all intents and purposes committing suicide and deserving of the blame the law could give. Nothing but an unsound mind, argued young Pinnock, and this he in no way claimed, excused the act. Indeed, he described himself as a thinker ; one who refrained from borrowing views from other people, preferring to make his own.
Millwood […] told me, on his return from the court, all that had happened, and told it in the dramatic way that a man of his type can adopt in describing an incident which has affected the imagination deeply. Of young Pinnock entering the room with a determined air — ” He would have stuck his chin out,” said Millwood, ” only that he hadn’t got one ! ” — of being directed to take a seat, and finding himself disconcerted by this ; the rehearsals apparently had always been taken in an upright position. Of Pinnock recovering gradually powers of speech and gesture, and proceeding to declaim his views on the sanctity of human life, and more especially the duty of every man to preserve his own life, in a way that made the members of the court — exhausted asthey were by attending to appeals on a variety of grounds, and sometimes on no grounds at all — listen with care. Of the Chairman presently stopping the applicant with the remark that the case had been put forward with conspicuous ability ; the Court would give its decision later in the day, and announce then whether any exemption could be granted.
Of young Pinnock leaving the room, and going out of the building in a great state of exaltation, talking to folk he met, and — on the edge of the pavement, still propounding his views — being run into by a small boy on a scooter. Of poor Pinnock staggering under the unexpected collision, and trying to recover himself, and not succeeding, and falling into the roadway as a motor-car dashed along.
The incident, small in comparison with the large events which were happening, touched me. And I could understand and sympathise with the remark that the mother made.
“I should have felt a lot happier,” she said, wistfully, “if my boy had been killed on the field of battle!”
Pett Ridge’s War is a happy and inclusive national effort whose morality is unquestionable. His soldiers are all decent and enthusiastic; his civilians too do their best for the national effort in their various ways. It is only this outsider, the man who refuses to fight, who is lampooned. His views are caricatured and he is given the indignity of an absurd death. Pett Ridge’s kindly inclusiveness turns out to be pretty unforgiving when it comes to the man who does not want to join in.