Ernest Raymond’s novel of Gallipoli, Tell England was the great best-seller about the war in the early 1920s. It was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, and six times in 1923; by 1939 it had sold 300,000 copies, and subsequent editions stayed in print for forty years. Raymond returned to Gallipoli at least twice in later novels – in The Jesting Army of 1929 (which I have not read), and in The Quite Shore of 1958.
Tell England is a book divided in two. The first half is about the intense friendship between two boys at a public school; the second half takes them to war, just in time for the retreat from Gallipoli. Writing about Tell England in his 1968 autobiography, Raymond remarked:
Another thing that is a cause of wonder to me as I re-read the book is the indubitable but wholly unconscious homosexuality in it,’ since ‘“homosexuality” was a word which — absurd as this seems now — I had never heard.
This sexual innocence provided something that the readers of 1922 wanted. A more guarded author would not have been so free in recording his characters’ emotional extremes, and the pathos of young men’s deaths would have been correspondingly less.
By the time he wrote The Quiet Shore, Raymond had given more thought to the psychology of sexual attraction. The novel’s frame narrative shows Gerry Browning returning with his wife to the peninsula where he had fought forty years before. Memories are aroused of the events of the campaign, and of his intense feelings for Colin, a fellow-officer whom he hero-worshipped.
Let me say at once that the young man who thus looked at Colin’s face […] was still virgin at twenty-four and of somewhat inhibited sex, so that his hunger to love someone carried no physical desire; it was simply a hunger for the exquisite emotions of a purely cerebral love. Before seeing Colin I had twice found someone to fill my need, the first a new boy at school with a pretty face, and three years younger than I; the second a junior clerk at my store. Each was lost to me now, and day by day during my six months in the Army I had secretly looked for their successor. No doubt I was approaching full heterosexuality because I had searched also among the faces of girls – but the love I wanted would not rise at my call. And now I looked at Colin on the rail and instantly selected him as candidate for the long vacancy.
He never tells his love, and nothing physical occurs between the two, though their friendship is strong and mutual.
Another officer presents an alternative version of homosexuality; Evverson is a lanky officer with ‘a large nose in a weak face’ whose language betrays his class origins (‘Pleased to meet you,’ and ‘Bless you.’). He is not popular with those who feel that ‘the Army used to be a place for gentlemen.’ Browning’s curiosity takes him to look at the small collection of books that Evverson hides away as though ashamed of them. There is a volume of his own idealistic poetry. There is Homer for Boys, His Iliad and Odyssey Retold (a volume that places Evverson intellectually, in contrast to Colin, who reads Homer in Greek). There is Plato’s Symposium; Browning surreptitiously borrows this and finds it ‘a revelation’:
In this delightful Dialogue, as gay as it was serious in its praises of Love, I found that my exact feeling for Colin – a love ardent but ‘without physical manifestations’ – was not only allowed but highly advocated and honoured, and this by a mind of Plato’s calibre.
Evverson recognises Browning as a fellow-spirit, but is rebuffed.
Later Browning is shocked to hear that Evverson is under close arrest, charged with ‘disgraceful conduct of an unnatural kind’. He had been found with ‘a man in our company, Private Gottsched’:
And the astonishing, silencing thing was that Private Gottsched was nearly as old as Evverson himself, and no personable fellow either.
Utterly humiliated by the thought that he would be cashiered and sent home in disgrace, Evverson commits suicide by rushing into enemy fire. His fate distresses and confuses Browning.
The novel gives a clear and full picture of the Gallipoli operation (Browning and Colin are among the first to land on Hellas beach, and are among the last to leave in the retreat) ; there is enough, but not excessive detail of the appalling conditions – extremes of temperature, flies, dysentery – and there are some well-told episodes of fighting. The main impetus of the narrative, however, is the emotional one, as the older Browning, returning after forty years, tries to understand his feelings as a young man. A phrase I quoted earlier: ‘ No doubt I was approaching full heterosexuality’ suggests how he places his earlier emotions, as a phase to be gone through. Now he is a married man. Only gradually do we realise that the wife who is accompanying him to the peninsula had once been Colin’s fiancée, coming to see where he had died. Was marrying her a final way of expressing his love for Colin? Raymond is a good enough novelist to leave this question unanswered, and to leave us wondering.
Considered purely as a novel, this is a far more assured and better-constructed book than Tell England; the earlier book has more raw feeling, though, and its success shows us what readers of 1922 needed novelists to tell them about the war.
The Quiet Shore can also be read in the context of its time, as an older novelist’s reaction to the debate surrounding the 1957 Wolfenden report (which recommended decriminalising homosexual acts between adult men in private).