Vera Brittain, novelist


‘And you say,’ the Judge continued slowly, ‘that these abnormal conditions are not uncommon as the result of shell-shock?’
‘That is so, My Lord. If every criminal case in our prisons could be traced back to its origins as exhaustively as this one has been traced, we should probably find war shock, or war anxiety, at the root of many.’

Vera Brittain’s 1945 novel Account Rendered takes the promising theme of the link between war and insanity. The central character, Francis Keynsham Halkin, is a promising composer who enlists towards the end of the Great War. He suffers several traumatic incidents in the late advance of 1918, one of which causes him to lose his memory for a while. After the War he tries to become a concert pianist, but the stress of a crucial performance makes him black out at the piano, and become unable to play. With that career in ruins, he does what his father had wanted, and joins the family paper manufacturing firm, becoming a model employer.
The advent of World War Two brings back his fears and instabilities. On the day that France falls, he suffers another blackout. Soon he is on trial for a murder committed while in a fugue state.
Vera Brittain is certainly interested in the issues. She tells us a lot about her theories about shell-shock, and even more about her theories of industrial welfare. Unfortunately she is not quite so interested in the characters, who are mostly one-dimensional.
This is the only one of her novels that I have read, but on the evidence of this she is not a good novelist. The crucial character of Halkin’s wife is a mere cipher, with no presence at all; Enid Clay, the woman who strives to save him from the justice system, has one characteristic – complete loyalty. We never learn anything else about her. Another woman, Ruth Alleyndene, is Vera Brittain in disguise, a fearless and forthright left-winger regurgitating a lot of Brittain’s opinions in a way that, I think, is supposed to make us believe her rather fine and wonderful. Halkin himself is more a collection of symptoms than a character.
The book is poorly constructed. The trial scene, which ought to be sensational, ends up dull because it is mostly the repetition of facts that we already knew, with precious little in the way of surprises or new perspectives. The writing plods.
I read the book because it is one of the wartime novels that links the two conflicts. The mental problems caused by the First War are reactivated in the Second. The book warns that the Second World War is causing as many long-term mental problems as the first, and challenges the way in which the legal system looks at madness. This is a very interesting theme, but it needs a subtler novelist – one more interested in people, and with more insight into how human beings work. (I kept comparing this novel by Brittain with those by her friend Winifred Holtby – a woman who knew how multi-layered and complicated people could be).
I read a lot of fiction, of varying quality, but mostly I find at least something to enjoy in a novel. Not this time, but I battled through to the end in case it was going to surprise me. It didn’t. Mind you, it’s not as bad as the dullest war book that I’ve read. That dishonour has to go to H.G. Wells’s Jane and Peter.


  1. janevsw
    Posted September 26, 2016 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I’d be interested to know what you think of Buchan’s A Prince of the Captivity, which I’ve seen described (I forget where) as JB reaching forward to WW2 via a character who has been through the Great War.

    • Posted September 26, 2016 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      A Prince of the Captivity is one of those flawed novels that are more interesting than more straightforwardly successful ones.

      The main hero is so utterly noble that he seems a character from a creaky melodrama rather than a novel. At the start of the book, Adam Melfort is utterly disgraced when convicted of forgery and sent to prison. He was in fact innocent of the act – but had accepted guilt to protect his worthless wife. A while back I wrote about him, suggesting that he might be the model for Wodehouse’s parody, Mervyn Keene, Clubman, in which Keene finds that the woman he adores prefers another:

      [H]e spoke no word of his love. But he went on worshipping her, outwardly gay and cheerful, inwardly gnawed by a ceaseless pain. And then one night her brother Lionel, a wild young man who had unfortunately got into bad company, came to his room and told him that he had committed a serious crime and was going to be arrested, and he asked Mervyn to save him by taking the blame himself. And, of course, Mervyn said he would.

      Much more interesting is the working-class socialist who has to choose between the national interest and that of his trades union supporters. He chooses country over workers, and is doomed.

      Although written in 1933, it seems to me a novel struggling with the issues of the 1926 General Strike. I don’t recall thinking when I read it that it was reaching forward to WWII. But perhaps I should read it again.

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