Richard Blaker essay online

Richard Blaker

I’ve added a lengthy essay about the war novelist Richard Blaker to the resources on this site.
I wrote it several years ago, and it is in fact a draft of what was to have been a chapter in my Ph.D. thesis, a case study of the changing attitudes towards the war of a minor and now mostly forgotten twenties novelist. In the end this chapter was not included. Some paragraphs from it, adapted, found their place in various parts of the final thesis.

Blaker interested me for a few reasons. The main one is that he is a writer whose attitudes changed in a direction opposite to that assumed in many accounts of war writing. He writes in a disillusioned manner at the start of the twenties, and ten years later is presenting the war positively as far from futile, as terrible, but as a source of pride. Another is that the archive of his writings and correspondence at the Bodleian Library is that rare thing, a full archive of an unsuccessful writer. Studying his career told me a lot about how publishing worked in the twenties.

Especially interesting is Blaker’s relationship with Hodder and Stoughton, and especially with Ralph-Hodder-Williams. H & S poached Blaker from Jonathan Cape after his first novel was a critical if not a financial success. The firm then nursed him through the twenties, and a succession of novels that failed to realise his sales potential. Blaker and Ralph H-W seem to have become very close friends. When, encouraged by H-W, Blaker began Medal Without Bar, his contribution to the war-books boom of the late twenties, H-W, who had served in the Canadian Army took a keen interest in the book, and shaped it according to his own views of what war fiction should be like.

One of the most interesting features of the Blaker – Hodder-Williams correspondence is their exchange of views about Journey’s End. H-W was one of those who resented its negative presentation of the war (and especially of officers using whisky to get through the experience). As publisher with a financial power over the unsuccessful novelist, H-W could insist that some aspects of Medal Without bar should be toned down, but that does not stop the book from being one of the most rounded descriptions of the experience of soldiering in all its variety.

I wrote this several years ago, and am not sure that I would agree with every word of it today.  It is the draft of a chapter, not a finished product, and maybe goes into too much narrative detail about Blaker’s novels. I thought I’d put it online, though, in the hope that it might lead new readers to Medal Without Bar. I’m not sure that I’ve ever met anyone else who has read this book.


  1. Posted December 18, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, George. Medal Without Bar reposes on my shelves, although as yet unread. I shall read it and the chapter you have posted with interest. I am a little wary of the deployment of adjectives such as “negative” and “positive” to describe war experience, I must confess. There will be as many versions of the war as people who experienced it: taking individual responses to “prove” that the war was one thing or another strikes me as rather sinister. The historian must, of course, acknowledge what was felt by people at the time, but history is not what a simple majority of contemporaries thought it was. To approach history in this way is to abuse it for the sake of contemporary political polemics.

    • Posted December 18, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Rod – You’re right about ‘negative’ and ‘positive’, of course, but sometimes one needs to use shorthand. The actual essay presents Blaker’s views with more discrimination, I hope.

  2. Roger
    Posted December 18, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting. I was fascinated to learn that “Sapper…is about the most sensitive man I know”. It confirms my opinion that you can always tell that someone is sensitive by their complete insensitivity to everyone else!

    On page 22 you say disconcertingly “All Quiet on the Western Front, which was not published in Britain until early in 1920”. I take it it should read 1930.

    Any plans for publishing your Ph.D thesis yet?

    • Posted December 18, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      Whoops! The date has now been corrected!

      As for my thesis, I’m determined that 2017 will be the year in which I publish the book based on my thesis (and which I’ve been augmenting for several years, but you’ve got to stop somewhere).

      The question is, can I find a publisher who will put it out at a trade (not silly academic) price? Any ideas?

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