With my paper for the Aberdeen conference in mind, I’ve been re-reading The Querrils (1919) by Stacy Aumonier. My paper will be on fictional representations of military executions over the hundred years since 1914, and Aumonier’s novel contains one of the earliest (and oddest). (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
But it’s altogether an odd novel. The Querril family are the quintessence of all that is best in the English liberal tradition. They are loving, hospitable, cosy, responsible and decent, and they do good works. Their minds exist in a world of what ought to be, not in the world of what is. An American observes them and remarks:
They interest me enormously, these Querrils. They ‘re one of God’s luxuries, and I’m not convinced yet that He can afford it.
The Querrils are the embodiment of kindness. When a young clerk in Mr Querrill’s employ steals from the firm, they forgive him again and again, unable to face the though of handing him over to the police. Cruelty is beyond their comprehension; when their large and lazy cat catches and devours a thrush, the family is deeply disturbed (as is one of the family when he watches the primitivism of the Ballets Russes dancing Le Sacre du Printemps) One of the daughters falls in love with an officer of the Royal Navy, and is worried by the thought that his job is essentially to kill people. She hints that he might transfer to the Merchant Service, a suggestion that sends him amusingly apoplectic.
The American continues: “If the world were all Querrils, well and good.” He thinks their abstraction from the cruel realities of life “almost sociologically perverted, like an attempt to divert the natural channels of human expression. It’s a force which ignores the element of conflict in social evolution. They’re amateurs at life. It’s dangerous.”
The main plot of the novel concerns one of the sons, Peter Querril, an idealistic young man who does good works in a Hammersmith slum (in one of those settlements that absorbed so much social idealism at the start of the twentieth century). He takes a special interest in a young girl; her rascally father sees his chance and sends her to him in distress one night. He falls into the trap, and her father immediately has him arrested because she is under sixteen. The father’s motives are partly mercenary (since he knows the responsible caring Querril family will feel a duty to pay money to the girl) but are partly sheer malignity. Peter, of course, had been far to innocent to suspect that he was being set up.
Of course, war is on its way, and when it arrives, it is the greatest possible challenge to the Querrils’ illusions. When it comes they feel that patriotism is “disgusting, ” a reaction that is
an expression of revolt of the finer sensibilities against the course fibre of the body politic. During the whole of their lives they had never given the question of war ten minutes’ consideration. War was not merely a crime, it was an unspeakable, unthinkable crime. And patriotism, with its narrow partisanship, and un-altruistic outlook, was — disgusting ! Everything that had been striven for and established was thrown into a melting pot. Conscience was outraged. These old gentlemen, who held the lives of every one in their hands, ought to have avoided it. The matter was not agreeable.
Rodney, one of the Querril sons has married Ebba, a humourless Swedish suffragette (He later sees that this was a mistake.) She calls the war “a capitalist war” fought “for the rich Jews of Throgmorton Street.” Like her, Rodney is a convinced pacifist.
Gradually, though, members of the family come round to supporting the war effort. The novel endorses this by showing war working on the moral improvement of the nation. The thieving clerk wins a V.C. at Gallipoli; even the vile father who entrapped Peter dies gallantly in hand to hand combat with a German officer.
Finally even the opinionated Rodney joins the Army, for convoluted reasons known only to himself (and against the wishes of his wife). Word comes that he has been killed; “Your son died gallantly leading his men,” the family is told.
Only at the end of the book are we told the full story:
It amounted to the fact that during a retreat Rodney had acted deliberately against instructions. He believed his plan was better and he disobeyed. If it had been successful he would probably have been forgiven. Men have often disobeyed before and risen to great heights. But Rodney failed badly. It was a terrible mistake. He misunderstood the bigger idea. As a result a whole company – not his own – was almost annihilated. . . .
And so on a certain morning when the first flush of light crept over the eastern sky Rodney had paid the full penalty for interference, standing with his back to the ruined wall of an old farm. There must have come to him some moment when, as Tony said, ” he was all collected together.” All alone he had been. He had weighed his chance, taken his quick decision alone. And in that moment all the weaknesses and all the strength of the Querril creed must have been put to the test.
It is the Querril’s friend Decimus who hears this truth, and he imagines how it must have been:
Decimus could almost see the drawn lines of Rodney’s thoughtful face as he walked between the guard. But would he falter? Not for one second […] Rodney would see the game through. His master-comfort at the end – that the others would not know. He would be tremendously casual, with his slightly twisted, slightly ironic, smile, and his great pride of soul. Peculiarly solicitous of the feelings of the guard,almost apologizing for giving them this early morning discomfort. And when he waited in the darkness for the greater darkness to envelop him, his attitude would be a gentle complacence that he faced this last disquieting experience alone. He would stand there with his heels together and his heard thrown back as though he were saying:
The Querrils is an odd book, as I said at the beginning. It seems to be a gentle satire on the nicer kind of English people, but the gentleness is thin. The punishments to which the family are subjected seem out of proportion to their sins. Is the book on the side of the forces of cruelty and realism that destroy their idealistic lives? Partly so, and yet Aumonier is clearly very fond of his characters. The effect is disturbingly ambiguous.
Aumonier had a considerable reputation in his time, especially for his short stories. One or two of them survive in current anthologies, I think (notably the excellent ‘Where was Wych Street’) but otherwise he is pretty well forgotten.
I’ve read a lot by enthusiasts for modernism about modernist texts that critique liberalism. Often this critique is presented as a key modernist enterprise, and something that distinguishes modernists from the Edwardians and middlebrows still stuck in older ways of thinking. But Aumonier wrote for middlebrow markets; much of his work appeared in the Strand Magazine, that embodiment of middlebrow values. The Querrils is not a perfect novel, but it is one that could make some think twice about their ideas of literary history.