What’s the very worst war novel?

The worst WW1 novel? I’d generally be tempted to name one of the really poor twenty-first century efforts, like John Boyne’s The Absolutist, a book which combines an utter confidence in its own self-righteousness with an astonishing disregard for historical actuality.

Recently, however, I have read a novel of 1922 which takes the (tasteless and appalling) biscuit. It is Man and Maid by Elinor Glyn, about a facially-wounded ex-soldier who lives in Paris during the last year of the Great War. I have written a review elsewhere which focuses on the book’s treatment of of love and sex, a treatment that makes a modern reader more than somewhat queasy,. (The wounded hero uses his wealth and position to bribe and bully a young woman into marriage. Luckily, she eventually falls in love with him. The author seems to think this a wonderful happy ending) Here, I’ll just speculate how a book like this could become a best-seller in 1922, to be filmed in Hollywood in 1924.

A still from the 1924 film.

The novel is spectacularly uninterested in the war. Paris in 1918 was a city that in a few months went from fear of imminent invasion to the joy of victory. Mentions of this in the novel (written as the hero’s journal) are perfunctory. There is the occasional mention of bombardment, and some complaining about rationing, but that’s about it.

The hero, Sir Nicholas Thermond, is an officer who won the V.C. In this he was like most heroes of popular fiction. (In real life, during the four years of the conflict, 628 Victoria Crosses were awarded to British and Empire troops. I’m sure that in my years of research I’ve read of at lest twice that number of fictional heroes who won the medal.) He was, then, a good and committed soldier – but his journal never touches on military matters. He expresses mild alarm when the Germans are near Paris, but makes no comment on the change in military fortunes from June onward, as the Allied forces drove them back. He is only interested in his overpowering desire for his secretary, and working out schemes to enmesh her.

His wounds are serious:

I look at my mutilated face before I replace the black patch over the left eye, and I realize that, with my crooked shoulder, and the leg gone from the right knee downwards, that no woman can feel emotion for me again in this world.

That last clause sums up his feelings about his mutilation. The author has not imagined his pain, or any anxiety at no longer being a soldier. In the fictional world of Elinor Glyn, only love and sex matter. She makes her hero almost fabulously rich (The loved one’s father has serious gambling debts – Sir Nicholas can settle them with a flourish of his cheque-book, three times over.) He therefore has none of the problems that faced most of the actual war-wounded – of adapting to life on a not-overlarge pension. No, all that matters to him is that his secretary is spurning him, in a way that offends his Old Etonian sense of entitlement.

How could people read and admire this sort of thing just a few years after the war? I suppose it could be read by some as containing a positive message – he is war-wounded, but triumphs over everything and gets a happy ending. Perhaps that is what Elinor Glyn intended, and perhaps readers forgave her haziness about recent historical details.

More, though, I think it’s a matter of genre conquering all. Reading war fiction, I’ve often noted that the needs of generic conventions usually over-ride factual accuracy. In this case, readers of Elinor Glyn expect a steamy novel where someone is in close proximity to a desired person, but is frustrated in that desire until the last page, when everything explodes in a climactic kiss. As in much wartime fiction, the war is included just to add some novelty and to intensify standard fictional tropes. So maybe the staggering awfulnessof this book is mainly due to readers’ expectations of the genre, and what seems to me a tasteless use of the war-wounded is something that the original readers might have ignored in their desire to get a dose of Miss Glyn’s latest. The critic of the Saturday Review takes an ironic view of the book and, interestingly, links it to the fiction of Ouida. I’ve never read Ouida, but she seems to be the originator of this over-charged romantic genre.

Saturday Review, May 13, 1922.

7 Comments

  1. Andrew White
    Posted October 25, 2019 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    My nomination is ‘First Casualty’ by Ben Elton. Historically inaccurate throughout, and with every stereotype represented. It’s awful.

  2. janevsw
    Posted October 25, 2019 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    I can say, having just read it, that ‘W.A.A.C.’ is pretty awful too, although it does at least confront the war full on.

  3. Connie Ruzich
    Posted October 27, 2019 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    “although it is tempting not to take these romance novels seriously, the rhetoric that equates the love of a man to his love of country and in turn with support for the war is part of a much larger discourse of war, official and unoffical” …. Carol Acton, quoted in Jane Potter’s rich essay “Khaki and Kisses: Reading the Romance Novel in the Great War.”

    • Posted October 30, 2019 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      What I find interesting about this novel is that its gestures towards patriotism and so on are quite perfunctory. It’s an example of a book that does not use the romance genre to validate the war effort, but rather uses the war to spice up its romance.

  4. Steve Paradis
    Posted October 30, 2019 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    The film may be lost, but we do have Mordaunt Hall’s review:

    And that may be even better.

    “Alathea, the slow-moving, bright-eyed blonde heroine in Elinor Glyn’s latest film effusion, rather makes one think of the miller’s daughter, who was deeper than the water that ran by the old mill.”

    • Posted October 30, 2019 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this, Steve. It’s the sort of hostile review that makes me long to see the film.


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