Francis Brett Young, D.H.Lawrence and other novelists

I wrote a while ago about Francis Brett Young’s portrayal George Redlake, who is of the wrong sort of middlebrow novelist – flashy, seduced by fashionable ideas, and not interested in people as individuals. His 1930 novel, Jim Redlake contains other novelists, though, apart from the hero’s unsatisfactory father.

The most notable is a man called Starling, who comes to live in the same seedy London boarding house as Jim. He is a man from the Midlands whose ‘sunken eyes smouldered fiercely as coals’:

His brow was massive, and cleft, at the root of a flattened pugnacious nose, by a zed-shaped wrinkle like a deep incision [….] Jim might have taken him for a motor-mechanic who did a little boxing ‘on the side’, till he looked at his hands, which were small, white and delicately-shaped, though long-nailed and stained at the finger-tips with two kinds of ink.

Starling is working-class, and touchy about it:

My father’s a boiler-maker who shaves once a week and washes to the waist on a Saturday. My mother’s a poor drained drudge – eight kids in nine years she had, brought up in a litter of pigs in a back-to-back sty.’

Starling has published one unsuccessful novel, and he pretends not to care about its failure. He tells Jim that the book he is writing now is ‘about as different from your father’s as you can imagine,’ The people in it are ‘concerned with essentials; he tells Jim:

‘They’re alive – I tell you they must, they must be alive, if I put the last drop of myb blood, the last breath of my spirit into them. Not living corpses. Alive!’

Later, Starling gains a respectful readership, and we gather from good judges of literature that as a novelist he is ‘the real thing’.

While I read of Starling’s Midlands background and his insistence on ‘life’, I thought of D.H. Lawrence, and a small amount of Googling discovered that Bret Young had known Lawrence in Capri in the early twenties. They seem to have quarrelled eventually – but then, is there anyone that Lawrence didn’t quarrel with?

Lawrence died in March 1930, and Jim Redlake was published in late October of the same year. Is this portrayal a tribute paid after his death? Given the speed with which Brett Young delivered his monstrously long and remarkably readable novels, I think this is a strong possibility.

When war comes, Starling has a similar problem to Lawrence, being suspected of spying, but Brett Young gives him a better war. While Lawrence was brooding resentfully in Cornwall, occasionally subjected to the indignity of failing a medical examination, Starling, we learn, volunteered early, and earned a D.C.M and a Military Cross with bar. At the same time he also managed to offend the respectable by writing war-sceptical articles for the Cambridge Magazine. One indignant soldier tells Jim Redlake: ‘If I or Jones here had our way that blighter would be shot at dawn up against a brick wall same as you would a deserter.’ The Lawrence connection is hinted at strongly when Starling talks about his future plans.

England, my England! as soon as this cursed war’s over I’m going to clear out of it.’

(Lawrence left England soon after the war’s end, and England, my England was the name of his 1922 collection of stories.)

To me the depiction of Starling feels like a genuine tribute to a superior genius – but there is one way in which Brett Young is perhaps poking a little fun at his hero. Starling, like Lawrence, has a fierce class consciousness, but he falls prey to the easy charm of an aristocratic woman, without even realising that he is putty in her hands. A reflection on Lawrence’s relations with Bloomsbuty, perhaps? Or a response to Lady Chatterley?

Another novelist appears later in the book. He is Martock, a medical officer with the Kalaharis (Jim Redlake’s Army unit in East Africa). Martock’s ‘principal care was his battered portable typewriter, from which nothing but death should part him’,on which he is writing a novel about the Black Country and the Welsh Marches. He ‘types away’ even when being transported towards the fighting zone ‘inside the iron oven of a sun-blistered cattle truck.’ This is clearly Brett Young’s self-portrait in miniature slipped into the book. Later he uses the character to editorialise about the inefficiencies of the campaign, especially in medical matters.

Brett Young’s attitude to the war can be gauged by his comment on other war literature:

In later years […] a spate of war literature, as men called it, drenched the world, when the neurotic conscripts of all nations vied with each other in venting their tortured brains of the filth and fear and brutality which were all they remembered of war.

The Kalaharis, says Brett Young, have a spirit which, ‘without any romantic self-hypnotism or sentimentality’ could acknowledge the ‘filth and fear and brutality’ but ‘put them in their proper place.’ Since Jim Redlake was published in 1930, we can therefore take it to be at least to some extent a riposte to the imitators of All Quiet on the Western Front.

We never hear what becomes of Martlock’s novel of the Black Country, and he is absent from the final chapters of the book. One other novelist appears, though; it is Jim Redlake himself.

After his troubled beginnings, a period farming in Africa, his war service and wounds, and his final return to England and the decision to marry the dependable vicar’s daughter rather than the flighty aristocratic beauty, he settles into his mother’s family’s ancestral home. In his youth he had wanted to be a poet, but that ambition has faded. But he announces:

‘I am thinking now, that now, at last, I shall write a book.’

‘About the war?’ his wife asks.

‘Lord, no. I can’t say. About swallows if you like, and – I don’t know – life in general; how astoundingly rich it is, in spite of everything.’

That description fits Jim Redlake rather well. And his novel will be emotion recollected in tranquility. Rather unlike Lawrence’s novels, but a good recipe for middlebrow sucess.

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