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.

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A Middlebrow Manifesto

Cover of the first edition (1930)

I’m have a fondness for books that manage to include a literary manifesto of some sort, and the openingpages of Francis Brett Young’s Jim Redlake (1930) contain what amounts to a declaration of what a novel ought to be, and how novelists should confront the world. It does so implicitly, by contrast, in its very enjoyable depiction of someone who is the wrong sort of novelist – George Redlake, the eponymous hero’s father.

I call it a middlebrow manifesto, but that does not mean it is a defence of the middlebrow against the highbrow. Francis Brett Young is too sure of his values to be worried by highbrows; no, it is a declaration of the value of Brett Young’s kind of middlebrow novel, against the claims of another, flashier variety, superficially exciting, but without staying power. Here is George Redlake:

By the time he was twenty-five he had found himself adopted by a small and, as he thought, esoteric group of grim intellectuals whose flatteries turned his head.

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Marching on Tanga

Penguin covers, 1940 and 1941

Now here’s an oddity. The same book, issued by the same publisher. One edition is labelled fiction, the other travels and adventure. From what I can gather the first was published in 1940, the second in 1941.

With books about war, it’s often difficult to tell novel from memoir. Novels can contain big chunks of the writer’s experience; memoirs can contain much that is invented. I’ve come across books that were first marketed as memoirs, and then (a bit more honestly) as novels – Evadne Price’s Not So Quiet…, (by ‘Helen Zenna Smith’), for example. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across one first labelled fiction, and then sold as a memoir.

Francis Brett Young was a prolific novelist, and this book was based on his experiences fighting with Smuts in German East Africa. The book had first been published in 1917. Randall Stevenson calls it ‘an outstandingly vivid vivid account of campaigns in East Africa.’ Maybe it was the vividness that made Penguin at first think it was fiction. Young later properly novelised his war experiences in Jim Redlake (1930).

I’ll try to find out what happened, though with research libraries shut for the foreseeable future, this could take a while.

‘Illusions of Peace’ at the NAM

I should have given a blog mention to this before the event (but don’t worry, you can still book up for tomorrow’s sessions – details later).

I’ve spent the day at the first day of an online conference about the aftermath of the Great War. Illusions of Peace is hosted by the National Army Museum, but not physically, of course. Each of the historians spoke from home, and good old Zoom brought us all together.

The general theme was that marking 1918 as the end of the war was a pretty Anglocentric thing to do. Elsewhere violent conflict was continuing

The first session today presented four papers about the postwar period in Europe – in Italy, France, Eastern Europe and Germany respectively. In the afternoon we heard about Britain’s involvement in Russia after the war, and about our (not very successful) attempts to intervene and direct matters in Turkey and Iran.

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William John Chapman

William Chapman, in his sixties, in about 1912.

Dear Jane,
Thank you for your kind offer to find details of William Chapman’s naval career. I have now done some basic research, but I wonder whether you would be able to cast some light on the documents that I have discovered.

William John Chapman, my great-grandfather, was born in 1846, in Plymouth, which may suggest a naval, or at least a maritime background.

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Sergeant-Major George Simmers

My sister died fifteen years ago, and last week her husband sent me scans of some of the older family photos she had put long ago into a box.

The prize piece was a family group, in the centre of which was this smart man, in civvies but with something of a military air.

He is my grandfather, George Simmers. The photo was probably taken in 1912 or 1913, when he had left the Army after twenty-one years in the Royal Engineers, mostly in Hong Kong. When he left he was a Sergeant-Major. His Army record gives an account of his qualifications, mostly in lithography. He was in Hong Kong at the time when its complex waters were being mapped, so I suspect that his lithographic work may have been in connection with this project.

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Kipling and Sanatogen

Anyone around in the fifties and sixties will recall advertisements for Sanatogen, the tonic wine that ‘fortifies the over-forties’. It was a standard joke during those decades, I think, on anyone’s fortieth birthday, to present them with a bottle of the stuff. Back then, many more people than today were teetotallers, but some were reluctant ones. That was where tonic wines came in. These were regarded as medicines, so did not come in for the same amount of moral disapproval as proper wines. They could be drunk with a clear conscience. The fact that they tasted considerably less delicious than a half-decent Bordeaux probably helped their reputation of being purely medicinal.

Sanatogen existed long before those advertisements, having been invented by the Bauer corporation in Germany in 1898. A hundred years ago this week, that Genetosan,the firm distributing it in Britain, annoyed Rudyard Kipling.

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Talking about Rose

This week I gave a Zoom talk about Rose Allatini, at the kind invitation of the Huddersfield University Research Seminars. It was good to do. This year I had three academic conferences lined up at which I was to give a paper, and each of them has either been cancelled, or has disappeared into the long grass of the distant future.
The title of my talk was ‘Rose Allatini: How Not to be Canonical’, and I gave a run-though of her career, stressing those factors that prevented her from getting anywhere near the accepted canon of English literature. The main ones were:
1. She was born into a rich family, and had little contact with the mass of English people.
2. She wrote a book that was controversial in the wrong way – a book that nobody wanted to remember.

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The New Stunt

Wartime cartoonists loved a white feather joke, and some even managed to find one after the war had finished. This is from London Opinion, 1921:

As usual, an opinionated older woman is accusing a man, but this is 1921. The war is over, and we should be putting it behind us, so she’s demanding: ‘Young man, how is it you’re not in “civvies”?’ I like this joke.

On War Memorials

For much of my life I was indifferent to war memorials. They stood there in the middle of every town and village, often useful as landmarks, but surely all more or less the same?

It was only when I started seriously studying the Great War, and especially its cultural effects, that I began to realise how very various and interesting memorials are. Some are grandiose, others simple. Some list battlefields, others just names. This one has a heroic bronze statue of a knight killing a dragon; that one shows a dead body, shrouded. This one includes the name of a woman killed making munitions. Each memorial is different, and reflects the assumptions and choices of those who arranged its erection.

During the years from 1919, committees in every town and village earnestly discussed what form their memorial should take. Should it have a statue, or be an abstract monolith? (Cost was sometimes a factor with this one.) Should its wording reflect religious sentiments, or be inclusive of those with non-Christian faiths, or with none? Look closely at a memorial, and you can decode a good deal about the community surrounding it in the early twenties. Their fate over the years often tells us something, too, about changing perceptions of the war.

Go abroad and you may find memorials that quite upend your ideas of what the war was about. It was when I went to Latvia, and in Riga saw a monument to those who died in the Great War between 1917 to 1921 that I realised quite how provincial our ideas about the war can be.

I’ve been reading an excellent book about memorials to a different war: Prisoners of History: What monuments to the Second World War tell us about our history and ourselves, by Keith Lowe.

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