Ian Hay and “The Right Stuff”

The difficulty with reading the wonderful collection of out of print fiction we hold at the university is Where to Start? So many dusty tomes, some with enticing book jackets, others quietly anonymous in their plain bindings…

I have decided to select my reading on the basis that I have Never Heard of the novel. Preferably the author too.

Despite reading the period for the last ten years this actually doesn’t narrow things down much – so many of the novels that were bestsellers in their day and  favourites from the library are entirely forgotten now.

The Right Stuff: Some Episodes in the Career of a North Briton by Ian Hay (1908)

This little volume fulfilled both criteria. The cover tells me it is ‘By the Author of “Pip”‘. I am no wiser. However, Penny Aldred of the Angela Thirkell Society tells me that her school library held many novels by Ian Hay. And my colleague Chris Hopkins says that Hay’s most well-known book was The First Hundred Thousand (1915),  a best-selling light comedy about the First World War. Yes, you did read that right.

Writing under the pseudonym Ian Hay, Captain John Hay Beith wrote the novel while in billets at home and in France, and this remarkable book:

“treats frontline life as a continuation of the high spirits, peculiar humour, and sense of duty of the British public schools. Bloody British defeats are treated as glorious, even light-hearted episodes, with officers uttering heroic thoughts as they die.”

This may seem in retrospect to be bizarre and tasteless, but Hay was not alone in writing such a book. Many popular novelists of the period managed to write patriotic and amusing tales of war. Hay’s novel must have been particularly pleasing to the War Office, for he was promptly installed in the propaganda office where he produced the sequel Carrying On – After the First Hundred Thousand (1917).

To go back to The Right Stuff

I have the Popular Edition from 1919, clearly printed in accordance with war-time austerity restrictions, for the paper looks like low-grade toilet paper of the kind that cannot be bought anymore. It was only Hay’s second novel, the first being the bestseller Pip (1907), but Hay is clearly already comfortable with his comic style.

The story follows a young man, Robert Fordyce, from a farming family in Scotland to the beginning of his career as a secretary to Conservative MP in London. For the main part of the novel political work is peripheral to the spectacle of the hero’s distinctive Scottishness attempting to fit in with the MP’s London family. It is a light, comic novel, bowling charmingly along. The Dictionary of National Biography assessment fits perfectly:

“[Hay’s] humour, gift for story-telling, shrewd observation, sentimentality, and truly ‘English’ talent for sympathetically conveying eccentric characters perfectly suited the age.”

I usually read novels in this period by women, and it was interesting to me how similar The Right Stuff was to novels I had thought were distinctively feminine. Certainly this novel shows that shrewd and humorous observation of domestic lives was not purely the province of women, for most of the novel has just this focus on the family. There is also a considerable amount of the sentimentality often thought to be a feminine characteristic!

My next novel which I have Never Heard of is Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols. A review promises ‘a clever satirical picture of the wickedness that lurks in Mayfair!’

Sources: Patrick Murray, rev. Katherine Mullin, ‘Beith, John Hay [pseud. Ian Hay] (1876-1952)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Steve Small, Ian Westwell, John Westwood, The History of World War I, Volume 3 (New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2002),p. 758.

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5 thoughts on “Ian Hay and “The Right Stuff”

  1. I taught Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand for a few years, as a companion piece with John Buchan’s Mr Standfast as examples of popular WW1 writing published during the war. It’s sentimental, but i wouldn’t say that it was a light comedy! It’s deliberately manipulative, propagandistic, and leans heavily on the sentiment of the Highland soldier in a kilt to get the grannies going. The trench episodes are fairly graphic. Hay was a very skilful writer: he knew his audience. He also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s version of Buchan’s The 39 Steps.

  2. Apart from coming across another list of dead authors (always welcome) it strikes me how weird all this would appear to Spanish readers, scholars and commentators. Any thing containing the words “popular” and “fiction”, by the virtue of being both popular and fiction, would be dismissed out of hand as not worthy of any investigation. Everything has to be worthy (and frankly, dull). A shame. Doubtless much of the popular fiction published under Franco was of poor quality, but the insights it could give into the society of the time would be invaluable.

    • Thanks for this – I know very little about the literary landscape in Spain. So do you think the Spanish only value a certain kind of fiction? Or is it fiction as a whole that is regarded as unimportant? That was the case in the past in Britain. My colleague Mary Grover looked at the records for Sheffield Library’s acquisitions in the 1930s, and then Literature meant poetry, drama and history – and they didn’t keep records for the fiction acquisitions. The first English Literature degrees at the beginning of the twentieth century were similarly based on Greek and Latin classics.

      Do you think the Spanish see popular fiction as having no literary merit, or no interest as social history, or both?

      • Fiction is valued but it has to be right kind of fiction. Paul Auster, in translation, seems to figure prominently in this category, as does G.K.Chesterton and Stefan Zweig. So, go figure. I’m not sure what reaction would follow an attempt to link even these authors with social history. But I have an awful feeling that you would be told that it might involve having to meet real people and we don’t want that do we? For example, the folk I see in the metro reading on their ebook the latest historical fiction are definitely not worthy of any study. An odd reaction in what is a country of fiercely independent and outspoken people.

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