Review by Reading Group member
First, a plot summary:
Initially the narrator describes the public school life of himself and his two close friends. Training to ‘rule the waves’ involves the internalisation of key English characteristics, viz. reserve, restraint, resilience. The teaching of such cultural values is reinforced by caning, ridicule and isolation. Counterpointing this regime is the mischievous behaviour of the boys compounded by their evolving friendships and confused sexuality. An essential guide emerges in the form of a noble rock-like teacher whom the boys hero-worship. The only women around are distant devoted mothers. When war is declared the boys become Junior Officers, resolving to die heroically on the battlefield. But first they want to have ‘lived’. This involves drinking, swearing, a veiled visit to some ‘darkened doorway’ and parading about town practising salutes. On the boat to Gallipoli they encounter an Army Chaplain who guides their religious redemption through a modified form of Christianity which emphasises religious purity and nationalism. Converting war into a ‘Holy Crusade’ would lend a sense of ‘beauty’ to what otherwise was emerging as a futile and inelegant waste of talent and life. The gallantry and deaths of so many peers becomes the motivation to write this book and ‘Tell England’.
Ernest Raymond tells a good story, in a ‘Boys Own’ sort of way.
I found the depiction of school life authentic in terms of the physical and mental punishment and the creatively subversive exploitation of this system and its weaker practitioners by the boys. For example, responding with alacrity to a teacher’s French directive ‘Asseyez vous toute suite’ with ‘Yes Sir, we had two but one died’; stretching out laughing at a witticism into a series of crescendos and diminuendos before fading into a few intermittent laughs and then resurrecting this whole sequence again.
Similarly, the subsequent blindly mechanical mass slaughter in WW1 is counterpointed by the patriotic gallantry and sportsmanship of the young officers.
I also found the cathected relationship to ‘form’ so very middle class. Thus, in place of a family dynamic centered on being at home with two parents, there is a distant idealised mother, an even more remote father figure and, in the foreground, an emotional investment in manners, style, presentation, apparel, e.g. ‘the only joy at camp was dressing up in true tropical kit’ [p234]. Hence not only the fastidious reaction against the vulgarity of a shell blindly wiping out such aspirations but also the need to cosmeticize or stylise war into something more acceptable, e.g. a Holy Crusade.
In regarding war as a romantic and noble enterprise, Raymond can be seen as responding, in a ‘middle-brow’ way, to the needs of many readers in a time of national mourning for the ‘lost generation’. However, in so doing it takes a reactionary fundamentalist stand against a wider modernist trend that in the face of general post-war cultural and spiritual uncertainty and disillusionment was ushering in new codes of morals, understanding and self-expression, e.g. the Freudian unconscious; Surrealism; increased equality for women and representation for the working class. Thus one could regard the aftermath of WW1 as catalysing an epistemological break between dominant paradigms or epistemes. Within such transitional territory the motivation for Raymond’s drive to revivify the traditional values of Anglicanism, in the spirit of St. Aiden and St. Augustine, becomes a conservative response to pervasive faltering or lost faith.
Indeed such a response bears a family resemblance to the parallel development of National Socialism. Like Raymond, Hitler also served in WW1 and similar hierarchical thinking dominates the outlook of both, e.g. Aryan or the Middle Class at the apex of development with women confined to the domains of children, kitchen and church. They also shared a reaction against modernism and a notion of War as a Holy Crusade, employing the use of religious symbolism towards this end. This is not to suggest that Raymond was a closet Nazi or religious zealot. Indeed, though he served as an Anglican Army Chaplain in WW1 he resigned from the priesthood in 1923 and subsequently served as a Liberal on Hampstead Borough Council. Rather, given the forty subsequent editions of a ‘middle-brow’ novel published in 1922, the most recent being 2005, such a subtext may well account for its enduring appeal.
See also George Simmers’ account of Tell England on the Great War Fiction blog.