Nevil Shute (1899-1960)

This month our second reading group has been reading Nevil Shute. The discussion at our meeting on Tuesday was lengthy, and largely positive; three of us had been rather charmed by Shute’s novels, though it isn’t easy to put a finger on precisely what it is that he does so well. And to be clear, only three of us were charmed! The review by Jane of In The Wet (1953) that follows is most definitely not charmed.  In the Wet sounds completely bizarre. I wonder if any one out there remembers reading it?

First some biographical details:

Nevil Shute was born in 1899, the younger son of Arthur Hamilton Norway CB, who himself wrote erudite travel books. During WW1 Nevil attempted to join the Royal Flying Corps, but was turned down because of a bad stammer. After the war he took a third-class degree in engineering science at Oxford, and then fulfilled his thwarted wartime ambition of learning to fly.

While working as an aeroplane engineer in the early 1920s Nevil was spending his evening writing novels and short stories, apparently ‘unperturbed by rejection slips’. (I do not believe this!) His first book, Marazan, was published in 1926. His full name was Nevil Shute Norway, but he dropped the surname for his writing as he felt that ‘authorship would compromise his reputation as a serious engineer’.

(I wonder if it is particularly the writing of popular novels that he thought would be compromising? More compromising that writing ‘erudite travel books’, as his father did?)

In 1931 Nevil founded Airspeed Ltd, an aeroplane construction company, in an old garage (!). The company was a success, and he was joint managing director until 1938, when he decided to leave and become a full-time writer.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 Nevil joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, where he worked on secret experimental weapons. His talents as a writer were also utilised – he was at the Normandy landings in 1944 for the Ministry of Information, and was sent to Burma as a correspondent in 1945.

Soon after demobilization in 1945 he emigrated to Australia, and we can see how important his adopted country became to him through the many depictions of Australia in his novels.

Nevil Shute’s novel became bestsellers throughout the Commonwealth and the United States.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography suggests that:

his success lay in his skill in combining loving familiarity with technicalities and a straightforward sense of human relationships and values.

I think those of us who enjoyed reading Shute’s novels might agreement with this assessment.

The ONDB also argues that:

His briskly moving plots were superior to his characterizations, and he retained to the last the outlook of a decent average public-school boy of his generation.

Shute died in Melbourne in 1960. The ONDB notes that he was ‘good company’ and had ‘many friends’; ‘his gaiety not dimmed’ by a number of heart attacks… I wonder if this is code for a man who liked to drink too much? Certainly there is a lot of booze drunk in the novel set in Australia that I’m reading, The Far Country!

Next, a review of In the Wet.

Source: A. P. Ryan, ‘Norway, Nevil Shute (1899-1960)’, rev. Sayoni Basu, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

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4 thoughts on “Nevil Shute (1899-1960)

  1. Arthur Norway wrote at least two books in the Macmillan “Highways and Byways” series, which were published at the beginning of the last century. Titles included Devon & Cornwall and Yorkshire. The series combined descriptions of the area with historical anecdotes. He was Post-Master General in Dublin at the time of the Easter uprising in 1916. Nevil Shute witnessed this at first hand, which may have led to his later writing of adventure stories.

  2. Sylvia D says: I used to read Nevil Shute in the 1960s. I must have enjoyed his books at the time but might not now. The one I remember best is called On the Beach. It is another one set in Australia and was about a group of people who were on a south Australian beach waiting to die. They were the last left on earth after a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere and the nuclear cloud was slowly drifting south. Pretty grim but very apposite at the time Shute wrote it as we were living in the period of the Cold War and all had thoughts of possible nuclear war at the back of our minds. I can remember demonstrating outside my school at the time of the Cuban missile crisis!! And does anyone remember the film called Threads which was filmed in Sheffield? I think his most famous book is A Town Like Alice. – Australia again I can’t remember much about it except it had a certain exotic appeal to a school-girl living a rather humdrum life in a London suburb. . . My husband liked reading him because John is an engineer and he was intrigued by all the technical detail Shute got into his books.

    • Unfortunately, the film of A Town Like Alice only dealt with the first part of the book,, which is something of a prologue for the main part. The second part of the book focusses on the heroine’s activities in Australia, and how she built “A Town Like Alice”. If there is a recurring theme in Nevil Shute’s books, it is how quite ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results. Out of 22 novels, at least 6 were made into films, which is I feel some reflection on his worth as an author during his lifetime.

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