Woodsmoke by Francis Brett Young (1924)

Woodsmoke, Young’s tenth novel, is set in East Africa, where he served during the First World War. The prologue and epilogue are set then while the main story takes place a few years earlier. In the prologue an unnamed narrator meets Captain Antrim. Near their camp two skeletons are found in an old game pit, along with a locket. This contains a picture of a woman, whom Antrim identifies as his wife. There is also a note signed J.D.R. saying ‘Dingaan has found me’. Antrim,weak with fever, asks the narrator to send a telegram to his wife saying  that the ghost has been laid.

Antrim’s story is of an ill-fated safari. He agrees to act as escort to a British couple, the Rawleys, though reluctantly because Mr Rawley is prone to bouts of drinking and violence. Things go badly from the start when Rawley has what his wife describes as ‘another unpleasant experience’ and they insist on leaving immediately by a different route. They start in German East Africa with two servants, Asmani and Dingaan, a child, Jumaa and local porters. It gets worse. The porters gradually desert, the donkeys die, the Germans have told local villagers not to trade with them and so on. Rawley becomes increasingly difficult and abusive towards Jumaa. Later it transpires that he has brought alcohol hidden in boxes. There is an incident in which Rawley hits Jumaa and Dingaan attacks Rawley. Soon after this both men go missing. Dingaan, a Zulu, can survive in the bush but Rawley won’t last long. Antrim and Asmani search carefully but neither man can be found and they return to Mombasa. There is gossip but hero and heroine return to Britain and later marry. However, they are haunted by a kind of shared hallucination at night, the smell of an African. Eventually Antrim goes back to Africa to try to lay the ghost to rest.

There are two strands to this novel, an adventure story and a romance. The adventure part is well done. The organizing of the safari;the difficulties in German territory;the journey through the bush;the sinister absence of of contact from local villagers;the diminishing supplies and the search for water and game;all these could have made a good yarn. But grafted on to this is a romance and here the novel fails to come alive, mainly owing to the characterization, especially of the Rawleys.

Antrim is fairly plausible, if a little stereotyped; a good soldier, an honourable gentleman. Quite a bit is made of his reserve with women and the reasons for it.

‘It was a game for which he had an aptitude as marked as for any other. The trouble, to his mind, was that it was a game without rules – or rather that women, in his experience, wouldn’t stick to those he accepted…..

What was more he invariably found them bad losers. With one loser, in Mau, he had had a hell of a time; and another, a winner, had wiped her feet on him in Poona.’

He gradually perceives that he is attracted to Mrs Rawley but his responses to her sometimes seem puzzling. In Mombasa he comes upon Rawley savagely beating a rickshaw driver while Mrs Rawley sits aloof in the rickshaw. Antrim thinks she is a ‘spirited woman’ and admires her sitting there ‘and not the flicker of an eyelid’ though to me she seems unnaturally unresponsive.

I struggled with the portrayal of the Rawleys. He drinks, is violent and won’t take responsibility for his actions. His behaviour is offensive but consistent, if unconvincing. Mrs Rawley is a different matter. We are told little of her thoughts and feelings and this makes it hard to understand her behaviour, which can appear capricious. Possibly her aloofness in the rickshaw comes from hard-won experience that intervening makes things worse but we are not given any information so it seems odd. Similarly she won’t tell Antrim why they must leave so quickly but is annoyed when he doesn’t tell her about problems on the journey.Although her husband seems jealous of Antrim, at one point she seems to be playing one man off against the other. I wondered if the writer was trying to create an interestingly enigmatic heroine, but she comes over to me as rather cold and unengaging. Certainly there is no great emotional connection shown between her and Antrim in their somewhat  stilted conversations.

The attitudes in the novel are those of the time. No doubts are expressed about the imperial project (self-evidently a Good Thing) and the superiority of the British is unquestioned. The German official and his Greek deputy are not decent chaps like Antrim; for example, the German has pictures of nude women on his bedroom walls – very decadent.

Although Antrim treats Africans with some fairness and threatens Rawley with the law if Jumaa dies, he still regards them as inferior. The rickshaw driver is not badly injured and Antrim thinks, ‘It would have taken more than Rawley’s fist to damage an African skull.’ He seems to have a hierarchy of tribes in mind. He treats Asmani, a Zanzibari, and Dingaan as trusted upper servants but is happy to have the malnourished porters whipped to keep them going. Both Asmani and Frangoulis, the Greek, are described as having some Arab blood. Antrim has some respect for Asmani but despises the cruel and corrupt Frangoulis. Perhaps being part-Arab is a good thing if you are African, a bad thing if you are European. Mrs Rawley is kind to Jumaa but thinks of him as a ‘small animal’ and a ‘creature’, while Rawley is outright abusive calling him a ‘black insect’ and a ‘blackbeetle’.

Young was very popular in his time but from this curiously lifeless novel it is hard to see why. Perhaps his more successful novels show more skill in characterization.

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