Review by George S: This novel comes with two forewords, one by Newman Flower, the head of Cassell’s publishing house, and one by the author. The gist of each is that this book will disturb and offend some, but that it is a story that needs to be told.
During the First World War the Isle of Man was used as the location for internment camps for German nationals who had been living in Britain. Hall Caine uses one of these camps as the background of a novel whose subtitle is ‘A Parable’. It is written entirely in the present tense, and it preaches a message .
The story is set on a dairy farm in a remote part of the island. It is run by Robert and his two grown-up children, Robbie and Mona. Young Robbie enlists in August, 1914, and Mona has a passionate hatred for the Germans.
‘I want war and more war until those demons are driven home or wiped out of the world.’
The news comes that the farm has been requisitioned as the site of an internment camp. There are twenty-five thousand civilian prisoners, plus two thousand guards. Mona is the only woman among twenty-seven thousand men.
It is a big ugly blotch of booths and tents and bare ground, surrounded by barbed wire and covering with black ashes like a black hand the green pastures where the sett-smelling farm had been.
At first the camp is troubled. There is ‘frequent rioting, rigorously put down, and […] an attempt at insurrection in the messroom of the First Compound, and […] four prisoners being shot down by the guard.’ There are also hints of ‘indescribable vices among the men of the Third compound, and […] terrible punishments.’ (I always enjoy novels that hint at indescribable vices, but this one offers no further mentions of the subject).
The authorities decide that the men are rioting because they are idle. Workshops are built. With so many men away fighting, prisoners are used to work on the fields and bring in the corn at harvest-time. One of these prisoners has an affair with a local girl, Liza Kinnish. Mona reacts furiously to the thought of local women becoming pregnant by ‘German reptiles’.
‘I’d have such women whipped – yes, whipped in the market place.’
Her dislike of Germans increases when her brother is killed on the Somme.
But as you’ve probably guessed, Mona, despite herself, will start to fall for a German. He is called Oskar, and reminds her of her brother. She is torn in her feelings; she hears stories of large-scale German barbarity, but on the other hand she witnesses small-scale acts of kindness by individual Germans. Her feelings for Oskar grow, but when they first embrace, her father walks in on them, shouts out that she is a harlot and a strumpet and collapses with a heart attack. He dies, and the story goes round the locality that Mona’s behaviour was the death of him.
Mona is now alone. The brutal British captain of the guard tries to rape her, but then Oskar appears just in time to rescue her. Later, Oskar is on trial, and Mona testifies for him, at the cost of her own reputation. The locals all despise her even more for her open admission of her relationship with a German.
Hall Caine takes his reader through the history of the War, not always reliably. At Christmas 1916, for example, he tells us that:
it has been agreed by the marshal and generals commanding both sides on the Western Front that there shall be a four hours’ truce of the battlefields on Christmas Eve.
This is not so. The generals on both sides had strongly disapproved of the fraternisation of Christmas 1914, and did their best to make sure that it did not happen again. A truce suits Caine’s message, though, since it allows the Germans and their guards to show that they share the same Christmas carols.
After the armistice, Mona’s landlord is unwilling to renew the farm’s lease – he doesn’t want to risk having a Boche for a tenant. Oskar and Mona think of going to Germany, but his mother sends an angry letter. It becomes clear that:
The feeling in Germany against the abominable English is so bitter, because of their brutal methods of warfare (starving hundreds of German children by their infamous blockade, drowning German sailors under the sea in their submarines, burning German airmen alive in the air, and now ruining everyone by crushing demands for reparations which will leave Germany a nation of beggars.
The locals so loathe Mona as a collaborator that when her livestock are put up for auction, almost nobody bids. Therefore she and Oskar do not have the funds to travel to America, their only other alternative.
Misery is piled on misery as the peace proves even crueller than the war. For instance, when Mona comes across the local mason carving the district’s war memorial, her brother’s name has been left off, because of her own pro-German behaviour. This despite the fact that Robbie (like the larger proportion of noble soldiers in fiction, but only a very tiny proportion in fact) had been awarded the V.C. Does this omission of a name have any counterpart in real life? The only names I know of that were deliberately left off were some of those shot for desertion or cowardice – and by no means all of those.
Finally, Mona decides that her noblest course is to free Oskar from the liability of looking after her by committing suicide. She discovers that he has had the same idea. They decide to die together, leaping from a cliff onto the rocks.
The book’s message is clear – we should treat people as individuals, not as members of a race or nation. Its heart is in the right place – but there is a sentimentality in the piling on of agonies, and in the stark contrast between the noble couple and their mean and vicious enemies. It reminded me of another novelist who wrote a sincere but rather overdone parable about the First World War nearly a century later. Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful has a very similar mixture of sententiousness, melodrama and historical inaccuracy.
This book was filmed in 1927, with Pola Negri, but set in France, not on the Isle of Man. I think the film is better than the novel. It’s on YouTube: