Book review by George S: This month the reading group looked at books featuring war resisters and the war-sceptical. I read The Fortune by Douglas Goldring, a novel which could not find a publisher in England in 1917, but was published in Ireland by the firm of Maunsell and Co. It is reckoned that only some four hundred copies of the book reached England, but it was quite widely reviewed. Many critics reacted against its negative depiction of the war with anxiety and hostility, but the Times Literary Supplement (despite reservations) thought ‘this book, with its breathlessness and the pathos and the irony of its end, one of the best war novels of youth that we can remember’
The first two thirds of the book have nothing to do with the war. They tell the story of Harold Firbank, an impressionable young man from an uncertain background. His father is a defrocked vicar (‘a regrettable incident with a fair parishioner’) and his mother a woman who expresses her disappointment with life by practising dull and unflinching virtue. His sister Agatha has been to Girton to study Moral Sciences, and I really enjoyed the depiction of her, even though it is rather a caricature of the sort of advanced thinker who punishes herself with a vegetarian diet and ‘makes the whole house uncomfortable with her frantic reformations’. She preaches contempt for marriage and feminine vanities like make-up. I liked this description: ‘Her cheeks looked about as inviting as linoleum is to bare feet on a winter’s morning. Harold could not imagine anyone kissing Agatha of his own free will.’ (38) Agatha fades out of the novel after the first few chapters. I’d like to have read more about her.
At school, Harold Firbank is torn between two influences – the influence of the public school ethos which most of his fellow-students take for granted, and the influence of James Murdoch, an individualist for whom the school spirit is a ridiculous fiction. He holidays with James in Ireland, an experience which shows him there is more to life than can be experienced with his own miserable family.
Harold follows James to Oxford, where once again he is torn between the various conventional Oxford pieties and sentimentalities and James’s scepticism, which sees through them. He realises strongly that James means more to him than he does to James. After university, Harold sets out to become a writer, publishing an unsuccessful novel, but following this with a play that makes money. He is able to marry Petronella (or ‘Peter’) and is doing well. I thought this part of the book rather unsatisfactory – we are hurried through Harold’s career, and are often told things, rather than having them dramatically revealed.
Then comes August 1914. Most of Harold’s friends accept the conventional view that going to war on the side of France and Belgium is both right and necessary. James strongly disagrees. Before this, his scepticism has seemed merely individualistic and anti-social, but now he comes out with diatribes against the stupidity of war:
‘The war is an abomination. But the joining in of this country in the present war is the worst piece of stupidity in her whole history. It is sheer madness.’
He suggests that Britain should be on the side of Germany, ‘our natural allies’ and
‘As for Albert of Belgium, posterity will describe him as the most sentimental reactionary who ever had the power to injure a whole country in order to preserve his personal medeval idea of family honour…’ (182)
Like his more conventional friends, Harold enlists in 1914 (as did Douglas Goldring himself). During training he is fully enthused by the project of the war, but seeing the results of war disturbs him:
[H]e had watched a party of men having dinner by the roadside near his lines. They had just come back from a spell in th trenches, and were trying to find their mouths with their forks. Their hands shook so that they smeared their cheeks with gravy almost up to their eyes. Some of the poor dears encouraged one another with an overpowering humour and uncontrollable riots of laughter: others, different in temperament, sat like men struck dumb. (257)
Between 1914 and 1918, most writers observed a reticence about the horrors of war. Golding goes on to talk about ‘the look of dead men and the groans of the wounded’ and ‘the sight of a lunatic, of a ‘nervous’ case who wept and shrieked, or the funereal procession of a coward being taken to his court-martial under escort.’ he also makes it clear that some British soldiers behaved badly
And then, over everywhere, mingling with everything, poisoning every sentient moment was the smell of death’ (257)
Like Goldring himself, Harold is wounded. While recovering, back in England in 1916, his friend James asks him to accompany him to an Appeals tribunal, where he is contesting the decision to refuse him exemption. There follows the best scene in the book, a satirical depiction of the tribunal, and the tribunes’ unsympathetic treatment of men protesting that their families will be ruined if they are taken away from their work into the army. There is a socialist pacifist whose arguments are listened to seriously, but who is then commanded to do non-combatant service, which he refuses. When it is James’s turn, he explains his philosophical position:
I am convinced that warfare in the present age is ethically indefensible, and that all governments concerned in the present war are guilty in a greater or less degree.
Though he logically outwits the tribunes, they are unconvinced, and set him down for combatant service. James instead takes the boat to Ireland, where there is no conscription.
Harold too is sent by the Army to Dublin, supposedly a posting that will be less taxing for a wounded man than France or Belgium. He arrives, however, just in time for the Easter Rising. He finds himself in charge of a group of men holed up in a warehouse building, surrounded by snipers. Harold forbids the shooting of prisoners, and some of the men become convinced that he is on the side of the rebels. A sergeant shoots him.
It’s a sudden and brutal end to the novel, and one that punches home the book’s critique of British values (and especially public-school values.)
The novel is very much a mixture, with some events (such as Harold’s marriage) rather under-written. The depiction of James, the conscientious objector, I find very interesting. He is by no means the typical C.O. Typically men who objected on conscientious grounds were either members of religious organisations (Quakers, Christadelphians and others) or members of Socialist groups like the I.LP. Lone intellectuals like James were a rarity. His opinions are very much those that Goldring himself expressed in his post-war journalism, but the presentation of him is nuanced, and Goldring makes it clear that his influence on Harold is not wholly positive.
A modern reader can’t help but see a homosexual subtext in the James/Harold relationship. Was this intentional? I don’t know. It’s a novel that doesn’t quite manage to fully explore its themes, but on the other hand, it’s one that goes places where other novelists of the war years did not venture.
During the war many would have found this, with its undermining of the myth of the decency of the British soldier, a hard book to read. The Manchester Guardian reviewer wrote:
If Mr Goldring could have put off the publication of this book until after the war he might have been wiser and more kind. An individual or a nation involved in a suffering as bitter as ours need no further torture – and the truth in Mr Goldring’s statement is brutal in itself and brutally told. This is a bad moment for saying that we are wrong wholly, for ever and from the heart out. It is like tearing a bandage off a wound. (9 Oct, 1917)