In which the saga concludes (sort of)

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may remember a series of tweets attached to the hashtag #thesagacontinues.  These related to the writing of a paper on cultural representations of shell shock which I was struggling with.  One part of the problem was that I was extremely intimidated by the line-up of participants at the conference, Aftershock: Post-traumatic Cultures since the Great War, where I was presenting the paper, an extraordinary pantheon of academic specialists including Jay Winter, Mike Roper, Simon Wesselly, Sophie Delaporte and Fiona Reid, among many others.  Reading the participants list felt a bit like reading the bibliography of my PhD.

Well, the conference, held at the end of May, has been and gone and was much more enjoyable than my agonized tweeting might have predicted.  It was a pleasure to meet up again with colleagues such as Jay and Mike who I haven’t seen since my move to Leeds.  It was even more of a pleasure to make the acquaintance of others whose work I either have admired from afar or whose exciting research (into the trauma suffered by Second World War RAF ground crew or French films of shell shock, to give just two examples) I encountered for the first time.  The papers presented were, as might be expected, extremely stimulating.  Particularly exciting from my perspective were Sophie Delaporte’s discussion of psychological trauma in relation to Freud’s ideas about the encounter with death, which has forced me to completely rethink my own attitude to Freudian theory, and Mike Roper’s paper on his current project interviewing the children of First World War ex-servicemen on their experiences of childhood which looks to be yielding a wealth of original and fascinating information.  I also acted as commentator on a panel of papers well outside my own field of expertise, dealing with the interactions between civilians and soldiers of contemporary conflicts, which gave fascinating perspectives on the problems of that individuals have in making transitions between the identities of civilian, soldier and veteran.

There was also a great deal of networking (some over one of the tastiest conference dinners, in a unique restaurant in Christiania, that I have ever had), with the happy result that I was able to add three more speakers to the roster of the workshop I am running in October.

Oh, yes, and the paper went quite well in the end, with it even being described as ‘lovely’ by one person!  More usefully, I realised that the other problem I had had with writing it is that I was attempting to squeeze the subject matter for a book into the space of 20-minute paper.  At some point in the future I am going to need to write something substantial on representations of trauma in 20th century popular culture.  It is a subject I keep coming back to, time and again.  Some day I am going to have to research it much more fully and lay that particular ghost of my Phd. to rest.

So the saga has concluded successfully.  Well, almost.  Two months later and I am still waiting for my expenses claim to make its way through the new(ish) on-line system…

Breaking the Silence

First of all, apologies for the lack of posts in recent weeks. I have a couple of looming deadlines (one of which I am avoiding by typing this) which have occupied my time during work hours, while the joys of Christmas, combined with a badly-timed decision to decorate the living room have occupied all the rest of the time that hasn’t been filled by the children.

I do want to write in a bit more detail about Fiona Reid’s Broken Men, previously mentioned, but it will require more time than current commitments allow for (although the living room decoration is now more or less completed), so here instead is the latest development from the Legacies of War seminar series, which are now available on-line.  They are all very different perspectives on civil-military relations during the war, and all worth a look.  Here is the first one, Krisztina Robert talking about the Women’s Corps:


The Myth of War Literature

‘veterans did not start to produce war novels until the later 1920s’

This quotation comes from Fiona Reid’s Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914-1930  (2010), a book I am thoroughly enjoying (more on which later) but which has raised a couple of issues relating to the sort of assumptions we make about the war.  Reid’s book is about the myths that have grown up around shell shock as a symbolic image of the First World War in British culture, a condition that has moved from being historically specific to being cultural shorthand for what we think we know about the experience of war as a whole.  Yet, despite much excellent work on examining myths related to shell shock and placing the condition in a clear historical and cultural context, she can still come out with this statement which, despite being widely repeated in both academic and popular histories of the war, simply is wrong.

Veterans of the First World War began publishing novels about the war and its aftermath as early as 1919.  H.C. McNeil (better known as ‘Sapper’) published Mufti that year.  It is not a good book, to be sure, nor did it sell particularly well (19,636 copies by 1939 compared with 162,432 for The Lieutenant and Others, his most popular collection of short stories and 396,302 for Bulldog Drummond, the novel which he remains best known for), but it is a novel about the war and its aftermath that found a publisher and an audience in the early 1920s.

And there were plenty of other, more popular novels, published in the early 1920s.  Rosa Maria Bracco, in Merchants of Hope: British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919-1939 (1993), identifies three out-and-out bestsellers: The Way of Revelation (1921), Simon Called Peter (1921) and Tell England (1922).  R.H. Mottram published the first volume of his Spanish Farm trilogy in 1924 and Warwick Deeping’s best known novel, Sorrel and Son, was published in 1925.  Bracco notes that ‘After a spate of novels in 1919 there was a sharp decrease in numbers during the following years (from thirty-nine in 1919 to seven in 1925)’ but this is a decrease, not a silence, as Reid’s statement implies.

Reid is not alone in her assumption about publishing patterns of novels about the war.  The general belief is that no one wrote or published ‘war books’ until the boom of 1929-30.  Why?  Partly, I suspect, because of a general oversimplification of an actual phenomena.  There was a war books boom in those years, much of it literature of the ‘disenchantment’ variety, although Bracco argues persuasively that there was also a great deal of popular, middlebrow literature in circulation at the time which presented a view of war that can’t be classified as disenchanted.  It is easier to understand and explain this fairly dramatic cultural shift (and to underline its dramatic nature) by arguing that there was no significant literature being published beforehand.

‘Significant’ gives a hint as to the other part of the explanation, the extent to which our understanding of war literature (like our understanding of the war) is dominated by our interpretation of what is ‘good’ literature.  All Quiet on The Western Front, Goodbye to All That, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, Parade’s End (first published between 1924 and 1928) are all classed as literary classics.  Tell England, Simon Called Peter and Sorrell and Son, are not, despite being bestsellers in their day.  Many of the war novels published in the early 1920s are bad books, or, more properly ‘good bad books’, the classic definition of the middlebrow.

Should they still be read and studied today?  Possibly not, although they can be great fun to read and the field of middlebrow studies is a growing one in its own right.  But scholars of the cultural history of the First World War cannot simply write them out of existence because they do not fit comfortably with a narrative of post-war veteran silence that we have come to accept and aren’t very good in literary terms.  Veterans were not silent; whether the public wanted to hear what they were saying is another matter entirely.  To ignore the existence of these novels and their popularity in the 1920s is the equivalent of ignoring the cultural impact of The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Gray in commentaries about Anglophone culture in the early 21st century.  They may not have a great deal to say, they may not be very good books, but ignoring them entirely is intellectually dishonest.

So this is a plea that we finally start laying to rest the great myth of First World War literature. The books of the war books boom and the literature of disenchantment are hugely important parts of our understanding of the cultural legacy of the war in Britain, but they are by no means the whole story.