Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.


Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)

Courage

And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)

Conclusion

Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (2017)

The Great Man theory…

Catherine Merridale’s book Lenin on the Train describes the journey by sealed train which Lenin and 30 or so of his Bolshevik supporters made across Germany, by boat across the Baltic to Sweden, across the border into Finland and then south to St Petersburg, in April 1917.

The whole thing was laid on and funded by the German High Command in the hope that returning this noted troublemaker to the febrile political atmosphere of wartime Russia, only a few weeks after the Tsar had been toppled in the February revolution, might lead to even worse political disarray, and that this might cause Russia to abandon the war altogether, thus allowing Germany to concentrate her forces in the West.

In the chapter titled ‘Gold’ Merridale speculates on just how extensive German support for the Bolsheviks in fact was. Was laying the train, passports, visas, food and so on just the beginning? Did the Germans also siphon money to the Bolsheviks to fund their party newspaper, Pravda, and their campaigning leaflets, to pay for meetings and venues?

The evidence is murky, but underlying the whole enquiry is a variation on the Great Man theory of history, namely: if only someone had stopped Lenin getting to Russia, if only he had been arrested at the Finland border (which, apparently, he nearly was), or simply executed by British Intelligence (who had more than one opportunity to do so) – then maybe the whole Russian Revolution, with the immense worlds of suffering it produced, would never have happened. Maybe it all came down to one man or, at the least, to one small political party – the Bolsheviks.

… versus the hunger for change

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is the massive coffee table book published to accompany last year’s enormous Royal Academy exhibition about the radical, world-changing new art and design which was inspired by the Russian Revolution.

I spent an afternoon flicking through it (and dipping into the 16 intense and detailed essays which address every genre and type of art influenced by the Revolution). And it dawned on me that the extraordinary explosion of high and popular art, all across the nation, art for factories and workshops and steelyards and barracks, radical innovations in film and design and posters and graphics – mitigates against the Great Man theory. One man didn’t do all this.

At the very least the sheer scale and scope and dynamism of the new movements, which lasted for at least a decade (until Stalin suppressed them in favour of his bland, conventional ‘Socialist Realism’ in the early 1930s) show the enormous hunger for change and for radical, world-changing experimentation, among all the artists, poets, authors, film-makers, craftsmen and designers of 1910s Russia.

Maybe, possibly, the Bolsheviks might not have seized power in October 1917. But the existing unstable dual government couldn’t have continued – somebody would have seized power.

The fact that these outpourings of propaganda films and wallpaper and textiles and ceramics and architecture and completely new styles of graphics and design were welcomed, watched, read and distributed so widely, suggest the Russia as a whole was a society straining at the leash for an incredibly total transformation.

Maybe Lenin could have been stopped and the Bolsheviks banned. But the evidence of this exhibition and book suggest that whoever took power in Russia in late 1917 would still have been compelled to make wide-ranging and sweeping changes, which would have led to much the same end – a dictator force-marching Russia through agricultural and industrial modernisation, in its bid to catch up with America and Germany.

Given Russia’s long history of secret police and prison camps, any faction which had come to power – on the right or left – would probably have deployed them just as ruthlessly as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command funded the Bolsheviks, with its corollary, would the Bolsheviks have come to power without the aid of the German High Command – make for interesting reading, and lead to high-level, alternative history-style speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Russia would have undergone some kind of transformative social revolution.


Completely new visual styles

Here is just a tiny sample of the art which featured in the exhibition and which is included in the book. I could add a paragraph or so about each of them, but all of them can be looked up on google. I just want to convey the variety and the energy of the art of the period.

Constructivist art

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) by El Lissitzky

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)

Figurative art

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

Architecture

Model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Ceramics

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Design

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Fabrics

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Film

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the famous 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Avante-garde photography

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Socialist realist photography

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

Posters

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Even if Lenin had never lived, and the Bolshevik party never existed, the complete and utter collapse of Russian society, with all its traditions, its religion, its class system, king and aristocracy, its system of land ownership and industrial production, would have triggered an immense social and cultural transformation, regardless.

Artists reflecting these changes would have fallen in line with the discoveries of the other European avant-gardes, in France and especially Germany,  themselves responding to the transforming impact of the new technologies of the day which were driving all Western societies – mass production of ceramics and fabrics, the new popularity of film and radio, the excitement of cars and fast trains – and everywhere the transforming impact of electricity with its ability to power lights in streets and public buildings, as well as driving a whole new world of consumer goods.

My argument is that Russia had reached the edge of collapse, and that seismic change would have happened no matter what the precise alignment of political parties in Russia. Or who the German High Command had funded.


Related links

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Our Betters by Somerset Maugham (1923)

This is another of Maugham’s well-made comedies. Apparently it was written during the Great War, in 1915, but not staged in England until 1923 because it was thought that it might alienate American public opinion, which we were trying to persuade to enter the war.

It is set in the cynical but stylish High Society we are used to from Maugham, but this time concerns a group of Americans, not posh Brits – Americans who have married into British or European ‘Society’.

The characters

There is a sort of chorus of three mature American matrons who have married British, French or Italian aristocrats:

  1. Pearl, Lady Grayston who married George Grayston, a baronet
  2. Minnie Hodges who married and then divorced the Duc de Surennes and now is always in love with some beautiful young man or other, currently the gorgeous pouting young Tony Paxton
  3. Flora van Hoog, who married an Italian aristocrat to become the Princess della Cercola but, when he began taking mistresses, abandoned him to come and live in London and now pursues philanthropic causes and charities which she pesters her friends about.

There is also a couple of older American men who have made their way in British society: the brash, loud and over-dressed Thornton Clay, and the corrupt 70-year-old American Arthur Fenwick who made his fortune selling poor quality food to the American working classes and is now opening stores to do the same here in London.

Together these five represent a variety of ways older Americans have integrated and exploited their position. Set against them are the Younger Generation who are trying to make their life decisions, namely whether to marry for love or money (a dilemma which would have been familiar to Jane Austen a century earlier).

Young Bessie Saunders is heiress to an American fortune staying with her older sister, Pearl. Pearl’s husband, Lord George Grayston, very conveniently doesn’t live with her, allowing her to conduct her gay social life and numerous flirtations in London’s High Society without hindrance. All three acts are set in her houses – Act One in her grand town house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair, and Acts Two and Three in Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk.

Bessie has only recently arrived from America and been swept off her feet by the giddy whirl of London society. Back in the States she was engaged to a nice, unspoilt, young American gentleman, Fleming Harvey when she was 16 and he 18. Soon after arriving in London and seeing the wider world she wrote him a letter breaking off the engagement. She is being wooed by an English aristocrat, Lord Harry Bleane. Now Harvey has arrived in London and, understandably, commences trying to woo her back.

Meanwhile Act One introduces the love triangle between the good looking, slender, immaculately dressed but poor young Brit, Tony Paxton, with whom the ‘Duchesse’ (original name Minnie Hodgson, daughter of a Chicago millionaire who made his money in pork) is besottedly in love. It only slowly emerges that Tony is revolted by the desperation of the Duchesse’s passion and has become smitten with Pearl, precisely because she is so playfully unavailable.

Comedy

Comedy is extracted from the interaction of all these types – the three cynical ladies, the earnest and easily shocked young American boy Harvey, the sincere English Lord Bleane, the spoilt brat Tony Paxton, with Bessie playing her part: only slowly does it emerge that the play hinges on Bessie’s choice of whether to stay in England and marry an English lord in order to join the kind of amoral if stiflingly ‘correct’ lifestyle the three ladies live – or whether to reject European corruption and return to pure and innocent America (the subject of many of Henry James’s novels).

And there is something deeply comic about the way all these amoral characters pursue their cynical schemes against the backdrop of the impeccable formality of the grand house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair and at Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk, with their silent servants, especially the butler, Pole.

Just the existence of a dutiful and obedient butler, overhearing all their selfish schemes with complete discretion, is itself funny. ‘Very good, m’lady.’

Speaking of Funny, Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. His bon mots don’t ring and dazzle. But the play does have quite a few moments of brightly comic dialogue.

Bessie: Does George know?
Pearl: Who is George?
Bessie: Don’t be absurd, Pearl. George – your husband.

Or:

Fleming: Has it occurred to you that he wants to marry you for your money?
Bessie: You could put it more prettily. You could say that he wants to marry me with my money.

Or:

Clay: Some of these American women are strangely sexless.
Fleming: I have an idea that some of them are even virtuous.
Pearl [with a smile]: It takes all sorts to make a world.

Or:

Duchesse: I know he’s lying to me, there’s not a word of truth in anything he says. But he’s so slim I can never catch him out.

Or:

Pearl: You’re the very person we want, Thornton. An entirely strange young man has suddenly appeared on my doorstep and says he is my cousin.
Clay: My dear Pearl, that is a calamity which we Americans must always be prepared for.

And:

Duchesse: He makes me so miserable but I love him… He wants to marry me, Pearl.
Pearl: You’re not going to!
Duchesse: No, I won’t be such a fool as that. If I married him I’d have no hold over him at all.

Act Two

In Act Two, at Pearl’s country house, various interactions give us a deeper sense of the characters – of the three older women’s American backgrounds, the men they married, how they’ve coped with divorce and separation and so on.

Fleming is still really sweet on Bessie but she is agonising over whether to accept Lord Bleane. Fleming would like to hate Bleane but is disappointed to discover that he’s actually a good guy who tells Bessie he was originally attracted to her money (the fact that she was rich being broadcast all over London by her elder sister, Pearl) but that now he really is in love with her.

Their story is, for this middle part of the play, eclipsed by the passion with which pretty young Tony Paxton a) is revolted by the cloying over-attention the lurid Duchesse lavishes on him b) is powerfully attracted to Pearl. Against the latter’s better judgement Paxton persuades her to accompany him to the tea-house in the garden. Duchesse, in her violent jealousy, suspecting something is up, despatches innocent little Bessie to fetch her handbag from the same tea-house where Bessie sees… something so horrible that she rushes back into the drawing room where all the other characters are playing cards (are the couple having just a snog or actually having sex??). When Minnie provocatively asks what on earth is wrong with her, it prompts the tear-filled admission that she has seen Pearl and Tony… together!

When Pearl and Paxton make a nonchalant entrance to the drawing room it is to discover that everybody knows (know what? were they having a snog? a grope? full-on sex? it is never explained).

Tony has blown his relationship with Duchesse. More fatally, the doting old millionaire Fenwick has all his fond illusions about Pearl being pure and romantic utterly burst. ‘The slut, the slut’ he repeats, in angry despair. Given that he substantially funds her lifestyle this is a major blow.

Act Three

Act Three takes place in the same drawing room on the afternoon of the following day. The atmosphere is very strained, Pearl didn’t come down from her bedroom for either breakfast or lunch, the innocent menfolk (Clay and Fleming) and women (the Princess) tiptoed around the furious fuming Duchess while Fenwick was purple with rage. Their conversation informs us that the previous evening turned into a blazing row with words exiting the dementedly angry Duchess’s mouth that none of them had ever heard before, as she screamed her rage at Tony and Pearl.

The Duchess is pouring her heart out to the Princess when Tony sidles in looking for cigarettes. There is a comic scene where she turns on him, all outraged pride and anger, insisting he leave the house immediately and will be booted out of the flat in London which she pays for him to live in, while Tony is all sullen pouting. But the comedy is in the slow insinuating way in which their positions shift until the Duchesse is begging Tony to be nice to her and, eventually, she makes the Grand Concession of relenting and saying she will marry him – to which Tony’s only response is ‘Does that mean I’ll be able to drive the Rolls-Royce?’ By this stage we have grasped the depths of the Duchess’s helpless infatuation and the true extent of Paxton’s shallow selfishness.

The remaining scenes showcase Pearl’s brilliantly scheming to redeem a tricky situation: it will take all her wiles and cunning.

First she makes an entrance looking fabulous. Then she holds tete-a-tetes with Bessie, Clay, the Duchess and Fenwick. She reveals all her cunning ploys to Clay (and thus, to us, the audience).

1. To the Duchess she reveals that she has been phoning all her contacts that morning and has managed to get Tony a job in the government, nothing too demanding. Over the course of feline dialogue she is slowly able to win the Duchess back round to being her friend.

2. Then she explains to Clay how she is going to play the little-girl-lost for Fenwick whose self-image is of a Strong Masterly Man; she will play weak to encourage his narcissistic sense of his own masculine resilience, and so it pans out. After five minutes she has him back eating out the palm of her hand under the delusion that he is magnanimously forgiving her.

Only Bessie, her sister, sees straight through her and indeed through the lifestyle of all these Americans-in-Europe.

She has a big scene where she begs Lord Blaine to release her from their engagement. At the centre of the scene is the Author’s Message: Bessie has seen that English girls are bred up to responsibility and dignity and so know how to handle and manage their wealth; whereas the American women who marry into the British aristocracy have no sense of noblesse oblige or duty, but simply see it as an opportunity for frivolous pleasure, hence their silly flirting and superficial romances. It is not them, it is the niche they move into, which turns them into monsters. As Bessie has seen at close quarters how her beloved elder sister Pearl has become a monster of manipulation. Bessie is determined not to become like that.

The play ends with her witnessing her sister’s pièce de resistance – first thing that morning Pearl had sent her Rolls to London to collect the most fashionable dancing teacher in London and beg him to come down and stay the night. When he enters all the guests who swore they would leave in disgust at her behaviour (Fenwick, the Princess, but especially the Duchesse and Paxton) all confirm that they will stay for dinner and dancing. Despite committing just about the worst social crime imaginable (being caught red-handed being unfaithful to her elderly lover and stealing her best friend’s lover) Pearl has manipulated everyone into forgiving and forgetting.

Bessie watches all this with disgust and, in the last line of the play, vows she will be returning to America at the first opportunity.

So it’s a brittle social comedy of comically amoral, upper-class behaviour among rich American title-hunters in England – with just enough of a sting in the tail to elude the censorship but have the more high-minded critics admitting that it does have a sound moral message. It is, in other words, a clever and entertaining theatrical confection perfectly suited for its times.

Adaptations

The play was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1933, directed by George Cukor. Here’s a clip.

It was adapted for BBC radio in 1998.

It had previously been revived at the Chichester Theatre in 1997, with the throaty American actress Kathleen Turner playing Pearl and Rula Lenska as the Duchesse. The fact that Turner plays the same role in the radio broadcast suggests that one led on to the other. The Daily Telegraph reviewed the stage play. I am puzzled why Patrick O’Connor casually calls Maugham misogynist since a) all the strongest characters are women, the men being just foils and pretexts b) the women themselves cover a wide range from the strong, clever, scheming Pearl to the genuinely innocent but, ultimately decisive, Bessie.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

A Diversity of Creatures by Rudyard Kipling (1917)

Introduction

In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington devotes much of chapter 16 to a fascinating picture of the political scene in Britain from 1909 to 1914. He reminds us that the pre-Great War years weren’t the summery idyll they’re often painted as, but a time of intense social and political strife. In 1909 the all-powerful Liberal government launched David Lloyd-George’s ‘People’s Budget’ to raise taxes on the wealthy and create a welfare state – like other well-off people the Kiplings were alarmed at the possibility of new ‘super’ taxes, death duties and so on biting into their hard-earned savings, and took advice about how to protect their assets. The aristocratic House of Lords threatened to repeatedly block the Budget Act and so, in 1910, the government called two general elections to bolster their mandate, the second resulting in a hung Parliament in which the Liberals were only kept in power by the Irish Nationalist vote and therefore had to make promises to introduce a new Home Rule Bill for Ireland. It was only King George V’s threat to create enough Liberal peers to swamp the Conservative majority in the House of Lords which finally coerced the Lords into passing the Budget and then the 1911 Parliament Act which limited their powers. 1911 also saw a wave of mass strikes hit various key industries, including mining and railways, with extreme radicals calling for a general strike to overthrow the entire capitalist system.

Most threatening of all, the Liberal threat to bring in a Home Rule bill for Ireland led to extreme fighting talk from the Ulster Unionists. It is generally forgotten that the summer of 1914 was dominated not by concerns about Germany, but by the threat of civil war breaking out in northern Ireland, where the Unionists were buying guns and ammunition from Germany, while nationalists in the south were forming a rival army. The threat of civil war was so real that Kipling’s wife, Carrie, helped set up one of the numerous committees being formed to cope with the influx of refugees expected from Ireland once fighting broke out.

It was these years which saw Kipling’s reputation as an extreme right-wing propagandist crystallised. In newspapers, articles, interviews and speeches, Kipling turned himself into a spokesman for the extreme right in politics, the so-called ‘die-hards’ in Ulster, an opponent of everything the Liberals stood for, railing against Trades Unions, the Suffragettes, radicals and anti-Imperialists, the nationalist Irish and so on.

From 1909 until 1914 he threw himself into party activity on the extreme right wing, attending party meetings in London and even speaking for Max Aitken, at an election meeting. Rudyard Kipling lost some of his popularity in those years; no longer the spokesman of the forgotten men, the soldiers and sailors, the British overseas, he seemed to have become the propagandist of the Tory Party.

This collection

This is the immensely troubled background to many of the stories collected in this volume. And yet Kipling’s work is a paradox, larger than his critics or his times, larger than the man himself – because arguably the best stories in this collection have nothing to do with politics but are the unbridled farces, The Vortex and The Village That Voted That Earth Was Flat. The collection also includes a sort of spy story, a bizarre science fiction tale, and another instalment of his schoolboy ‘Stalky’ stories. The title is fitting: the stories truly are ‘a diversity of creatures’.

By the time the volume came out in 1917, Britain and the world had been utterly transformed by three years of war. The most ‘relevant’ stories for most readers will have been the last two, Mary Postgate and ‘Swept and Garnished’, bitter, angry violent tales which themselves reflected the early years of the war.

Altogether, the variety of subject matter and tone make it a very uneven, puzzling, dazzling, almost bewildering collection.

The stories

1. As Easy as A.B.C. (1912) This is an extraordinary story. It’s a sequel to With the Night Mail (published in 1905) and, like it, is a science fiction tale set in the future. It is 2065, 65 years after With the Night Mail and the world is controlled by the ‘Aerial Board of Control’ (the ‘A.B.C.’ of the title), a ‘semi-elected semi-nominated’ body.

This future world is divided into scattered settlements of people living far apart. There are fewer people and the birthrate is declining as people live longer. The key central idea to this vision and the story is that society has outgrown crowds and demagoguery and democracy. The most valuable good in this world is Privacy, which everyone jealously guards.

The story is triggered when there is an outbreak of ‘crowds’ organised by a group of the hated ‘democrats’, who have started to congregate in northern Illinois. The story takes the form – as so often in Kipling – of following a group of very talkative men, representatives (from different nations, including Italian and Russian) of the A.B.C., who are dispatched in an airship complete with advanced weapons, to quell this disgusting outbreak of crowdism and mob violence.

The representatives arrive with a fleet of other aircraft, overpower the crowds of poor deluded ‘democrats’, scoop them up into their planes and carry them back to London where they will be put on display in the theatre as a cautionary example of the old barbaric ways which led to such violence and social instability.

We are so used to science fiction being used in a broadly left-wing or liberal cause that it’s quite a shock to see it used so nakedly – and so oddly – in the opposite cause, by a reactionary who diagnoses mass movements and the trend towards democracy as the great perils of modern society.

2. Friendly Brook (March 1915) Alas, we are among Sussex peasants, as grossly caricatured and deliberately given to impenetrable jargon as Kipling’s Indians and Boers and Tommies.

‘Now we’ve a witness-board to go by!’ said Jesse at last.
‘She won’t be as easy as this all along,’ Jabez answered. ‘She’ll need plenty stakes and binders when we come to the brook.’
‘Well, ain’t we plenty?’ Jesse pointed to the ragged perspective ahead of them that plunged downhill into the fog. ‘I lay there’s a cord an’ a half o’ firewood, let alone faggots, ‘fore we get anywheres anigh the brook.’
‘The brook’s got up a piece since morning,’ said Jabez. ‘Sounds like’s if she was over Wickenden’s door-stones.’
Jesse listened, too. There was a growl in the brook’s roar as though she worried something hard.
‘Yes. She’s over Wickenden’s door-stones,’ he replied. ‘Now she’ll flood acrost Alder Bay an’ that’ll ease her.’
‘She won’t ease Jim Wickenden’s hay none if she do,’ Jabez grunted. ‘I told Jim he’d set that liddle hay-stack o’ his too low down in the medder. I told him so when he was drawin’ the bottom for it.’

Two peasants, Jabez and Jesse, are fixing some overgrown hedge, when they discuss old Jim Wickenden and his surprisingly casual attitude to his hay being carried away by the flooded brook. This gives rise to a long yarn about Jim, living with his mother who had a stroke, and how they adopted a Barnado baby from up Lunnon, raising her (Mary) as their own, until a man turns up claiming to be Mary’s natural father, festooned with legal documents etc, who has to be paid off, but comes back a month later. I think he is effectively blackmailing the family to allow Mary to stay with them, and then Jesse continues to tell how he and Jim were clearing rubbish from the brook when an odd object floated past, and they pulled it out with a ‘pooker’, and it was the man from Lunnon, drowned. They take what money they find in his pocket, then let him float off. Jesse and Jim go to the latter’s house where the mute mother claims to know nothing about it all, and Mary is upstairs studying.

Did Mary murder the man? Or did he take money, have a dash of whiskey and slip in the flooded brook and drown? Who knows? Who cares?

3. In The Same Boat (1911) London in the Edwardian era. Conroy is addicted to najdolene pills to manage a recurring nightmare of being aboard ship and hearing men scream in the engine room and stark terror as a man screams in his face this ship is going down and all is lost. His suave specialist Dr Gilbert introduces him to a fellow patient, the statuesque beautiful Miss Henschil whose similar terror is a vision of men with faces covered in mildew pursuing her across a beach. Over a series of train excursions from London they discuss their symptoms and, by talking, manage to control them, slowly giving up the pills. The denouement comes when Miss Henschil’s nurse, dumpy freckly Miss Blabey, reveals that she spoke with Miss H’s mother who revealed that the faceless men incident actually happened – she visited a leper colony in India when pregnant with Miss H, and the leprous men followed her. This revelation makes the shadow pass from her mind, she is suddenly whole and restored. And when Conroy visits his mother in Hereford, she also confirms that his night terror – which he’d never told her about – was an actual incident which happened to her when she was pregnant and on board a ship returning from India in 1885, when two stokers were scalded by steam and a man thought he’d play a cruel joke on her by telling her the ship was going down. She quickly realised it was a ‘joke’ and forgot about it – but in both cases the fright was obviously so intense that, somehow, it penetrated the souls of the little foetuses in their mothers’ wombs.

Interesting as the premise for a horror story; and interesting insight into drug addiction in the Edwardian era.

4. The Honours of War (1911) A Stalky tale. The narrator, the grown-up Beetle of the schoolboy Stalky stories, motors to the house of old Army friend, nicknamed ‘the Infant’, where he meets old pal, Lieutenant–Colonel A.L. Corkran, known in his schooldays as ‘Stalky’, now retired. They overhear two young officers, Eames and Trivett, explaining to the Infant that they ‘ragged’ a chap, Wontner, who was a bit rules and regs and intellectual-like, as you do, and, when he threatened to write to the War Office and implicate their beloved colonel, they wrapped him in a sack, thrust him in the boot of a car and have driven him here. Now. He is in the boot in the car in the garage!

The Infant is appalled and Stalky descends the stairs from where he and the narrator have been hiding and listening, to deliver an impressive tongue-lashing to the two young zealots, then despatches Beetle to untie the very angry officer from his sack. They get him in and play up to his pompous lecturing and hectorings and Stalky and the Infant try to placate him over dinner. Finally the imperturbable butler, Ipps, takes them upstairs to where the guilty pair, Eames and Trivett, are sleeping like babes. Wontner, with the others’ connivance, gets two sacks and some rope and ties them up, then asks help manhandling them down into a car, in which they all drive back to the barracks.

Slowly Wontner thaws. When Stalky reveals that he is a serving officer Wontner begins to realise what a pompous ass he’s made of himself. He stops the car in the High Street, goes into a milliners shop to buy all sorts of fabrics and, when they arrive at the barracks, dress his two sacked officers up to look like Japanese geishas, in which state they waddle into the mess. There is uproar, the Colonel is summoned, Wontner makes apologies for behaving such an insufferable prig, and all hell breaks loose as they open bottles, sing and threaten to party till dawn. Stalky and Beetle slip back to the car and drive back to the Infant’s.

I enjoyed this story very much, maybe because I understood it and got the tone straightaway; it seems like a direct ancestor of P.G. Wodehouse or early Evelyn Waugh, admittedly in army uniform. But the upper class setting and the tone of clipped irony from the first sentences is easy to get and enjoyable once you accept its tone and milieu (unlike so many of Kipling’s impenetrable tales).

5. The Dog Hervey (1914) Set in cosy, rural Sussex among middle-class families with big houses and servants, typified by Mrs Godfrey and her daughter Milly. The narrator’s friend, Attley, has a dog who’s given birth to puppies, and invites his circle round to choose ones to adopt. A manky one with a squint is chosen by a ‘dark, sallow-skinned, slack-mouthed girl’, Miss Sichliffe. After a few weeks Attley turns up with the dog, saying it’s come down sick and Miss S doesn’t know how so can the narrator look after it; he finds the dog eerie and uncanny. Now named Hervey, this clumsy squinting dog spends all its time looking at him. A few weeks later, the narrator gets a call that their friends, Mrs Godfrey and Milly, have been taken sick on Madeira. He takes a ship there and a lot of time passes as he and Attley nurse the ladies back to health. They fall in with a wealthy yacht-owner named Shend. Eventually they all ship back to Blighty, and on board the steamer Shend reveals that he is an alcoholic, who comes to him one night on the verge of delirium tremens. The narrator does a man’s job, listening to him, keeping him talking, and eventually Shend confesses that one of his hallucinations is of a funny squint-eyed dog. The ship docks and the narrator’s loyal chauffeur is there to collect him in the motor. They drive back through Sussex and stop at the gate of Moira’s house, where she happens to be outside gardening. Young Shend alights and goes to speak to her and they turn towards the house. The dog Hervey is there, skulking, and needs little encouragement to jump into the narrator’s car and be driven home, there to rejoin the narrator’s other dog, Malachi.

I read this story fairly carefully and still don’t understand what it was ‘about’ – a splendid example of the obscurity and impenetrability of many later Kipling stories.

6. The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat (1917) Like many a motorist Kipling thought he had a God-given right to ignore all rules of the road and cried blue murder if he or any of his friends were pulled up for breaking the law. In this story the narrator is merrily breaking the speed limit in a car along with Woodhouse, a journalist who specialises in rescuing failing papers, Ollyett a young man just down from Oxford, and a Tory M.P., Pallant.

They are charged with speeding in a village, Huckley, by a constable who maliciously presses their horn to frighten the horse of the local Justice of the Peace, Sir Thomas Ingell, M.P., who’s riding by. When they’re hauled up in court a) they hear a few other landowners joking about how convenient it is to have long stretches of road which encourage motorists to speed, so that you can fine ’em and make a fortune b) Ingell is crude, rude and dismissive before fining them twenty-three pounds, twelve shillings and sixpence. The next case after them is another motoring offence, the culprit the famous music hall impresario, ‘Bat’ Masquerier, whose Jewishness Ingell insults by implying that ‘Bat’ lives in Jerusalem.

Our foursome and Bat meet up for a dinner in London and hatch a monstrous plan. The newspapers will begin a small but ongoing campaign to mock and ridicule Huckley, deliberately inviting letters, comments, mild derision, and this they do. But it is as nothing compared to Masquerier’s plan which is enormous – it is to ferry down all his music hall stars, the girls, the bands, all pretending to be members of the fictitious Geoplanarians’ Annual Banquet and Exercises – a version of the Flat Earth Society; they have a huge party, get all the villagers blind drunk and hold a vote in which all 438 drunkenly agree and vote that the earth is flat, as well as festooning the village with posters, banners and spraying their slogan in Sir Thomas’s walls and gates.

Not only does this get into the Press but Masquerier rewrites the lyrics of ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’ to become ‘The village that voted the earth was flat’, and has it simultaneously launched in his music halls in all Britain’s cities, as well as recorded on the new phonographs and accompanied by film for cinematographs. It becomes a phenomenon, sweeping the civilised world. Huckley becomes a laughing stock but there is more. On a visit to the village the infuriated Ingell comes running out to shut up yet another charabanc of singing, joking, kodaking tourists, but is witnessed attacking Pallant. Pallant now brings a law case for assault but so manages it that his lawyer, on the day in court, with the world’s press assembled, apologises for bringing the case now that they have been apprised of Sir Thomas’s infirmity – and darkly hinting that something unmentionable in Ingell’s character or past renders the case otiose. This dark hint is picked up and amplified and speculated upon by the world’s media.

But even this isn’t enough, because, in the climactic scene, the narrator is invited along to the House of Commons to witness the climax of several days of feverish debate on the troubled issues of the day – only for Pallant to manage things so that he mentions the ill-fated village of Huckley and triggers an outburst of the song, ‘The village that voted the world was flat’, the entire House joining in in helpless mirth and hysterics until the Prime Minister himself enters the House and all hands point towards him in ridicule and tearful hysterics. What began as a few ideas to get their own back on a rather brusque Justice of the Peace has ended up in the farcical ridiculing of the entire political system. Sir Thomas’s humiliation is complete; we see him going into the Whips office to ask to be allowed to resign his seat.

It’s long but there’s a lot of material to get through and it moves at a rattling pace. If you can forgive the Jeremy Clarkson-style self-pity of a bunch of lawbreaking petrolheads as the initial premise, it’s hard not to be carried away by the unstoppable pace of the comedy and the grotesque dimensions of farcicality which it eventually reaches. 

7. In The Presence (1912) This is a thoughtful, reflective, strange and evocative story. The setting is entirely Indian but not the hectic desperate India of the early tales, something much more mellow and experienced. The officers of a Sikh regiment in the Indian Army are taking their leisure.

He folded his arms and sat down on the verandah. The hot day had ended, and there was a pleasant smell of cooking along the regimental lines, where half-clad men went back and forth with leaf platters and water-goglets. The Subadar–Major, in extreme undress, sat on a chair, as befitted his rank; the Havildar–Major, his nephew, leaning respectfully against the wall. The Regiment was at home and at ease in its own quarters in its own district which takes its name from the great Muhammadan saint Mian Mir, revered by Jehangir and beloved by Guru Har Gobind, sixth of the great Sikh Gurus.

In the first half, the Regimental Chaplain tells the tale of Rutton Singh and Attar Singh, two Sikhs whose family were being persecuted by their mother’s kinfolk. Eventually the persecution gets so severe they take four days leave, steal the revolver of Attar Singh’s Sahib, travel to their village and carry out a massacre of all their mother’s kin. Then they take refuge on the roof of a building in the village and await punishment. When none comes, the two men make all the correct religious rituals – they make shinan – and have their colleagues shoot them in the head. The whole tale is told by Sikhs who are most concerned that the proprieties are observed and that everything is done correctly. We hear no white man’s voice. We see their actions from the point of view of their own people, interpreted through their own tradition.

‘So Attar Singh abandoned his body, as an insect abandons a blade of grass.

After meditating on this tale and the impeccable correctness of the young men’s behaviour, it is the turn of the Subadar–Major to tell a yarn: this concerns the time he was in England, which happened to coincide with the death of King Edward VII (died May 1910). The story concerns four Gurkhas who are called on to attend the body – hence the title, In the presence. They have one hour shifts while tens of thousands of mourners traipse by to pay their respects. Much emphasis is put on their devotion to duty, on details like the fact that, although the Gurkha uniform includes stiff collars, they had to bow their heads lower than the Grenadier Guards with whom they shared the vigil, because the inclination of their heads wasn’t so obvious due to the Guards big hats and the Gurkhas’ small berets.

The tone of Kipling voodoo is introduced because the most difficult aspect of the vigil turned out to be staring at hundreds, then thousands, of disembodied feet trudging by. The vision of these feet, tramp tramp tramping becomes an ordeal for the Guardsmen – who can only bear half an hour of it at a time – and even more so a test of the unflinching devotion to duty of the Gurkhas who insist on putting in the full hour, for ‘the Honour of the Armies of Hind’. The Gurkhas are cared for / in the charge of a white officer who it is emphasised, understood their religious rituals and requirements, Forsyth Sahib, who made sure they got food prepared to their requirements.

Their duty is pushed to the edge when three of them volunteer to transport the vast amount of flowers and bouquets which have been laid at the shrine, to ‘Wanidza’ (Windsor Castle), leaving behind the fourth of their colleagues who puts in a four-hour stint till his eyes are buzzing like a weaver’s shuttle. Thus quietly, with no bloodshed or bugles, duty was done, devotion demonstrated.

When he has finished the story the Regimental Chaplain and the Subadar–Major contentedly smile at good deeds well done. Law. Order. Correct form.

‘We came well and cleanly out of it,’ said the Subadar–Major.
‘Correct! Correct! Correct!’ said the Regimental Chaplain. ‘In an evil age it is good to hear such things, and there is certainly no doubt that this is a very evil age.’

8. Regulus (1917) There are about five strands running through this story which made it, ultimately, quite hard to know whether I’d ‘understood’ it. The setting is the unnamed public school of the ‘Stalky’ stories. Mr King the Latin master is taking the class word by word through an ode of Horace’s which concerns Regulus, the Roman general who preferred to die rather than betray his fatherland, refused the offer of freedom and betrayal and walked nobly towards his torture and death. As I studied Latin myself I found this first part quite interesting and more readily comprehensible than much Kipling.

After the lesson, Mr King is shown in dispute with Mr Hartopp the (short) chemistry teacher, arguing the merits of their respective subjects, King insisting that as well as grammar, Latin teaches:

‘Balance, proportion, perspective — life!’

There is a lot of knowing, facetious banter between the pupils, Stalky, Beetle, Mullins, Vernon, Perowne, Malpass and Winton. The latter releases a mouse in the drawing lesson of Mr Lidgett. there is a complicated discussion between the Headmaster, Mr King and Lidgett – I think what is happening is Winton’s mouse trick must result in him being caned by his prefect ‘Potiphar’ Mullins, but the Head considerately orders him to write out five hundred lines of Virgil, which will delay the inevitable. Mr King drops in to help him. A bunch of boys come in to tease him, until Winton snaps and goes berserk and tries to hurt the teaser till they all sit on him to quell his passion. Thus calmed, he finally goes upstairs to receive his caning (after the narrator has casually described the caning of two smaller boys, aged 12).

One little boy is caned and then Potiphar makes a point of complimenting him on his bearing and the boy goes away grateful. Rather like the Ethiopians in the story ‘Little Foxes’ are grateful for being whipped. Then Potiphar canes Winton, before handing him his football ‘cap’, confirming that he’s got a place in the First Eleven. Not only that, but Mr King collars Winton to announce that he has appointed him the latest sub-prefect. At the very end Stalky is overheard mockingly referring to Winton as ‘Regulus’, on account that he bravely faced up to his punishment. ‘See?’ smiles Mr King. ‘A little of it sticks among the barbarians.’

These were the institutions which trained the men who went out to run the British Empire. Kipling’s school – the basis of all his ‘Stalky’ stories – was specifically set up to train the sons of Army officers themselves destined to go out and staff the Army. What comes over is corporal punishment, Latin and a fierce sense of clannishness reinforced by the facetious schoolboy slang.

9. The Edge of the Evening (1912) Another sequel: in this one we meet again American inventor Laughton O. Zigler in the heart of London, who we last saw in a prisoner of war camp in South Africa during the Boer War (as told in the story ‘The Captive’ in the collection Traffics and Discoveries). Now Zigler is rich and renting the massive country house and estate of a friend – in fact, of the English officer who took custody of him after he and his Boer commando were captured during the war.

Zigler has branched out from developing the artillery he was making in the Boer War story, and is now running a variety of companies producing all sorts of new technologies. He insists on the narrator coming to stay, so their chauffeur-driven car goes to the narrator’s hotel, he collects his bags, and they motor down to the country.

It’s a grand big house which he’s renting off Lord Marshalton: there’s a list of the famous people who have visited, overlooking a race course, with a Temple to Flora, and four footmen who greet them at the portico, carry in their bags, the narrator changes and comes down to a house full of American guests, all poking and prodding the furniture, squinting at the paintings and rummaging through the book cases. Kipling introduces an array of American types over dinner, the pushy young men, the drawling Southern lady who bad mouths Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Henry James would have had a heart attack at the lack of subtlety; it all seems more to me like the amiable satire of P.G. Wodehouse, with another stereotypically unflappable butler – Peters – the brother of Ipps in the earlier story, ‘the Honours of War’.

After dinner Zigler takes the narrator for a walk in the park and tells him about the time he had Lord Lundie the Appeal Court Judge (who appears in the earlier story, ‘The Puzzler’) and Burton–Walen, the editor, Lord Marshalton down to stay and they spent the day playing golf and were making their way back across the park as dark was falling when out of nowhere a biplane landed on the lawn and two flyers get out to fix her. As our foursome approach one of the men turns and fires a revolver at them, narrowly missing Lord Marshalton, so Zigler cracks him round the head with his golf club, while the other man makes a run for it, until tackled and brought down hard to earth.

Our foursome stand back and realise both men are dead, necks broken by golf club and awkward fall. They go through the flyers’ pockets and the cabin of the plane and find plenty of evidence that they are spies, the plane stuffed with aerial photos of English military installations. What makes it weird and very Kipling is that Lord Lundie now holds a kind of impromptu coroner’s court where witnesses are called to describe the events. Some aspect of this is meant to be funny, but it’s also macabre and a bit sadistic at the same time. So many of Kipling’s stories have this disquieting flavour.

They rack their brains how to dispose of the bodies then Zigler has the bright idea of piling them back in the biplane, firing up the engine, with his three accomplices holding it in place, then hanging a weight on the joystick and all letting go – and away the biplane climbs into the sky carrying its corpses south towards the English Channel never to be heard of again.

And with that Zigler proposes to the narrator that they go back inside and rejoin the merry party.

11. The Horse Marines (1910) This is the last of the six stories featuring Royal Navy Petty-Officer Emmanuel Pyecroft and it is another comical, indeed farcical tale. (Although Pyecroft was meant to be a way in to Kipling’s beloved Navy, it is odd that this story, like several of the others, is entirely set on land.) The narrator is down in Portsmouth to collect his motor car which has been recently repaired and is being delivered by sea and driven by his ‘engineer’, Mr Leggatt. He asks why it has such expensive tyres and Leggatt says he better ask Mr Pyecroft so they motor off to find Pyecroft helping out his crotchety uncle in his grocer’s shop. They have a meal together after which Pyecroft tells him the adventure: he and a French sailor on leave, Jules, bump into Leggatt in London and persuade him to give them a lift to Portsmouth. Outside the city they are ambushed by a group of Boy Scouts and their ‘umpire’, a Mr Morshead. He wants to rag his uncle, a Brigadier-General (Army), who is on Whitsun manoeuvres with his brigade somewhere in the Downs. So in Portsmouth they buy a load of fireworks and a rocking horse, then they drive up to the South Downs, to a place between two rival groups of the brigade, set up the rocking horse and fire off all sorts of fireworks. Both ‘sides’ of the brigade see it and think the other is taking the mickey out of them, which leads to a massive pitched battle using a vast pile of manglewurzels as ammunition.

Pyecroft’s style, his slang, his idiolect, is almost completely impenetrable, so that I found the story almost impossible to follow. It was only reading the Kipling Society’s notes which helped me understand what actually happened in the story.

12. ‘My Son’s Wife’ (1913) A satire on Frankwell Midmore, a complacent radical of ‘the Immoderate Left’, who enjoys the radical lifestyle i.e. lots of dining, pontificating, endless meetings and enjoyable affairs also known as ‘Experiments in Social Relations’. He inherits a house from a widowed aunt and land in the country (sounding suspiciously like the Sussex countryside so lavishly described in the Puck books) at the same time as his latest Experiment on Social relations dumps him and, after initially thinking he’ll ruthlessly sell it all off and dispossess the shabby peasant who rents a rundown barn on his land, Frankwell… collapses in the house of the old lady who lives in the house, the dead aunt’s maid, Rhoda Dolbie. She puts him to bed and over the next few days feeds him and nurses him back to health, explains more about old Mr Sidney the peasant who lives with his fourth woman, out of wedlock, and about mad Jimmy the idiot boy, who’ll run any errand as long as it’s not across water – that gives him ‘is fits, like.

She tells him the ruts in the drive are from the local Hunt cantering past, that the dam on the book needs fixing, old Mr Sidney wants a new pig-pound and so on. Recovering over a week or so, Kipling shows in a hundred little details, how Frankwell’s Immoderate Left soul slowly becomes intrigued by the utterly alien rural community he’s stumbled into, he reads about it, listens more to old Miss Dolbie’s stories and advice. And slowly slowly learns to value country ways, the fox hunting, with the commanding Master of the Hunt and the attractive young Miss Sperrit, always humming and singing, the brook that needs fixing, old Mr Sidney’s obstinate humour – and slowly comes to despise the glib, fancy, superficial ‘values’ of his London set.

They all agreed, with an eye over his shoulder for the next comer, that he was a different man; but when they asked him for the symptoms of nervous strain, and led him all through their own, he realised he had lost much of his old skill in lying. His three months’ absence, too, had put him hopelessly behind the London field. The movements, the allusions, the slang of the game had changed. The couples had rearranged themselves or were re-crystallizing in fresh triangles, whereby he put his foot in it badly.

Briefly, the brook that bisects Frankwell’s property floods after days of heavy rain, and Frankwell finds himself intimately involved in every aspect of it, from rescuing Mr Sidney’s live-in lover, and his pig, to handling Jimmy gone mad with fear, to watching up late with Rhoda and then, when he’s investigating the damage the next day, he’s joined by Miss Sperrit, the attractive young belle of the local Hunt, and all of a sudden, when they are knocked off their feet by Mr Sidney’s squealing pig running past them in a panic and both land in the mud – they realise they are in love.

As starkly as the Liberal anti-Imperialists are just ignorant of what they’re discussing, and don’t understand the subtle webs of culture, tradition, loyalty and devotion which bind together Sahibs and native peoples, webs they would rip apart with their facile talk of ‘democracy’ and ‘independence’ – so the superficial ‘radicals’, the urban metropolitan elite, just don’t understand the honesty,frankness, deep-rootedness, faithfulness, love of land and love of country, self respect and respect for others, which rural life encourages.

All this and it manages to be a love story as well, quite a sweet and fetching love story.

13. The Vortex (August 1914) A comic sequel to the story ‘The Puzzler’ in Actions and Reactions. The narrator once again plays host to the Hon. A.M. Penfentenyou, ‘Premier in all but name of one of Our great and growing Dominions’, who has brought with him the modern-thinking Mr Lingnam who has all sorts of clever theories about converting the British Empire into a loose federation of Dominions. I think this is an idea Kipling loathed and so Lingnam is created to be the butt of all sorts of satire. But it turns out to be just as simple a farce as ‘The Puzzler’, for Lingnam insists on driving them all in a hired car to the nearest village, for a pint of local beer and a picnic, when he is in collision with a cyclist who was carrying what turn out to be four full bee hives. In a few seconds the charming high street of the little village the railways station beneath the bridge and the green with the funfair are turned into a war zone as swarms of bees go on the rampage, Lingnam throws himself into the village pond, Penfentenyou barges into the nearest house then locks the door and the narrator covers himself with all available rugs, tucks his trousers into his socks and is reduced to tears of helpless mirth at the spectacle around him. ‘Traditional Sussex village reduced to chaos by mishap with bees’. I smiled all the way through it.

14. ‘Swept and Garnished’ (1915) It is the first autumn of the Great War. Old German widow Miss Ebermann is in bed in her apartment in Berlin with a heavy cold, whining at her maid to bring medication from the chemists, and the maid scuttles off. To Miss E’s surprise, when she next opens her eyes, she sees, first one little child poking about in her room, and a moment later, five little children.

Miss Ebermann shouts at them to get out of her apartment, telling them they have no right to break into her home like this. But the children reply that they have been told to come here until ‘their people’ come to reclaim them. And then, through a series of hints, the reader realises that the children are from a town in Belgium where someone fired on the German army passing through, who promptly massacred the inhabitants and burnt it to the ground. Miss Ebermann remembers letters from her son at the front claiming that the German army has to carry out ‘justice’ when it is attacked by treacherous civilians. Now she is seeing the ghostly victims of German ‘justice’.

Her and the reader’s suspicions are crystallised when the children finally agree to leave, but on their way out, as they turn to go, Miss Ebermann sees their horrific open wounds and they leave blood puddled all over her bedroom floor. When the maid comes back into the room she finds the old lady on her hands and knees trying to scrub the blood off the floorboards, so the place is ‘swept and garnished’ ready for the Lord.

The Kipling Society website gives useful historical notes to this story, listing genuine German atrocities from early in the war, including the rumours that the Germans cut off the right arms of Belgian boy children, so they wouldn’t be able to fight in the future. Kipling’s stories are no longer about helping tottering old ladies in health spas as they were only a few short years previously. All is changed, changed utterly.

15.Mary Postgate (1915) This is an extraordinary story, combining war, vengeance, sadism and barely suppressed sexuality. Mary Postgate is the plain Jane, 44-year-old personal maid to old Miss Fowler. She fetches and carries without question, is always well organised and emotionless. Miss Fowler’s nephew, Wynn, is orphaned and comes to live with them and Mary brings him up almost as a surrogate son though he is unceasingly rude, arrogant and unfeeling to her. When war comes all the sons go off and Wynn enlists in the Air Force, coming to visit them in his fine uniform until one day he is reported dead, having died in a training accident – the implication being that he fell, maybe 4,000 feet, from the cockpit of one of those primitive early aircraft.

Both Mary and Miss Fowler are strangely unemotional – Miss Fowler had expected Wynn’s death all along, Mary had completely repressed her anxiety. The two women agree to donate Wynn’s uniform to the Forces, but to burn all his private belongings. Kipling then gives is a moving page-long description of a young man’s belongings, stretching back through all his toys and school prizes, which Mary collects and takes to the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.

Then she has to go buy some paraffin in the village and, on the way back, she and a friend she’s bumped into, hear a bang and a wail and run behind a house to find a local child, Edna, has been blown up by a casual bomb dropped from a German plane, maybe returning from a bombing raid on London. The friend, a nurse, wraps the little girl’s body in a blanket, which immediately soaks with blood and they carry it indoors. Here the blanket falls open and Mary sees, for a second, poor little Edna’s body torn ‘into those vividly coloured strips and strings’. (Not so far-fetched. I was recently at Essendon, a little village in Hertfordshire. Here, in the early hours of 3 September 1916, a German airship returning from a raid on London dropped a bomb on the village which killed two sisters and damaged the east end of the church. Dead, out of the blue, for no reason, except the incompetence and stupidity of the German Army High Command which thought it could invade and conquer France in 6 weeks in August 1914.)

Staggering out of the house with the eviscerated child, Mary regains control of herself and walks back to the big house. Here she wheelbarrows dead Wynn’s belongings down to the incinerator and begins piling them in to burn. It is at this point that she hears a noise from the trees at the end of the garden and discovers a German airman who also seems to have fallen from the skies and crashed through trees, landing badly injured not far from the incinerator.

And this is the crux of the story: for although Mary gets an old revolver from the house (the kind of thing which seems to have been much more common in those days than now) she decides to deliberately let the man die in agony without calling for a doctor or any help.

And it is in the phrasing of the physical bodily pleasure this gives her, that many critics detect a sexual element, some going so far as to say that the dying man’s death throes give the lifelong repressed virgin an orgasm, as all kinds of anger and repressions brought to a climax.

As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above… The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself… A woman who had missed these things [love, a husband, children] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it… She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling… Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly…

Anger, revenge, violence, sadism, repressed sex – this is an extraordinarily powerful, haunting concoction of a story.


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Mr Standfast by John Buchan (1919)

I always felt that I was a better bandit than a detective

Third and longest of the five Richard Hannay novels, set against the backdrop of the Great War as it entered its 4th and crucial year. Its length is its terrible weakness as, instead of depth or subtlety, Buchan just piles on incident after incident until the plot becomes completely untenable and almost incomprehensible. As just a sample, Hannay

  • goes undercover in a garden village of pacifists
  • goes undercover in working class Glasgow, gets involved in speeches and fistfights
  • goes undercover across Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Skye
  • is involved in spying and fighting in secret coves on Skye
  • adopts the identity of a travelling salesman of religious books
  • is chased by police around Edinburgh, jumps a train south, escapes from that into a troop train
  • flies south in a commandeered airplane and crashes
  • takes command of a film shoot re-enacting a scene from the War as he makes his escape through the set
  • returns to command of his brigade in France
  • breaks into a mysterious french chateau and discovers germ warfare
  • is trapped in the dungeon of a Swiss castle, escapes
  • disguises himself as a Swiss peasant
  • climbs an inaccessible Alpine pass
  • is involved in a life-or-death race to capture Germany’s leading spy
  • takes command of his brigade against the Germans’ 1918 Spring offensive

Buchan’s war work

At the outbreak of war Buchan – at that point editor of The Spectator and popular novelist, well-known for his pro-Empire views – had gone to work for the British War Propaganda Bureau. He worked for a bit as French correspondent for The Times. Early in 1915 he was commissioned to write an official history of the War in monthly instalments to be produced by the publishers he was a partner in, Thomas Nelson & Son, hence named Nelson’s History of the War. This started in February 1915 and was eventually published in 24 volumes. Buchan was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps and given access to the official documents to write the work.

Around this time he was also commissioned to write speeches and communiqués for Douglas Haig, Head of the British Army. In 1916 the War Propaganda Bureau was subsumed into the Foreign Office at which point Buchan can be said to have officially joined the FO’s Intelligence Department. As a result of his achievements in all these tasks, in February 1917 when the government established a Department of Information, Buchan was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and put in charge of it – Buchan called it ‘the toughest job I ever took on’.

Propaganda

Given Buchan’s role at the heart of the Allied Propaganda effort you might expect the Hannay novels to be unmitigated propaganda, but they’re not. In this novel as in Greenmantle, he goes out of his way to be fair to his opponents, to respect their intelligence and to discriminate between good Germans and bad Germans.

In fact Buchan makes the first hundred pages of this novel a kind of tour of the opposition camp: he is told, on a rather flimsy pretext, to pretend to be a South African sceptical of the war and ingratiate himself with pacifists and conscientious objectors and all the domestic opponents of the war. The stated aim is that some fiendish mastermind is feeding information to the enemy via a network of spies and Hannay is tasked with establishing himself as an opponent of the war in order to sniff our the traitors. But it gives Buchan the opportunity to do systematic pen portraits of Bloomsbury pacifists and COs and very interesting it is. Apart from its other value, as insight into the period, it contains an acid portrait of a whiny novelist generally taken to be DH Lawrence.

DH Lawrence

Aronson, the novelist, proved on acquaintance the worst kind of blighter. He considered himself a genius whom it was the duty of the country to support, and he sponged on his wretched relatives and anyone who would lend him money. He was always babbling about his sins, and pretty squalid they were. I should like to have flung him among a few good old-fashioned full-blooded sinners of my acquaintance; they would have scared him considerably. He told me that he sought ‘reality’ and ‘life’ and ‘truth’, but it was hard to see how he could know much about them, for he spent half the day in bed smoking cheap cigarettes, and the rest sunning himself in the admiration of half-witted girls. The creature was tuberculous in mind and body, and the only novel of his I read, pretty well turned my stomach. Mr Aronson’s strong point was jokes about the war. If he heard of any acquaintance who had joined up or was even doing war work his merriment knew no bounds. My fingers used to itch to box the little wretch’s ears. (Chapter 2)

England, my England

I read the book as I was walking the North Downs Way in Kent, and I was struck by Hannay’s descriptions of rural England; repeatedly the hero goes for walks or comes to places in the Cotswolds so beautiful that he is enraptured. I enjoyed these descriptions so much that I read the first 50 or 60 pages several times:

The small Ford car… carried me away from the suburbs of the county town into a land of rolling hills and green water-meadows. It was a gorgeous afternoon and the blossom of early June was on every tree…

… Isham stood high up in a fold of the hills away from the main valley, and the road I was taking brought me over the ridge and back to the stream-side. I climbed through great beechwoods, which seemed in the twilight like some green place far below the sea, and then over a short stretch of hill pasture to the rim of the vale. All about me were little fields enclosed with walls of grey stone and full of dim sheep. Below were dusky woods around what I took to be Fosse Manor, for the great Roman Fosse Way, straight as an arrow, passed over the hills to the south and skirted its grounds. I could see the stream slipping among its water-meadows and could hear the plash of the weir. A tiny village settled in a crook of the hill, and its church-tower sounded seven with a curiously sweet chime. Otherwise there was no noise but the twitter of small birds and the night wind in the tops of the beeches.

In that moment I had a kind of revelation. I had a vision of what I had been fighting for, what we all were fighting for. It was peace, deep and holy and ancient, peace older than the oldest wars, peace which would endure when all our swords were hammered into ploughshares. It was more; for in that hour England first took hold of me. Before my country had been South Africa, and when I thought of home it had been the wide sun-steeped spaces of the veld or some scented glen of the Berg. But now I realized that I had a new home. I understood what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for. The freedom of an acre of her soil was cheaply bought by the blood of the best of us. I knew what it meant to be a poet, though for the life of me I could not have made a line of verse. For in that hour I had a prospect as if from a hilltop which made all the present troubles of the road seem of no account. I saw not only victory after war, but a new and happier world after victory, when I should inherit something of this English peace and wrap myself in it till the end of my days…

… Outside the house beyond a flagged terrace the lawn fell away, white in the moonshine, to the edge of the stream, which here had expanded into a miniature lake. By the water’s edge was a little formal garden with grey stone parapets which now gleamed like dusky marble. Great wafts of scent rose from it, for the lilacs were scarcely over and the may was in full blossom. Out from the shade of it came suddenly a voice like a nightingale.

It was singing the old song ‘Cherry Ripe’, a common enough thing which I had chiefly known from barrel-organs. But heard in the scented moonlight it seemed to hold all the lingering magic of an elder England and of this hallowed countryside…

…For the rest I used to spend my mornings reading in the garden, and I discovered for the first time what a pleasure was to be got from old books. They recalled and amplified that vision I had seen from the Cotswold ridge, the revelation of the priceless heritage which is England. I imbibed a mighty quantity of history, but especially I liked the writers, like Walton, who got at the very heart of the English countryside…

In the afternoons I took my exercise in long tramps along the good dusty English roads. The country fell away from Biggleswick into a plain of wood and pasture-land, with low hills on the horizon. The Place was sown with villages, each with its green and pond and ancient church. Most, too, had inns, and there I had many a draught of cool nutty ale, for the inn at Biggleswick was a reformed place which sold nothing but washy cider. Often, tramping home in the dusk, I was so much in love with the land that I could have sung with the pure joy of it…

Sweet and kind

There’s a sweetness and kindness to Buchan’s spirit, he is good at countryside and good at quick pen portraits of the strangers he meets.

Presently the road fell to a gleaming sea-loch which lay like the blue blade of a sword among the purple of the hills. At the head there was a tiny clachan, nestled among birches and rowans, where a tawny burn wound to the sea. When I entered the place it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and peace lay on it like a garment. In the wide, sunny street there was no sign of life, and no sound except of hens clucking and of bees busy among the roses. There was a little grey box of a kirk, and close to the bridge a thatched cottage which bore the sign of a post and telegraph office…. I entered the little shop, and passed from bright sunshine to a twilight smelling of paraffin and black-striped peppermint balls. An old woman with a mutch sat in an arm-chair behind the counter. She looked up at me over her spectacles and smiled, and I took to her on the instant. She had the kind of old wise face that God loves. (Ch 5)

 For complicated reasons Hannay has gone undercover to try and figure out how secrets are being smuggled to the Germans and this brings him to the Highlands and, eventually, to the Isle of Skye. But not before his enemies get the police to put out an alert for him and he is hunted across the Highland countryside rather as in the Thirty-Nine Steps. He is picked up by well-meaning local gentry with whom he suddenly returns to his full military bearing and in this mode meets the son, who has been invalided out of the war.

The boy looked at me pleasantly. ‘I’m very glad to meet you, sir. You’ll excuse me not getting up, but I’ve got a game leg.’ He was the copy of his father in features, but dark and sallow where the other was blond. He had just the same narrow head, and stubborn mouth, and honest, quick-tempered eyes. It is the type that makes dashing regimental officers, and earns V.C.s, and gets done in wholesale. I was never that kind. I belonged to the school of the cunning cowards. (Ch 5)

The last battle

The book is in two parts, which adds to the sense of bittiness, of numerous hair-raising escapades strung together on very slender threads and coming pell-mell. Once again there’s a volta or switch of emphasis, when the German spy ring which had been the focus of the first 200 pages, which had seemed so dangerous and all-encompassing – is suddenly swept up with no problems, including its dastardly ringleader, who had metamorphosed into all the Bad Men who started this beastly war.

All the previous shenanigans are completely overshadowed by the last 30 pages or so of the book which are a genuinely riveting account of the German Spring offensive, Germany’s last throw of the dice which almost penetrated the thin Allied lines and opened the way to Paris. I can’t discover how accurate Buchan’s account is of Hannay’s fictional division holding the line outside Amiens, but the stress and anxiety and the detail of reinforcements and the terrible casualties and the high stakes make for a genuinely gripping climax to an otherwise chaotic and exhausting novel.

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Cover of an early edition of Mr Standfast (1919)

Cover of an early edition of Mr Standfast (1919)

His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle (1917)

Unlike previous collections these aren’t twelve or 13 stories published in monthly instalments but a collection of just seven Sherlock Holmes stories published intermittently between September 1908 and December 1913, plus the one-off title story published in September 1917. Ie these were written by the successful and well-off author as and when he had an idea or needed some cash.

Anglo-Saxon good, foreign bad

Villains are generally foreign and frequently compared to animals. Mr Henderson aka the Tiger of San Pedro is both, as well as being the characteristic ‘superlative’ ie very worst of his type (Holmes rarely tangles with average criminals):

He is a man of fifty, strong, active, with iron-gray hair, great bunched black eyebrows, the step of a deer and the air of an emperor – a fierce, masterful man, with a red-hot spirit behind his parchment face. He is either a foreigner or has lived long in the tropics, for he is yellow and sapless, but tough as whipcord… The Tiger of San Pedro! The whole history of the man came back to me in a flash. He had made his name as the most lewd and bloodthirsty tyrant that had ever governed any country with a pretence to civilization. Strong, fearless, and energetic, he had sufficient virtue to enable him to impose his odious vices upon a cowering people for ten or twelve years. His name was a terror through all Central America. (The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge)

I got past it and got one in with my stick that crushed his head like an egg. I would have spared her, perhaps, for all my madness, but she threw her arms round him, crying out to him, and calling him ‘Alec.’ I struck again, and she lay stretched beside him. I was like a wild beast then that had tasted blood. (The Adventure of the Cardboard Box)

The murderer Georgiano is, of course, foreign (being Italian) and a monster to boot:

Not only was his body that of a giant but everything about him was grotesque, gigantic, and terrifying. His voice was like thunder in our little house. There was scarce room for the whirl of his great arms as he talked. His thoughts, his emotions, his passions, all were exaggerated and monstrous… and even when his words were to my husband those terrible, glaring, wild-beast eyes of his were always turned upon me. (The Adventure of the Red Circle)

In The Adventure of the Dying Detective Culverton Smith isn’t foreign, but the ambience of the dirty Eastern world and the deadly disease he used to kill his nephew, certainly are. A rare literal example of a foreign infection killing an innocent Anglo-Saxon.

In The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax the Rev. Dr. Shlessinger, missionary from South America, is none other than Holy Peters, one of the most unscrupulous rascals that Australia has ever evolved.. [with his wife] This poor lady is in the hands of a most infernal couple, who will stick at nothing.’

For Queen and country

It is noticeable that the final story of The Return ie The Adventure of the Second Stain, and here in the Bruce-Partington Plan, Holmes can rise no higher. In both he finds purloined documents whose loss jeopardised England’s safety. In the latter he is rewarded by an emerald tie-pin from mthe Queen-Empress herself.

At the same time, in the same story, it is made perfectly plain that Holmes is the classic English gentleman-amateur: When Mycroft says he will be rewarded with an honour, Holmes smiles and replies: ‘I play the game for the game’s own sake.’

Until the tone is changed forever by the outbreak of the Great War and the Buchanite setting and mood of His Last Bow (1917).

Multitextuality

It is an endlessly pleasurable feature of the stories the way that the mysteries have to be pieced together from varying bits of evidence and so the texts are themselves made up of various types of text patched and sown together. Lots of letters and notes and diaries and telegrams and secret messages. It also makes the stories feel swift and punchy, since sudden revelations can come in very brief new texts which interrupt the 3rd person narrative.

The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge features a crucial message sent to Garcia telling him the coast is clear for an assassination attempt. The Adventure of the Cardboard Box features the box and message, as well as an exchange of telegrams and a long confession, taken down in shorthand, from the murderer Browner. The Bruce-Partington Plan is not the first story to hinge on messages sent via the agony column of popular newspapers, apparently a routine place for crims to send coded messages.

The stories

  • The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge (1908) March 1892. John Scott Eccles makes friends with a Hispanic man and goes to stay with his odd household in Wisteria Lodge, when he awakes the house is empty but the dead body of his host is found. The tale is in two parts because it takes a while to work out that Garcia and his accomplaices were part of a brotherhood dedicated to tracking down and killing The Tiger of San Pedro, a deposed Latin American dictator on the run. Esher.
  • The Adventure of the Cardboard Box (1892) Date n/a. This story was the second of the twelve Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in most British editions of the canon, and second of the eight stories from His Last Bow in most American versions. It was suppressed in some editions because it deals with actual adultery. Miss Cushing receives a cardboax with two ears in and calls in the police. Turns out her sister, with the same initial, was part of an adulterous menage in Liverpool with the sailor who married the third Cushing sister, she introduced a second man into Jim Browner’s household who began to make love to Browner’s wife, Mary – Browner said if he ever found Fairbairn in his house he’d send Sarah Cushing his ear. He finds him, kills his wife and the adulterer, and does send the severed ear of wife and lover, but to the wrong Cushing sister. Croydon and Wallington.
  • The Adventure of the Red Circle (1911) Date n/a. Mrs Warren comes to see about a mystery lodger who never moves from his room, now her  husband has been kidnapped! Holmes quickly deduces the lodger is a woman, different from the man who arranged it. They notice signals being sent by lantern from a room across the street; on entering the room find the body of the giant Gorgiano who is head of the Red Circle, an offshoot of the Carbonari, an Italian secret society. The hidden woman, Emilia then tells the backstory about herself & husband falling love in Italy, fleeing to New York, him being asked to murder his patron for the Red Circle, and so fleeing on to London.
  • The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (1912) November 1895. Mycroft makes a rare visit about plans for the Bruce-Partington submarine which have gone missing – 7 out of 10 papers were found on the body of a young engineer from the Woolwich office, his body found by Aldgate tube railway lines, after he ran off deserting his fiancee in the fog. Holmes makes the key deduction that the body had been laid on the roof of a tube train and fallen off at Aldgate because of a curve in the line. Cross-referencing against foreign spies in London he finds one whose dwelling backed onto the railway, and he and Watson break in. Once again the agony columns of the papers come in useful where they find coded correspondence between buyer and seller and publish an invite to collect more secret papers, thus entrapping the traitor and, ultimately, the German spy.
  • The Adventure of the Dying Detective (1913) Date n/a. Holmes fakes an obscure Asian illness and worries Watson in order to lure over Culverton Smith who promptly admits to the dying Holmes that a) he poisoned him with a spiked box sent through the post b) he killed his nephew using the same device. At which point the police enter and Watson comes out of his hiding place. Culverton Smith isn’t foreign, but the ambience of the deadly Eastern world and disease he used to kill his nephew, is.
  • The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1911) Date n/a. A middle aged noblewoman, famous for her inherited jewels, goes missing. Holmes sends Watson blundering round Europe on her trail for she had seemed to be trying to evade a large ‘savage’ man trailing her. Turns out to be a nobleman back from the colonies to woo her. Back in London that they track down a missionary Lady C is reported as meeting who turns out to be none other than the Australian swindler Holy Peters. After a lot of fuss, Lady C is found in a double decker coffin!
  • The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot Spring (1910) March 1897. Many of the other stories use the word horror or describe moments of horror, but this is a sustained meditation on people who have been horrified to death. It is close in spirit to Conan Doyle’s fantasy and science fiction stories. Briefly, for his health Holmes and Watson decamp to a cove in  Cornwall, where they are interrupted by vicar and tenant Mr Mortimer Tregennis. His sister and brothers have died and been driven mad by horror. A day later the vicar rushes up to announce Mortimer himself has also been scared to death. Holmes identifies gravel in the garden with that at the cottage of famous African adventurer Dr Leon Sterndale and forces a confession. Leon, married, in secret loved Tregennis’s sister. Tregennis stole some obscure African horror powder from Sterndale’s house, when he was showing it once, and used it against his siblings, with whom he had a financial dispute. Sterndale realises it and takes more powder to Tregennis, throws it on the lamp, and watches him died horribly as revenge for the only woman he ever loved. On reflection, Holmes lets Sterndale return to Darkest Africa. Cornwall.
  • His Last Bow (told in the third person) (1917) August 1914. An epitome of Anglo-Saxon good, foreign bad, this story is, uniquely, told in the 3rd person, with a description of two German spies standing on the cliffs of Dover in the last days before the Great War breaks out, congratulating themselves on all the spying they’ve done for Berlin. One leaves and the other awaits the Irish-American traitor who’s supplied him so much material over the past few years. It is of course Holmes in disguise who hears the German spy explain everything then chloroforms him and explains the backstory to Watson, the chauffeur ie how he came out of Sussex Downs retirement to save his country in its time of need.
Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade inspecting the two ears by Sidney Paget (1892)

Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade inspecting the two ears by Sidney Paget (1892)

Novels

A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (1917)

Le Feu – or Under Fire in its English translation – Henri Barbusse’s novel about life in the French trenches during the Great War, has the distinction of being the earliest published Great War novel, finished in December 1916, and published in Spring 1917.

It mostly consists of dialogue between a ragbag bunch of squaddies and must pose real problems for any translator trying to convert 1916 French army slang and banter into another language. Robin Buss does his best but there are infelicities on every page. ‘Innit’ and ‘old bean’ occur in the same sentences in a way unlikely to be spoken by any actual English speakers.

The first 200 pages consist of anecdotes and short scenes depicting a company at rest behind the lines, scenes of varying interest and acuity. But the last 100 pages contain by far the most searing description of an infantry attack and its aftermath through a landscape from hell which I’ve ever read and are not only horrifying but terrifying, drawing the reader into a dizzying abyss of terror and despair.

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Great War-related blog posts

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