What pre-WWI books tell us about the times

WHICH books from a century ago gave the best insight into the cataclysmic changes ahead? Stuart Kelly finds out

British troops moving up to the trenches, 2.5 miles East of Ypres. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We are deeply accustomed to viewing the First World War through the lens of the literature written during it and immediately thereafter: the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, plays such as R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End, novels from both sides such as Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire and even Ernst Jünger’s problematic Storm Of Steel, recently reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. But what would a person interested in literature have made of the state of the world according to the books produced in the months just before the war? They may not have seen the conflict looming – they might even have thought that it was less likely than a decade beforehand, when the “invasion” novels written by William Le Queux, speculating about an imminent German invasion, were so popular (and which influenced H G Wells in The War Of The Worlds).

Nevertheless, an alert reader would have known that some kind of change was more than imminent. In some senses it had already happened. Popular fiction might have been dominated by writers like Baroness Orczy (who published The Laughing Cavalier in 1914), and there was an interesting new voice with Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Tarzan Of The Apes had just appeared in book format. Many of the literary writers from the 19th century were still prominent, if perhaps less than in their glory days. 1914 saw H G Wells in prophetic form with The World Set Free (“Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it… before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city”). Arnold Bennett published The Price Of Love and Henry James his autobiographical work, Notes Of A Son And Brother. G K Chesterton was still lauding traditional Englishness with The Flying Inn, where publican Humphrey Pump roams the countryside in his itinerant pub, to the frustrations of the Temperance League and “Progressive Islam”. More socially engaged readers would be enjoying the posthumous publication of Robert Tressell’s classic of working class life, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

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But there were newer, dissident voices. James Joyce published his Modernist short story collection Dubliners, and the first chapter of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man appeared in a new magazine, The Egoist. Oblique, epiphanic and unsettling, the short stories marked a radical departure; their granular language both poetic and profane. In The Prussian Officer And Other Stories, a young D H Lawrence explored violence and sexual frustration in a manner unthinkable even a few years beforehand, particularly in “Odour of Chrysanthemums”, in which a Nottingham coal miner’s abused wife fears his return, and yet remains stoic when what does come home is his corpse. A young literary tyro, an American called Ezra Loomis Pound, sought to rattle the cages of convention with an anthology of “Imagist” poetry, stripping away Edwardian adjectives and verbosity, aiming for a purer, more musical and then tuneful form of poetry. On the other side of the world – Modernism was never a parochial phenomenon – Miguel de Unamuno published an early classic of Latin American literature, Our Lord Don Quixote as well as the novel Mist.

Were there, in Coleridge’s words, “ancestral voices prophesying war”? Not exactly, but there were certainly younger voices promising conflict. On 2 July 1914, the artist and novelist Wyndham Lewis brought out the first issue (of only two) of Blast! It was provocative, angry, avant-garde manifesto. It called for its adherents to “Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes”, referred to themselves as “primitive mercenaries”, wanted “Humour if it is fought like Tragedy” and “Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb”. It features a quasi-liturgical series of “blasts” and “curses” against their enemies and “blessings” on their technological and aesthetic fellow-travellers. In a more whimsical, but actually more terrifying manner, Anatole France published The Revolt Of The Angels, in which Arcade, the guardian angel aesthete aristocrat Maurice d’Esparvieu reveals himself, and the news of a second war in heaven to overthrow Jehovah. Buried in this syllabub of a book is a poisonous piece of anti-Semitism: the only Jewish angel is arming both sides of the angelic conflict.

Two books were written in 1914 which demonstrated the immense shifts in culture: but they were read by only a select few. E M Forster wrote Maurice, one of the very first novels about homosexual love (and, in the attraction between Maurice and the under-gamekeeper Scudder, pre-empting D H Lawrence’s work of class and sex by a significant margin). It was only published after Forster’s death in 1971. In Germany, Heinrich Mann, older brother of Thomas Mann, wrote Der Untertan, usually translated into English as Man Of Straw. A coruscating attack on Germany’s belligerence, pathological deference, rising nationalism, anti-Semitism, the hypocritical protagonist, Hessling, preaches one thing while practising another. It would not be published until 1918.

Once war broke out, other events were happening behind the scenes. Charles Masterman, head of the British War Propaganda Unit, called together a group of literary men – among them Chesteron, Conan Doyle, Wells, Kipling, Hardy, Bennett and Masefield – to co-ordinate support (W B Yeats refused to sign their joint letter in the Times). It had early obvious successes – John Buchan’s Nelson’s History of The War, a monthly part-work, or Laurence Binyon’s “For The Fallen” – and odd ones: Arthur Machen’s story “The Bowmen” in the Evening News is a key source for the myth of the “Angel of Mons”.

And what of Scotland? Scotland was, obviously, divided. In London, Henry James was lauding Compton Mackenzie’s bildungsroman Sinister Street as the authentic voice of a new generation in the newly formed Times Literary Supplement. In Elderslie, near Paisley, the local minister J. MacDougall Hay, published Gillespie. Set in the fishing communities of the west, Gillespie is public benefactor and private monster, an anti-Christ and an entrepreneur. Much in the vein of The House With The Green Shutters, it showed the Kailyard was in decline.

1914 saw the first literary casualty. Alain-Fournier’s body would not be identified until 1991.