I’m sure it won’t surprise readers to know that the Richard Aldington / Imagism conference scheduled for this summer has been cancelled. Like most events at the moment, we’ll have to wait and see before thinking about possible revised dates.
Please do continue to get in touch with your Aldington-related news.
Jennifer was Aldington’s niece – the daughter of Aldington’s younger brother Tony and his first wife, Moira Osborne. She and her brother Tim, born in 1936, were brought up by their mother and grandmother after their parents separated in 1941.
Jennifer’s childhood and subsequent development were deeply affected by the Second World War: in S.E. Kent schools were closed for the duration and she and her brother were taught at home by a retired schoolteacher. Fortunately, Jennifer’s love of literature – especially Shakespeare and the nineteenth century novelists – was encouraged. She was twelve years old when the war ended and her over-protective grandmother decided that she could continue to study at home. She had many talents, apart from being an avid reader, including for drawing and painting – she did attend art school for a short while – and also for singing and for writing, but was never given the opportunity to exploit these. She loved riding and had her own horse for a while until it became too expensive to keep it; but her love of animals did lead her into breeding Yorkshire terriers and poodles. Much of her life as a young adult was taken up with caring for her grandmother and her mother. She married in 1966 and her daughter, Francesca, was born three years later. Subsequently Jennifer had an important role in helping Francesca to combine a career with bringing up her own two daughters, Saskia and Anushka, now in their early twenties.
As Tony Aldington acted as his brother’s solicitor and legal adviser, Aldington was in regular touch with him and his second family after moving back to France in 1946, but Jennifer started to write to her uncle in September 1954. His initial response was, rather unsurprisingly: ‘I have always thought that relatives and so on were people better to let alone; your letter changed my ideas on the subject.’ He told her: ‘I am an old codger now, and not very amusing, except when I get cross and slang people in print.’ (This was, of course only a few months before the publication of ‘Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Inquiry’.) However, she was not put off and they continued to correspond. In September 1961 Moira, Jennifer and Tim (newly returned from three years’ service as an agricultural field officer in Tanganyika) visited Aldington at Sury, an enjoyable time for them all, during which he took them to see the abbey at Vézelay and out for a restaurant meal; but their visit was curtailed after a week because he and Catha had been summoned to Zurich by Bryher to see the dying H.D.
Jennifer remained an admirer of Aldington for the rest of her life and was a member of the NCLS. I was fortunate to be introduced to her in 2011 by her cousin Jane Conway, author of ‘Mary Borden: A Woman of Two Wars’. On my visits to see her in Deal in Kent, sometimes with Jane, sometimes with my husband, she shared her letters from Aldington with me and spoke of him with great affection, remarking on his generosity and good humour. Despite being crippled with arthritis, suffering from increasingly poor eyesight (a particularly tragic blow as it prevented her from reading) and in constant pain, she was welcoming and full of spirit, and her memories of her remarkable family were always entertaining. Her tales of May Aldington were fascinating and helped me understand Aldington’s fraught relationship with his mother, while her memories of his sisters, her aunts Marjorie and Patty, were poignant ones.
Until the distance became too much for her, we would meet at ‘The Black Douglas’, Jennifer’s favourite café on the seafront at Deal, where she was well known and loved. I last saw her at the end of August last year, when she and Jane and I went down to the beach to a café where Anushka worked. Knowing that I was vegan, Jennifer had thoughtfully purchased a vegan pasty for me the day before and brought it with her in the basket of her mobility scooter.
In early October, Jennifer was suffering from heart problems and contracted pneumonia. She was taken into hospital and, although discharged temporarily after a few weeks, she was soon taken ill again and returned to hospital where she died on 27 November. The Church of St Thomas of Canterbury in Deal was full of friends and family for her requiem mass on 20 December.
Jennifer is survived by her brother, her daughter and her two granddaughters. Much of the information I have about her early life was kindly given to me by Tim Aldington.
At Tous les Saints, 31st Octobre, a stone was laid at the grave of Richard Aldington. It marks the culmination of a two year project, and it was sited at Sury en Vaux with the permission of his grandchildren. It measures 28cm x 28 x 26, and rests without fixture at the corner of the existing gravestone. The engraved letters simply state the author’s name. These letters are only just discernible as they are eroding.
I am not a relative of Aldington’s, I am an enthusiast in literature. I spent much of the centenary years visiting the battlefields of the Somme and Flanders with the War Poets Association, where we inspected many cemeteries of the soldiers of the Great War. It was striking, and a cause for great humility at how immaculately the cemeteries are maintained. None of the stones appear to have suffered from weathering; the stones are dazzling as they stand in regimented and measured rows.
On one of these tours, I came across the name of Aldington during a lecture delivered at a converted barn in Auchonvillers, near the Ancre. I became interested in his life and work. And one Christmas Holiday, I visited the Sancerrois, where he spent his dotage at Maison Sallé, a bungalow lent him by his Australian secretary Alister Kershaw. By good fortune, I had made the acquaintance of his widow, who was able to tell me the exact whereabouts of Aldington’s grave at the small cemetery. Without this information I should not have found it, as there is no headstone.
It would not rest easily on the conscience of any lover of elegant literature, to learn that the author of ‘Death of a hero,’ has not been commemorated to posterity at his resting place.What to do? I set about alerting his literary estate, and the society Aldington formed in Florence.
I wish to extend my gratitude to his biographer, Vivien Whelpton, for her unfailing and generous support. I assumed that one could contact a monumental mason in the Sancerrois, but I also knew that if I took this course the project would become elongated to the point of indifference. Again, by good fortune, I learnt that a former colleague of mine is running a stone carving studio at Rabastens, on the Tarn.I contacted her, and asked whether she would agree to a commission from me. She would. And, elatedly, I informed interested parties that there would be a stone! I knew she could be relied upon to produce a work of quality.
The only obstacle that now lay before me was in how to convey a piece of dense Fontenay limestone from the studio to the cemetery. A distance of over 500 km…
The XI International Aldington Society and VII International Imagism Conference will be held in Chavignol, France, near Sancerre and Sury-En-Vaux, the village where Aldington spent the last few years of his life. The International Richard Aldington Society was co-founded by Catha Aldington, and its first conference was held in her home in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the summer of 2000. Since that time, the conference has been held biennially. The first two Imagism Conferences were held at Brunnenburg Castle in Italy in 2007 and 2010, with the Aldington Society as a joint sponsor in 2010. The two conferences were then held jointly through 2016, and in 2018 the XX conference of the Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society was included. The EMR Society is a co-sponsor of this year’s conference.
We invite a wide range of possible papers dealing with any aspect of the life and work of Aldington, the Imagist Movement, May Sinclair, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts.
Topics may include but are not limited to the following suggestions:
Aldington in Sury-en-Vaux
Aldington and Imagism
Aldington and H. D.
Aldington and May Sinclair
Modernism and Modernity
Transatlantic Contemporaries: Richard Aldington, H. D., T. S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, May Sinclair
May Sinclair and Imagism
May Sinclair and Elizabeth Madox Roberts
Deadline for submissions is January 5, 2020. Please send a title and 250-word abstract to the conference co-directors: Daniel Kempton (firstname.lastname@example.org) and H. R. Stoneback (email@example.com).
The conference site is La Salle Panoramique in l’Hôtel Restaurant Famille Bourgeois in Chavignol.
Saturday June 20: Arrival day and evening reading of poetry by Richard Aldington and others at the hotel.
Sunday June 21: Academic Panels 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Monday June 22: Departure day. At 12 noon, readings from Aldington’s work at his grave in Sury-en-Vaux.
Registration and lodging information forthcoming soon. The registration fee will be a remarkably low $85, which covers all conference expenses, including morning and afternoon breaks with refreshments during the full day of academic panels, a lunch catered by the Bistro des Damnés, and at the end of the day a dégustation commentée of the wines from the Domaine Famille Bourgeois. We are awaiting confirmation of lodging details from the small hotel of the Domaine, our conference headquarters. As soon as the details are available, we will send a lodging update. The Domaine will not be able to accommodate all conferees, but there are numerous inexpensive small hotels in the Chavignol-Sancerre area in the $55-to-$110 price range. Early booking of lodging highly recommended.
When Vivien Whelpton kindly sent me a copy of the second volume of her commendably assiduous biography (which I name as RA2) of my uncle Richard Aldington, I started to peruse it from its Part Three. I did so because, apart from receiving the occasional food parcel sent by him from the US during the wartime 1940s, my sister Jennifer and I had very little knowledge of his whereabouts or activities until the mid-1950s (RA2, p. 311). Our contact began as an occasional exchange of correspondence between my sister and him which eventually led to our visiting him together with our mother, Moira (his former sister-in-law, long-since divorced from his brother Tony) at Sury-en-Vaux, in early September 1961. This was shortly after my return from a 33 month tour of service in what was then still Tanganyika, which Vivien also notes. There we experienced his kindness and unexpected cooking ability, the latter hardly surprising as by then he had been looking after himself, and Catha too at times, for a decade or more with the departure of Netta. But then we were not aware of that.
I remember him with his still thick, grey hair cut en brosse but not too severely, sitting in front of the kitchen stove wherein was roasting a chicken or something, with a glass of wine to hand, laughingly bemoaning the fact that, due to financial constraints, he could no longer afford the more expensive wines, let alone champagne, of former times. However, Alister Kershaw’s house, Maison Sallé, was comfortable and we lived well but simply. He had a sedate Simca saloon car to move around in which we had to use if we travelled together because my little Austin-Healey two-seater car could barely accommodate us three let alone with the still quite robust Richard. I remember him making some contemptuous remarks at the driver of a Parisian car, recognizable by its 75 number plate, which had rudely ignored his right of way. However, we did not wish to impose too much on his hospitality and so often went off to visit the environs of Sury and the nearby river Loire while leaving him to his work.
At a distance of now nearly 60 years, I have no recollection of any deep intellectual intercourse between us but there was much to catch up on concerning family affairs on both sides. In particular, my sister and I wanted news about Catha who was quite close to us in age and whom we had not yet met: we were to do so a few years later and amusing company she became. Catha was closer to age to us than we had estimated (RA2, p. 119), being born in France in 1938 rather than in the US in 1940-41. I do remember inspecting Richard’s impressive library, impressive both in size and what I perceived to be in quality: my more knowledgeable – in this respect! – sister confirmed the latter.
Years later, being by chance in its vicinity, accompanied by my French wife, I visited Maison Sallé again. It was then housing Kershaw’s second wife, Sheila, whom I had already met and who kindly showed us around the then newly re-arranged building with Richard’s library well ensconced, perhaps even better than before. She also told us where we would find his impressive grave, situated in a nearby public cemetery.
One final insight on our earlier family visit to Richard marked our departure, also noted by Vivien (RA2, p. 311). We had arranged to stay with him for a week at most but had left the actual date open. There would be no problem in driving up to Calais and getting a ferryboat to Dover as our visit was out of the main tourist season and we lived then at Folkestone, adjacent to Dover. If I remember correctly, it was about four or five days after our arrival that he informed us that he had just received news that an ‘old friend’ of his was ill in Zurich whom he wished to visit as soon as possible. Yet he gave no name. Of course the ‘friend’ was H.D. whom we had never met and who was to die within the month. We readily agreed to leave the next morning and we spent an affable evening together. Yet it seems strange that he did not mention her by name. In any case, it was none of our business and we left on the best of terms.
I was to see uncle Richard once more before he died, as Vivien notes (RA2, p. 321). It was in the early summer of 1962 so less than a year since my previous visit. I was facing a dilemma. Now a year after my return from Africa, I had lost, and willingly so, my job as a trainee salesman of agricultural machinery for a firm in western England, to work in Colombia of all places. I say ‘willingly’ because, like my employer, I had come to realise that I was not a salesman. So it was something of a relief too. Yet I had started to learn Spanish, needed to work even if I had some financial resources, and wondered if I should not try to resume my studies before it became too late: I was then 26. Also, there was an idea growing in my mind of writing a book on my experiences gained from my tour of work in East Africa in 1958-61. Feeling disillusioned with Great Britain – as I do now but for different reasons! – I decided to pass a few weeks of camping in Europe – it was a time of camping then – with my little car, to think about it all.
I decided to start with Spain to practice my still primitive Spanish, perhaps passing through southern France on my return. I spent about two weeks on the Costa Brava but my return trip through southern France was shortened by a severe storm. This damaged my feeble tent and brought about an attack of malaria probably awoken by the sudden change in climate. Fortunately the French chemist I visited was well acquainted with the term ‘paludisme’ and gave me the correct treatment. So I headed home northwards in a rather chastened frame of mind. On the road, I realised that if I took a route to Calais, the appropriate ferryboat port for Dover, that avoided Paris, I would pass close to Sury-en Vaux, Maison Sallé and uncle Richard. Why not try to visit him? I selected Cosne-sur-Loire with its municipal camping site and adjacent to Sury-en-Vaux, as my initial destination.
I cannot recall how I contacted him as mobile telephones did not exist then but I must have done so somehow and not just turned up. Anyway, he welcomed me and we were soon enjoying a glass of wine together. It was towards the middle of July 1962 and he had just returned from his trip to the USSR accompanied by Catha, at the invitation of the USSR Writers’ Union. Vivien, writing about it in RA2, regards this trip as being a triumph for him and I suppose it was too. However, he admitted to feeling very tired and he realised that perhaps he had over-enthusiastically participated in the notoriously famous rites of Russian hospitality. However, I remember that he gave me the impression of being very pleased with his and Catha’s experiences which was a pleasure to witness. He invited me to dine with him and even to stay the night but I desisted because of his recognizable tiredness and also that I had left my tent and belongings on the camp site at Cosne.
We chatted for a while, especially about his USSR visit, but during our chat I explained to him my idea of writing a book on my African experiences, that had further developed during the previous few weeks of relative solitude while camping. I even went so far as to express an interest in possibly earning a living from writing. At this remark of mine he metaphorically exploded and adamantly urged me NOT to even contemplate doing so. His reaction surprised me at the time but certainly not now following further reading of Vivien’s RA2! In fact he did me a very valuable service because during my nearly completed camping expedition, I realise now that I had been slowly shifting towards the – what I had perceived to be – softer option before me in pursuing a career of sorts, that of earning a living from writing rather than the more challenging – as I perceived it – attempt to resume my studies.
Richard’s spontaneous interjection was a tectonic plate shift of a sort. I much needed that, lacking as I did any fatherly advice following my father’s departure from the family back in 1940-41 when I was 4-5 years old. Perhaps I did not realise this service at the time but now, nearly 60 years later, I wish to put on record my gratitude for his insight. Also it must have been fate that had induced me to visit Richard at this particular time that proved to be such a small window of opportunity between his return from the USSR and his death. I knew that he was an entertaining conversationalist but for me our meeting marked a turning point towards a career different to one I had been contemplating. In fact this career did lead eventually to much writing and editing, but of technical reports and documents which, at least, I did try to make readable. This is not always the case.
Leaving Cosne, on my journey northwards home that culminated in the white cliffs of Dover rising before the advancing ferryboat, I had revised my priorities. Yet, so soon after I had returned to the rather miserable apartment in Folkestone my family occupied at the time, we received the terrible news that Richard had died. So our physical relationship with him, if I may term it as such, had lasted for less than a year. But it had been an experience well worthwhile for me and my sister too. The outcome was that I applied to a selected university for entrance in a following academic year and even had an interview regarding it which appeared to have gone well. I would have to await for some months for an answer.
To end on a lighter note, yet beyond the scope of RA2, at the end of 1962, in fact between Christmas and the New Year of ’63, I managed to meet Alistair Kershaw and Sheila, in Paris. I had committed myself to resuming my studies, if possible in the following October but as a form of ‘backstop’ – although this term currently has become weighted with much greater significance! – I had decided to go to Spain to study Spanish in Malaga: a) to retreat from another winter (my second since returning from Africa) in northern Europe which, in fact, proved to be a severe one; and b) to improve my Spanish so that, should my university application fail, possibly I could depart for Colombia and try my luck there but not as a salesman of agricultural machinery! Also I found that I could pass a few months in Malaga at that season of the year relatively cheaply.
Installed overnight in Paris for I was travelling by train having sold my little car, I contacted Kershaw and we three dined together in a modest Parisian restaurant. He recounted some anecdotes relating to Richard, one of which I remember as being particularly amusing. It must have taken place in the late 1940’s after Richard’s return from the US. Richard was with a group of friends, including Alistair, recently arrived from Australia I presume, drinking at some bar, presumably in the south of France. The drink was, of course, champagne. As the evening proceeded, one by one, members of the group tottered off to their respective homes leaving Alistair as Richard’s sole companion drinker. Finally, even he, Alistair, had had enough or more than enough, to drink and excused himself. As he retreated through the door, he heard Richard call “Garcon, une autre demie si vous plait.” That was dear Richard. He endured a life that was truly difficult at times but he also enjoyed some pleasurable times as well.
I much appreciated Vivien’s conclusion to her biography of Richard, particularly its very last paragraph based on Randall’s insightful and sympathetic observations on him (RA2 p.325). Of course Richard had some faults but who does not?
Correspondent Mike Copp writes with the following references to RA, culled from Douglas Goldring’s autobiography Odd Man Out (Chapman & Hall, 1935).
‘May Sinclair, Ethel Colburn Mayne, R B Cunninghame Graham, Richard Aldington, H D, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, W L George, Mrs Fisher (now Lady) Dilke, G S Street and Bohun Lynch are among the many people whose names occur to me in connection with Violet [Hunt]’s home.’ (117)
‘It is profoundly significant that it was not until “the twenties” were nearly over that that bitter masterpiece – Richard Aldington’s “Death of a Hero” – made its appearance.’ (224)
‘Richard Aldington and Aldous Huxley have contributed far and away the most discriminating studies of Lawrence which have yet appeared.’ (265)
Readers interested in the connection between Aldington and Goldring might wish to look at Stephen Steele’s ‘Modernism at the Margins: Richard Aldington’s letters to Douglas Goldring (1932-1946), Modern Language Studies, 35.2 (2005), 22-55. –AF
One year after David’s death, we look back on his life through Caroline Zilboorg’s tribute. This was written some time ago, and I must apologise to Caroline for not posting it sooner; I felt it fitting to post on this date. –AF
Tribute to David Wilkinson
David Wilkinson played an important part in my work on Aldington and H.D. almost from the start. I began my research during a summer fellowship at Princeton University in 1987. Aldington’s letters to H.D. from the front in 1918 had arrived at the Beinecke shortly after Bryher’s death in 1983, but had only just been catalogued, and I would make the first of many visits to Yale that July. Most of the information about other known RA letters was in Norman Gates’ wonderful Checklist, and in those days before email I immediately wrote four letters to people I hoped would help me with my research: Perdita Schaffner, Catha Aldington, Susan Friedman and Norman Gates, who lived just down the road in southern New Jersey. Everyone responded and all four in due course were extremely kind and encouraging. I invited Norman for lunch at the Princeton faculty club (membership being one of the many perks of the fellowship) and our afternoon together was invaluable: he brought with him a full run of the NCLS and suggested I write to Alister Kershaw, Fred Crawford and David Wilkinson, all of whom would become dear friends.
Cambridge had been an important part of my life since 1985; another year there was in the works for 1988-89. By the time we arrived in England in late August after a summer of research in Paris (my husband was working on his book on Simone Weil and I was working not only on the early RA-HD letters but on the letters between HD and Adrienne Monnier), my correspondence with David was well established and we were eager to meet. I drove down to Padworth with my husband and our four young children, then aged 3, 5, 8 and 9. We were used to such trips and knew that our family was often overwhelming to those who kindly invited us to visit (Alister and Jelka Kershaw had been impressively unfazed during our family’s visit to Maison Sallé in July); David and Tina were equally undaunted and we talked all afternoon over tea on the banks of the Kennet.
Indeed, David and I had a great deal to talk about during this first of many meetings in Padworth and later in London and St Ives, and in future I would spend several weekends at Malthouse Cottage without the familial entourage. David was unendingly helpful with precise information about Aldington’s daily life first in Hermitage and then in Padworth and London in the 1920s. Together he and I tramped around the neighbourhood and he drove me hither and yon in the Berkshire and Cornwall that figure in both my editions of the RA-HD letters, in which my notes only hint at the debt I owe him.
I was not involved with Aldington at the time of the 1986 conference at the University of Reading organised by Lionel Kelly with David’s help. David was always quick to admit that he was not an academic as he grounded our research in the concrete realities of Aldington’s actual experiences, but he was the link between Aldington and so many of the academics who championed Aldington’s work in scholarly journals and books. Through David and Norman, I was soon in contact with many of the conference participants including Lionel, Cy Fox, Patrick Quinn and Adrian Barlow, initiating collegial friendships that have flourished over the decades and were cemented by visits and shared meals and long conversations during the years I lived in Cambridge when Cy was living in Sydenham and Patrick in Bicester and Adrian in Hardwick. David was also instrumental in helping me organise the 1992 Centenary conference in Montpellier, where Alain Blayac was the man on the ground and David a silent partner, the unofficial European coordinator while I was still based in the United States. Following that experience, which brought so many far-flung Aldington scholars face-to-face for the first time, there were lovely dinners in London organised by Anne Powell with David’s helpful support.
Because of his interest in Aldington, David was also inspired to move on from being ‘merely’ the curator of Malthouse Cottage, the master of local history. Through my friendship with Martin Taylor at the Imperial War Museum, he was able to join the community of scholars with his 1992 introduction to Aldington’s Roads to Glory, but when in due course he left Berkshire, he turned his attention to meticulously researched book-length biographies of Ranger Gull (2012), Alfred Wallis (2017) and Henri Gaudier Brzeska (2018).
In August 2018 David told me that he was in good spirits despite physical infirmities that were hard for me to imagine in a man so energetic– and with characteristically persistent energy he told me that he could not stop writing. He was eager to see his book on Gaudier-Brzeska in print and had already drafted two further manuscripts on Zennor. Throughout the many years that I knew him and right up until the end, David was elegance personified, the soul of discretion, the master of politesse and collegiality, smoothing occasionally ruffled feathers and deflecting potentially serious differences, both a torch-bearer and a peacemaker. My work on Aldington owes a large debt to him and the NCLS will not be the same without his benevolent presence; I miss him already.
Vivien Whelpton has written a new introduction for Death of a Hero, which she kindly offers for publication on NCLSN. Readers might want to read this as an alternative or companion to the introduction to the recent Penguin Classics edition. Vivien’s introduction is aimed at a non-academic readership.
An Introduction to Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington
Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero was one of the earliest in the flood of ‘war books’ that emerged between 1928 and 1932. It had taken a decade for most (but not all) combatant writers to put their thoughts into print. Some of them opted to write memoirs, others chose the form of a novel. Richard Aldington, Frederic Manning and the German writer Erich Remarque wrote novels – chiefly because they needed to kill off their protagonists. However, their narratives maintain a high degree of fidelity to their own war experience.
Aldington was twenty-two years old in August 1914. Having left University College, London in 1911 after barely two terms because of his father’s financial difficulties, he had managed to live on freelance journalism and a small allowance from his family in order to work at his vocation as a poet. He met the American poets Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and together they founded ‘Imagism’. In 1913 H.D. and Aldington were married. He became assistant editor of the Egoist, a small-circulation modernist journal. When war broke out, he was not keen to enlist. H.D. became pregnant but in 1915 her child was still-born. They moved out of London to rural Devon and in the summer of 1916, shortly before married men were to be conscripted, Aldington joined up. His war experience took a toll on his marriage, already damaged by the failure of the couple to come to terms with the loss of their child and a consequent break-down in their physical relationship; Aldington engaged in a passionate extra-marital affair with Dorothy Yorke, another young American; H.D.’s resort to comfort elsewhere led to a pregnancy; and when Aldington returned to London on demobilisation in 1919, they separated. His affair with Yorke became a nine-year long relationship.
In the autumn of 1928, Aldington and Yorke, along with an old friend, Brigit Patmore, spent two weeks on the Mediterranean island of Port Cros with D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda. Here, for Aldington, events were dramatic: he ended his relationship with Yorke and started what would be an eight-year long partnership with Patmore; and, in this highly charged atmosphere, he began to write Death of a Hero. It would be completed over the next six months in Paris.
Aldington – like his protagonist – reached the Western Front in January 1917. The Battle of the Somme had closed down in November 1916 and preparations were underway for the Allied spring offensive in which the British would engage in the Battle of Arras in order to support the French action on the Chemin des Dames. Aldington’s 11th Leicester Battalion were the Pioneers of 6th Division – units whose tasks were to construct trenches, roads and railways, but also to serve as infantry when required to do so. The division was serving in the area to the north-east of Arras, in what had been the Loos Battlefield in the autumn of 1915, north-west of the mining town of Lens and in the heart of the industrial area of north-east France. The ground here was uniformly flat, dominated by slagheaps, mine works, industrial buildings and villages that by 1917 were masses of rubble. Aldington’s ‘M –‘ is the village of Maroc and his ‘Hill 91’ is Hill 70, which the British had failed to capture in the Battle of Loos and which remained in German hands until taken by Canadian troops in August 1917. Aldington returned to England to undertake officer-training in May, as the Battle of Arras was being wound down. He did not return to the front until nearly a year later, commissioned as a second-lieutenant in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment.
On 21 March 1918 the German Army broke through the Allied lines, penetrating thirty miles in only two days. The 9th Royal Sussex were in Fifth Army, which bore the brunt of ‘Operation Michael’, fighting four major defensive battles over a fortnight, desperately trying, as it withdrew, to maintain its links, with Third Army on the left flank and the French on the right, until the line finally stiffened on 4 April, fifty miles back from its starting point. Meanwhile, the German onslaught shifted north to Arras and then to Flanders, where it continued throughout April. The already depleted British Army suffered 236,000 casualties, of whom 120,000 were taken prisoner. Every available man in England was drafted to France; Aldington left England on 18 April.
The 9th Royal Sussex were now stationed in the Loos sector which Aldington had left in the spring of 1917. Hill 70 was now in British hands. Like Winterbourne, Aldington became an acting company commander, because of the battalion’s shortage of officers. Now that the Germans had exhausted their reserves, the Allied advance to victory began. Lens was taken on 28 August. Shortly afterwards Aldington was sent on a signals course – he would be the battalion’s signals officer on his return. By 8 October he was on his way back to his battalion.
Winterbourne was back on the Somme, that incredible desert, pursuing the retreating enemy. They came up the Bapaume-Cambrai road by night, and bivouacked in holes scratched with entrenching tools in the side of a sandy bank. The wrecked countryside in the pale moonlight was a frigid and motionless image of death. They spoke in whispers, awed by the immensity of desolation. By day the whole landscape was covered with the debris left by the broken German armies. Smashed tanks, guns with their wheels broken, stood out like fixed wrecks in the unmoving ocean of shell-holes. The whole earth seemed a litter of overcoats, shaggy leather packs, rifles, water-bottles, gas-masks, steel helmets, bombs, entrenching tools, cast away in the panic of flight. By night the sky glowed with the flames of burning Cambrai, with the black hump of Bourlon Hill silhouetted against them.
24th Division was ready to take part in the final battle of the Hindenburg Line, the Battle of Cambrai. From bivouacs near Cantaing, the battalion had moved forward to a position east of the St Quentin Canal. They captured villages to the north-east of Cambrai; Aldington’s ‘F-‘ is not easy to identify: the principal village taken by the battalion in this sector was Cauroir on 9 October 1918. His ‘K-‘, where Winterbourne arrives the evening before his death, is also hard to identify. The battalion left Bermerain on 3 November and attacked the high ground to the north of Wargnies-le-Grand and Wargnies-le-Petit on the 4th as part of the advance across the River Rhonelle. This was the end of Winterbourne’s war. Aldington’s service would not end until February 1919 as the 9th Sussex became part of the Army of Occupation.
In a 1934 letter to the American critic Gorham Munson, Aldington explained: ‘I kept a rough concept of the Euripidean tragedy in mind, which is why I give the whole plot of the story in the Prologue–the intention there being to avoid false surprise.’ The Prologue therefore concerns the reception of the news of the death in battle of the hero, George Winterbourne, by his parents, wife and mistress, and ends with the diegetic narrator’s explanation of his need to tell George’s story:
The death of a hero! What mockery, what bloody cant! What sickening putrid cant! George’s death is a symbol to me of the whole sickening bloody waste of it, the damnable stupid waste and torture of it. … That is why I am writing the life of George Winterbourne, a unit, one human body murdered, but to me a symbol. It is an atonement, a desperate effort to wipe off the blood-guiltiness.
Like a Greek tragedy, the novel then proceeds to three major episodes in the drama of George Winterbourne’s life: Part One covers his family life and upbringing and Part Two his pre-war and early wartime life as a young painter (rather than poet) in London and, in particular, his relationships with two young women, and the intellectual and artistic circle within which he moves; Part Three covers George’s wartime service until his death on 4 November 1918, but actually ends with Field Marshall Foch’s Armistice letter to the troops of the Allied Armies. True to the Greek model, the novel concludes with an epilogue, an elegiac poem which begins:
Eleven years after the fall of Troy,
We, the old men–some of us nearly forty–
Met and talked on the sunny rampart
Over our wine.
Thus, if we take the Trojan War as a metaphor for the Great War, the poem is set at the time of the writing of Death of a Hero by the thirty-six year old veteran.
Aldington told Munson that his other guide was ‘a rough concept of a symphony’ and he gave the four narrative sections headings that suggest sonata form: the Prologue is headed allegretto and the three main sections vivace, andante cantabile and adagio.
In a prefatory letter to Hal Glover, Aldington also refers to the work as a ‘jazz novel’. Death of a Hero flits between George’s viewpoint and that of the narrator, and it incorporates a poem (the epilogue), a document (Foch’s proclamation), trench signposts and snatches of soldiers’ and music-hall songs, onomatopoeic (and capitalised) representations of the sounds of artillery, and a range of prose styles from the satirical and the didactic (even declamatory) to evocative descriptions of the sounds, sights and smells of the battlefield, while retaining throughout a sequential narrative that never becomes fragmented. Aldington was frequenting Henry Crowder’s Plantation Club at the time he was writing the novel and it is feasible that he saw his eclectic approach as reflecting the style of music to which he was listening. However, in his comment that the term ‘jazz’ seemed appropriate to the theme, he was perhaps evoking the surface brilliance and gaiety and the deeper disillusionment characteristic of the post-war ‘jazz age’, summed up for him in the personalities and life-styles of Nancy Cunard and her contemporaries.
Vivien Whelpton has written a new introduction for Death of a Hero, which she kindly offers for publication on NCLSN. Readers might want to read this as an alternative or companion to the introduction to the recent Penguin Classics edition. Vivien’s introduction is aimed at a non-academic readership.
Introduction to Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero, continued.
Aldington employs a clear ‘before, during and after’ structure in his novel, being enabled to do so, despite the death of his hero, by his use of the narrator figure. However, his protagonist’s journey ends in despair and death: ‘Something seemed to break in Winterbourne’s head. He felt he was going mad and sprang to his feet. The line of bullets smashed across his chest like a savage steel whip. The universe exploded darkly into oblivion.’ And the world of the aftermath is one of which the narrator says:
Something is unfulfilled and that is poisoning us. …It is the poison that makes us heartless and hopeless and lifeless – us, the war generation, and the new generation too. The whole world is blood-guilty, cursed like Orestes, and mad, and destroying itself, as if pursued by an infinite legion of Eumenides.
If this is Greek tragedy, its conclusion does not provide us with catharsis.
The memoir, the autobiography and the autobiographical novel generally present us with split personalities: the innocent character who embarks on the journey that is the narrative, and the mature, changed ‘character as narrator’ (who may or may not be the author – a possible third persona) looking back. Aldington’s novel is not formally autobiographical; because he kills off’ his soldier self, he needs an alternative narrator. The device is appropriate to his chosen form: the constant commentary on the action by the unnamed narrator (an army officer acquaintance of the protagonist) resembles that of the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Aldington moves him in and out of the diegesis as he relates matters to which as a character he would not have had access. Like a Greek chorus, the narrator is both within and outside of the story. He is also, unapologetically, the authorial voice, in effect the post-war Aldington.
Until Part Three, the same cannot be said of Aldington’s protagonist. Winterbourne’s innocence strikes the reader as extraordinary naiveté, although that does not appear to be the authorial viewpoint. His artistic sensibility also makes him more vulnerable. The problem (and this has been fastened upon by many critics down the years) is that Aldington as author is himself so angry – with his parents, his school-teachers, the artistic community and with his lovers, as well as with the pre-war establishment – that his view is distorted. It makes for some very entertaining, if heavy-handed, satire, but ultimately, it is not entirely honest. He presents Winterbourne as a victim because he feels himself to be a victim. And that is not the whole truth. His upbringing had left him with a crippling sense of self-pity that only surfaced during his war experience, which was grim (and he did, unlike Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, begin the war as a ranker and a pioneer). Furthermore, the war deprived him of a literary world in which he had achieved some success and in which he felt himself to have a place; Sassoon, Graves and Blunden had barely begun their poetic lives. Where the war enriched their creativity, it crippled his, at least temporarily. They were unencumbered with personal relationships – Blunden and Graves were only schoolboys – whereas Aldington had got himself into an emotional mess which the war would aggravate, and for which he would pay for the rest of his life.
The first two parts of Death of a Hero are a vivid, if one-sided, portrait of a late Victorian lower middle class upbringing and of literary pre-war London, with vastly amusing, if breath-takingly vituperative, portraits of Ford Madox Ford (Shobbe), Ezra Pound (Upjohn), D.H. Lawrence (Bobbe) and T.S. Eliot (Tubbe). Aldington presents us with an analysis of the materialism, philistinism and hypocrisy of middle-class society at the turn of the century while the contempt he expresses through his narrator for George’s father and the anger with which he portrays his mother are breath-takingly personal and violent. In his portrait of the literary and artistic world there were certainly scores being settled, but the message is that the artists and intellectuals, who claimed to be rejecting the humbug and hypocrisy of the Victorians, were themselves guilty of the same vices: ‘Self-interest, though universal, is less tolerable in those who are supposed to be above it’ and ‘[v]anity is none the less odious even when there is some reason for it.’ Readers have assumed that Elizabeth and Fanny are modelled on H.D. and Yorke, respectively, but, although there are some superficial resemblances, the characters exist, more generally, as vehicles for Aldington’s views on women and on sexual relationships. Aldington told H.D. that Elizabeth and Fanny were modelled on Nancy Cunard and Valentine Dobrée, towards both of whom he had made rejected advances in the period prior to the writing of the novel, and, again, there are some marked similarities.
As for Part Three: it is possibly the finest British account of warfare on the Western Front and its impact on an individual that we have. That is partly achieved by what happens to narrative viewpoint in this section. Aldington the author and his representative persona, the un-named officer narrator, disappear from the page: everything we see is filtered through the gaze of Winterbourne himself. Aldington lets George tell his own story; we get only one brief appearance by the narrator. George is even given the opportunity for the kind of exposition that has formerly been the province of the narrator, when, at rest camp at Boulogne, having observed – and admired – the fighting men, he asks himself, ‘[W]ho were their real enemies?’ and he sees the answer ‘with a flood of bitterness and clarity’:
Their enemies–the enemies of German and English alike–were the fools that had sent them to kill each other instead of help each other. Their enemies were the sneaks and the unscrupulous; the false ideals, the unintelligent ideas imposed on them, the humbug, the hypocrisy, the stupidity. If those men were typical, then there was nothing essentially wrong with common humanity, at least as far as the men were concerned. It was the leadership that was wrong–not the war leadership but the peace leadership. The nations were governed by bunk and sacrificed to false ideals and stupid ideas.
This passage is the continuation of the thoughts that have begun to consume Winterbourne from the moment the draft set off on the journey to France, and this extended passage of exposition is the last one in the novel. Here George becomes, not the earnest and naive dupe and victim that he has been for much of the earlier part of the novel, but the thinker and observer, through whose artistic, sensitive and increasingly mature vision, we are to be introduced to the actualities of the battlefield. Here is the preliminary bombardment for the Battle of Arras, viewed – and heard ‒ from the sector to the north:
The roar of the guns was beyond clamour—it was an immense rhythmic harmony, a super-jazz of tremendous drums, a ride of the Valkyrie played by three thousand cannon. The intense rattle of the machine-guns played a minor motif of terror. It was too dark to see the attacking troops, but Winterbourne thought with agony how every one of those dreadful vibrations of sound meant death or mutilation. He thought of the ragged lines of British troops stumbling forward in smoke and flame and a chaos of sound, crumbling away before the German protective barrage and the Reserve line machine-guns. He thought of the German front lines, already obliterated under that ruthless tempest of explosions and flying metal. Nothing could live within the area of that storm except by a miraculous hazard. Already in this first half-hour of bombardment hundreds upon hundreds of men would have been violently slain, smashed, torn, gouged, crushed, mutilated. The colossal harmony seemed to roar louder as the drum-fire lifted from the Front line to the Reserve. The battle was begun. They would be mopping-up soon—throwing bombs and explosives down the dug-out entrances on the men cowering inside.
And here is Winterbourne a year later, now an officer, returned to the same sector of the battlefield:
At dawn one morning when it was misty he walked over the top of Hill 91, where probably nobody had been by day since its capture. The heavy mist brooded about him in a strange stillness. Scarcely a sound on their immediate front, though from north and south came the vibration of furious drum-fire. The ground was a desert of shell-holes and torn rusty wire, and everywhere lay skeletons in steel helmets, still clothed in the rags of sodden khaki or field grey. Here a fleshless hand still clutched a broken rusty rifle; there a gaping, decaying boot showed the thin, knotty foot-bones. […] Alone in the white curling mist, drifting slowly past like wraiths of the slain, with the far-off thunder of drum-fire beating the air, Winterbourne stood in frozen silence and contemplated the last achievements of civilised men.
George Winterbourne dies. But the narrator, like the author, lives on. He expresses the agony of survival in an outburst towards the end of Part Two of the novel:
You, the war dead, I think you died in vain. I think you died for nothing, a blather, a humbug, a newspaper stunt, a politician’s ramp. But at least you died. You did not reject the sharp sweet shock of bullets, the sudden smash of the shell-burst, the insinuating agony of poison gas. You got rid of it all. You chose the better part.
Aldington’s threnody is not only for the dead but also for the living. George Winterbourne’s pre-war life and his war experience are his creator’s in almost every detail; but the unnamed narrator and the survivors in the epilogue stand in for the post-war Aldington and his generation. Reliving war experience while writing is a way of working through trauma, and killing off the protagonist is a means for the author to free himself from his wartime self – Manning and Remarque both do it – but Adrian Barlow (‘Answers to my Murdered Self’ in Kelly, Lionel (ed.), Papers from the Reading Symposium (University of Reading, 1987), pp. 22-23) argues that the ‘split perspective’ of Death of a Hero reflects the notion, explored by Aldington in his poems Eumenides and A Fool i’ the Forest, of ‘the murdered self’, his belief that his unique and creative personality (‘A self which had its passion for beauty / Some moment’s touch with immortality’) did not survive the war.