Caroline Zilboorg’s tribute to David Wilkinson

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

Caroline Zilboorg

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.

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Vivien Whelpton’s introduction to Death of a Hero, parts I-IV

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.

[I have split this into two parts for ease of reading online.  You can read the second part here.  –AF]

An Introduction to Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington

I

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.

 

II

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.

 

III

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.

 

IV

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.

You can read parts V-VIII here.

September 2018

v.whelpton@btopenworld.com

web site: www.vivienwhelpton.co.uk

Vivien Whelpton’s introduction to Death of a Hero, parts V-VIII

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.

[I have split this into two parts for ease of reading online.  You can read the first part here.  –AF]

 

Introduction to Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero, continued.

V

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.

 

VI

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.

 

VII

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.

 

You can read the first part here.

 

September 2018

v.whelpton@btopenworld.com

web site: www.vivienwhelpton.co.uk

Vivien Whelpton: Reflections on Completing a Biography of Richard Aldington

Cover of Vivien Whelpton, Richard Aldington: Novelist, Biographer and Exile 1930-1962 (Lutterworth Press, 2019)

A reminder that Vivien’s new book will be launched at Snape Maltings Concert Hall Bar in Snape, Suffolk, at 6pm this Wednesday 21 August 2019.  You will be able to purchase copies there at a discounted price. If anyone wishes to attend, they must email Vivien in advance as soon as possible. –AF


One always hopes, when writing a ‘literary’ biography that the life will illuminate the work and the work, the life.  Of course, one has to feel that the work – and the life – are worthy of illumination, and, further, that one can achieve a book that sufficiently demonstrates both theses and which is, in turn, worthy of its subject. No pressure then!  Particularly in the case of Aldington, who has, on the one hand, a committed following of enthusiasts, who demand nothing but the best, and, on the other (the majority of one’s potential readership) those who have either not heard of him or have absorbed the view of him as a second-rate writer, and reactionary and unpleasant individual. Sadly, several of the champions of Aldington’s work have died in recent years: Norman Gates, Mike Doyle, Shelley Cox, David Wilkinson … ; but students of twentieth century modernism, notably Andrew Frayn, have worked to establish Aldington’s importance in this context. My own aim was more modest: to interest the ordinary reader in the life – and hence the work.

I want to look first at why RA is a writer still worth reading. I could go through his whole oeuvre, but I am going to focus here on Death of a Hero, Portrait of a Genius, But …  and Lawrence of Arabia.

Death of a Hero is one of the most extraordinary novels to have come out of the First World War and I admire and recommend it for three main reasons: First, Part Three 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 of the novel. 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 – and it is, of course, Aldington’s own story, a grim, understated and moving one. But don’t let’s discard the first two parts of the novel – as many critics do: with great savagery, but with humour too, we are introduced to the hypocrisy and materialism of post-Victorian society – the world that in Aldington’s opinion brought about the war. And my last reason? The sheer inventiveness of the novel’s structure and form. And this was a book written in a period of about six months – he reckoned that it took him 52 working days.

Portrait of a Genius, But … is I think the most readable of the biographies. It is the work of a close friend and unswerving admirer but one with a clear-eyed awareness of the complexities and drawbacks of Lawrence’s remarkable personality, and it’s also the work of a discerning literary critic with a thorough familiarity with the totality of Lawrence’s output. The result is a measured, searching but also profoundly touching portrait, not without humour. 

And so to the ‘other Lawrence’ biography!  I am no T.E. Lawrence authority and I didn’t see this as my job. But I think that Aldington’s is an important book. Despite the fact that he let his anger run away with him – or perhaps because of this! – it does address directly – and in a very accessible way – certain key issues about Lawrence: was he the first – or the only – person to come up with the idea of fermenting the discontent of the Hashemites against the Turks? was the sabotaging of the Hejaz railway his idea? was he the only – or even the chief – saboteur? and, finally, what brought about the British victory in Palestine ‒ the sabotaging of a rail line through the Hejaz or the set-piece battles of Gaza and Megiddo? For all their attempts to sabotage Aldington’s book, the ‘Lawrence Bureau’ could not find in it any factual assertions that they could say were incorrect. The whole sorry saga also demonstrates the power of the political and literary establishment which, although it couldn’t in the end prevent publication, very effectively destroyed the reputation of not just the book, but of Aldington himself.

And the life?  Certainly a flawed human being – and the stories of his infidelities and ruthless abandonments of relationships make for shocking reading. His childhood – which more and more as I studied his life I came to see as disturbingly dysfunctional and almost a textbook demonstration of the lessons of attachment theory – had an enormous impact on his development, and I came to the conclusion that he had been a sexually abused child. Then there was his war experience, from which I don’t believe he ever truly recovered. A less damaged or a less sensitive individual might have had a chance of pulling through – but Aldington was neither of these.

So in many ways a sad and troubling story – but also an inspiring one. He may have been a shockingly inadequate spouse, but as a father he was dutiful and loving. Furthermore, his loyalties – in particular to two people – were unstinting. The first – D H Lawrence – I have already referred to: ‘If my life has any value,’ he told Edward Nehls, the Lawrence scholar, in 1956, ‘it is that since 1926 – and to some extent since 1914 – I felt his superiority and always acknowledged it.’ The other, of course, is H.D., for whom he never lost his love, admiration and respect.  I am still hoping that one day a film producer will want to take up my screenplay of the H.D. Aldington relationship – one of the most touching and tragic romances of all time. I don’t believe it to be chance that he survived her by only ten months, although, of course, his life ended less than three weeks after a demanding but victorious tour of the USSR – something his detractors would never have expected.

I am looking forward to hearing the reactions of NCLS subscribers to the new volume – either through these pages or via my website: www.vivienwhelpton.co.uk 

Vivien Whelpton

 

Michael Copp’s translation of Léon Werth

Cover of Léon Werth, Private Clavel's War on War, ed. by Michael Copp.

NCLSN Correspondent Michael Copp has recently published a translation of the French author Léon Werth’s Clavel Soldat (1919) as Private Clavel’s War on War.  You can buy this print on demand from Amazon.  The below is the publisher’s blurb.


At the outbreak of the First World War, despite opposing the war and having already completed his military service (which he detested), Léon Werth mustered as a private (at the age of 36) and was assigned to one of the worst sectors of the front, where he served as a radio operator/telephonist for 15 months before being invalided out with a lung infection. Shortly after, he wrote Clavel Soldat, a pessimistic and virulently anti-war work which caused a scandal when it was published in 1919. It is without doubt one of the most faithful depictions of trench warfare. Clavel functions as Werth’s mouthpiece throughout.

Werth/Clavel never considers his own danger or safety. He rejects the traditional grandiose, inspirational abstractions such as patriotism, nationalism, heroism, religion, honour, duty and civilisation, because of what he considers to be their damaging and distorting effect on the complexity and integrity of man’s true humanity.

The book depends heavily on the diligently recorded notes Werth made each day, in order to be sure of fixing his immediate experiences and responses as soon and as  faithfully as possible. Clavel sees the war as a discontinuous, meaningless succession of impressions: discrete moments, snatches of conversation, interspersed with polemical arguments and, by use of interior monologue, penetrating meditations on the meaning of the eponymous soldier’s war experiences.

Given that Werth was so implacably opposed to war (any war), how can we account for his willing participation in this war? He seeks to explain his paradoxical, if not to say, contradictory, position by arguing that he found it impossible to accept that in the First World War one had to be either a non-combatant pacifist or a fully committed militarist.

Michael Copp’s fine translation of this neglected modernist war novel captures the essence of Werth’s writing with great fidelity.

 

May Sinclair edition, conference, research assistant job

Ma(r)y Sinclair entering Kensington's Women's Social & Political Union shop in 1910

There’s quite a lot of activity in the May Sinclair Society at the moment.

There has been for some time in the works the Edinburgh Critical Edition of the works of May Sinclair.  NCLSN editor Andrew Frayn will edit Sinclair’s 1922 volume Anne Severn and the Fieldings, a novel that reckons with the impact of the First World War, and there are lots of impressive contributors to this project led by Rebecca Bowler (Keele University) and Claire Drewery (Sheffield Hallam University).

A Research Assistant post is available to work on the project, for which the closing date is 14 August 2019.

A conference on Networking May Sinclair will be held at Université de Nantes on 18th-19th June 2020.  The closing date for submission of abstracts is 15 January 2020.  Richard Aldington features prominently in the call for papers as a key member of Sinclair’s network, and I hope that an RA conference in the south of France will take place close enough to these dates for interested scholars to make this a double-header trip.  Watch this space…

Andrew Frayn

New volume of Vivien Whelpton’s RA biography published

Cover of Vivien Whelpton, Richard Aldington: Novelist, Biographer and Exile 1930-1962 (Lutterworth Press, 2019)

The second volume of Vivien Whelpton’s new biography of Richard Aldington was published on 25 July 2019 by the Lutterworth Press.  I’ve yet to delve into the 394 pages of Richard Aldington, Novelist, Biographer and Exile 1930-1962 (which you can get for £27.50, a discount of £7.50, at the preceding link until 21 September).  However, I am very much looking forward to doing so to review it here in due course.

You can read a piece by Viven on the new volume in Booklaunch.

There is a launch planned and, if in the locality, NCLSN readers are very welcome to attend the launch of the book at Snape Maltings Concert Hall Bar in Snape, Suffolk, at 6 pm on 21 August.  You will be able to purchase copies there at the discounted price. If anyone wishes to attend, they must email Vivien in advance as soon as possible.

Andrew Frayn

Denise Riley, ‘Death of a Hero’

Denise Riley - Say Something Back (2016)

The wonderful poet Denise Riley’s most recent collection Say Something Back (2016) brings together much of her recent verse.  Concluding the collection is her sequence ‘A gramophone on the subject’, commissioned as part of ‘a commemoration in poetry of the war’ and first published in The Pity (The Poetry Society, 2014).  The sixth of seven sections is a short, six-line poem entitled ‘Death of a Hero’, which Riley describes in the Eliotesque notes to the volume as ‘a note on post war aesthetic isolation, as if by some “modernist” writer.’’ (p. 78).  Aldington is directly invoked.  Other sections take as their inspiration other familiar acts of memorialisation.

You can read more about Riley’s collection in:

The Nation

The Fortnightly Review

The Guardian

Andrew Frayn

Neil Pearson talk on Jack Kahane

Jack Kahane

On 17 May 2019 I attended a talk organised by the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society at the Quaker Meeting House on the West Bow, near the National Library of Scotland.  The actor, bookseller, and author Neil Pearson gave an entertaining talk on Jack Kahane, the man who published the first unexpurgated edition of Aldington’s Death of a Hero in Paris in 1930.

Pearson guided us through Kahane’s fascinating life and times, including his own discovery after publication of Obelisk [check title] of another item by Kahane – an advertising verse of 1908 entitled A Smoker’s Rubaiyat.  Kahane’s frustrations at his novelistic career were invoked memorably, and the cast of expatriate eccentrics around him in the French capital was illustrated using a set of fine images, memorable among them Nancy Cunard’s exceptional millinery.

Death of a Hero did get a mention from Pearson, commended as an exceptional, under-read and under-appreciated novel of the First World War, and he noted the pity that the unexpurgated edition is not more widely available.  We chatted a little afterwards, and it’s good to know that there are prominent champions of Aldington out there.

Andrew Frayn

 

 

Reminder: Neil Pearson talk on Jack Kahane

Jack Kahane

A reminder that Neil Pearson will be talking to the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society about Jack Kahane this Thursday, 16 May 2019, at 5.45pm at the Quaker Meeting House on Victoria Terrace in Edinburgh.  It is the final talk of their programme this academic year.

Along with then partner Henri Babou, Kahane published the first unexpurgated edition of Aldington’s Death of a Hero in Paris in 1930.  We hope that this will get a mention!