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.
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.
You can read the first part here.
web site: www.vivienwhelpton.co.uk