Norman Nicholson on Aldington

In this post we’re remaining with critical assessments from the 1940s: it seems fair to say that Aldington’s reputation was not at its peak at the time.

This time we’re with the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson, in his Man and Literature (1943).  The book, based on lectures to the Workers’ Educational Association, was his first major publication.  He writes in his brief introduction that:

This book is not an attempt to measure modern literature by a Christian yardstick.  It is not, fundamentally, literary criticism at all.  It is rather an enquiry into the assumptions as to the nature and purpose of Man which underlie much of modern writing. (p. 1)

The book was published only three years after Nicholson’s Anglican confirmation at the age of 26.  He remained a practising Christian; the context of the Second World War is also worth considering in the need to discern value in the relationship between man and literature.

He goes on to say:

It seems to me very significant, therefore, that such important writers as Eliot and Joyce, and so many of the younger men, should be reasserting a view of Man which is in strong contradiction to that held by those who have been a dominant influence in the literature of the earlier years of this century.     (p. 1)

As you’ll see from the index page, H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence are uppermost in Nicholson’s mind when he makes this comparison.

Contents page of Norman Nicholson, Man and Literature (1943)
Contents page of Norman Nicholson, Man and Literature (1943)

Nicholson concludes his chapter on George Bernard Shaw with the following comparison:

It must be allowed of Shaw, however, that he did not at the same time both deny the importance of sex and fill his books with it, as such later writers as Richard Aldington have done.  He never wasted his time by writing of what to him did not seem to matter, and as a result his characters never have the purposelessness which is so noticeable in much modern fiction.  (p. 31)

While Amis’s assessment has a grain of hard truth about it, it’s difficult to recognise this technicolor version of Aldington.  The notion that he denied the importance of sex is remarkable: interpersonal and romantic relationships are vital to Aldington’s characters, as they were in his life.

Nicholson sees Aldington’s fiction as exemplifying what he defines as the Natural Man.  The Second World War context comes to the fore in his definition:

In the writers whom we must now consider there was a swing over from the assumptions and beliefs of the realists.  Instead of Pelagian Man, we get Natural Man; instead of Liberalism, Totalitarianism.  Since I have defined the Pelagianism of the realists as the denial of the doctrine of Original Sin, it may be as well to consider Natural Man, in the same terms.  Natural Man, then, is Man in his first innocence, before the Fall.  If a Fall is envisaged at all, it is believed not to have taken place in Man’s nature, but merely in society.  The return to the state of the first grace, the return to Eden is to be achieved, therefore, by the revolt against society and institutions and by the return to the primitive.          (p. 62)

He goes on, having discussed other major examples, to discuss Aldington following on from Huxley.  Nicholson puts Aldington alongside Charles Morgan, an author little read now, and perhaps best known for his Cold War play The Burning Glass (1954).

Nicholson blames the need for such novelists to appeal to a wide audience:

The middlebrow novelist depends for his sale on subscription lending libraries, which draw their clients largely from the suburban classes, especially from married women.  While it is obvious that the real Natural Man will have no scruples about lying, thieving or killing, such attributes do not commend themselves even to the daydreams of the suburban housewife.  Living in comfortable circumstances and surroundings, she does not sympathise with anarchist or anti-social tendencies.                (p. 103)

This remarkable assessment leads, then, finally to Nicholson’s brief discussion of Aldington.

Both of them [Aldington and Morgan] are skilled novelists; both poets and men of wide reading.  Both, in fact, use a good deal of conscious artistry to give an effect of high literary “tone.”  Quotations from the poets most fashionable in advanced circles are displayed like “arty” pictures to impress the visitors.  Aldington came forward in the direct line of descent from Lawrence.  In All Men are Enemies he tells a story of the aftermath of the War, in which he seeks in particular to emphasise and romanticise the sense of touch.  In later novels he has become more cynical.  To a certain extent he may be satirising those people and institutions who frustrate Natural Man in the fulfilment of his desires.  But I think the cynicism is due more to realisation, perhaps not fully conscious, of what the acceptance of Natural Man would really lead to.  Those who had started by seeing Natural Man as Lawrence had seen him were beginning to see him as Montherlant sees him.  This, I think, is the cause, or part cause of a good deal of the pessimism and cynicism of the ’20’s.  (Another cause, of course, was the disappointment of hopes for a better social order which had been raised during the War and immediately before it.  In the minds of many people during the ’20’s there was therefore a sudden loss of faith in both Natural Man and Liberal Man.)    (pp. 105-6)

Nicholson gets close to giving Aldington credit, and the assessment that the later novels aren’t so strong is not unfair.  To me it’s particularly interesting that Nicholson identifies Aldington as a disenchanted writer particularly in a post-war context.  It’s also worth noting that he engages with Aldington only as a novelist, just as with Amis’s assessment; there’s little sense here that either later critic has any sense of Aldington the poet.

Please keep your eyes open for Aldington references and let me know if you find particularly good or interesting ones!

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