BOOKS JULY 7, 1926
Rough Justice, by C. E. Montague. New York: Doubleday. Page and Company. $2.50.
In no respect has the change in attitude toward human experience reflected by fiction been so marked as in regard to war. The last century knew the military novel as a specialty similar to the political novel, the ecclesiastical novel, the novel of education or industry or the sea. The profession of arms was like other professions, an affair of a class. It lent itself to fiction because of its opportunities of adventure, humorous in camp, glorious in the field. The soldier’s life or the sailor’s as depicted by Lever or Grant or Marryat or Kipling was the rollicking existence of the hoarding-school boy, with the romance of foreign women and the passion of national glory to round it out. When a serious novelist like Charles Kingsley dealt with war he thought of it as a purging experience for a nation sick with social illness, as a therapeutic experience for morbid character or a heaven-sent solution of individual problems.
The undertakers of the late War at first relied on fiction as a means of propaganda. Of Ian Hay we read in a popular manual: “His humor brought instant popularity to his war books”; and Miss May Sinclair in The Belfry salvaged her hero by warfare in the old Kingsley Way. But in the end the undertakers must have felt that the story-tellers let them down badly. Long before the War was over they were suppressing fiction instead of encouraging it, and falling back on the more adaptable arts of Lord Northcliffe and Mr. George Creel. In the place the writers of modern fiction had been brought up in a sterner school of realism, which made the romantic pictures of war impossible to their pens. And in the second place the conflict involved the entire people, with enormous effects on their social life. The battle or trench line only one phase of warfare; the mass of the nation was involved in activities necessary to carrying on the War, and exposed to suffering and danger. The results of the War were too vast and too doubtful to be summedu in the single formual of national glory. Accordingly we find the major fiction of the World War realistic in its Portrayal alike of the front and of conditions behind the lines, and critical as to its values. Irony is as expected a quality of the war novelist today, as was the humor of his predecessor.
Among the novels of the War priority in time belongs to Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees it Through, that unimpeachable record of the mind of the average Englishman in the first year of the struggle. The breaking down of standards of morality is the theme of Galsworthy’s Saint’s Progress, and enters as a matter of course into Miss Sinclair’s Anne Severn and the Fieldings, and many others. Arnold Bennett in The Pretty Lady puts Colonel Repington’s friends, whom the War was a new species of thrillage, into genial fiction. W.L. George writes in Blind Alley with bitterness of hypocritical, profiteering patriotism. St. John Ervine in Changing Winds and Compton Mackenzie in The Heavenly Ladder find for their heroes a certain release form perplexities in action. To D.H. Lawrence in Kangaroo the supreme horror of war is the violence done to the individual soul and body by the mass levy, and Ford Madox Ford in No More Parades exposes the ugly reality of human nature darkened by the shadow of death.
Something of all these aspects of the War we find in Mr. Montague’s Rough Justice, done, however, always with a surer hand and more certain stroke. He has given a sort of synthesis of war fiction. The preparation begins with the birth of Auberon Garth in the lovely old house by the Thames just outside of London but within tidewater, where his parents and their adopted ward Molly are awaiting his advent. The boy and girl growing up to the ebb and flood of the tide in the river, the boy’s life at school, Auberon and his friends at Oxford—these have been the stuff of many novels, but Mr. Montague does them with a difference, and a distinction. They blend into a composite of English life in its richness and fullness, touched already by decay of which only Thomas Garth, Auberon’s father, is dimly aware. It is a long summer of youth and idleness and joy, to which the mellow, lingering autumn is denied, upon which winter breaks suddenly and appallingly. So much to live for. So much to die for.
English novelists of the War have not been preeminent in accounts of the front. Of them all Mr. Montague comes nearest to Barbusse or Latzko. The little group of citizens who are mustered with Auberon and his friends into the King’s Own Middlesex Fusiliers-—the boxing teacher, the market porter from Smithfield, the hunting parson, the Glasgow shipwright, the elementary school teacher, the professional tenor, the taxicab tout from Leicester Square and the rest—become like the squad in Le Feu, friends whose fate comes home to each of them and to us. The physical discomfort of wet and cold and hunger and stench, the sheer agony of weariness, the terror of death, alone in darkness, these are rendered vividly and memorably. Auberon is too healthy a young athlete to buckle. He has no problems to solve except a sort of remoteness from his father which the War brings to an end. But his friend Victor is a more complicated case. Like Lawrence’s hero, he is an individual unfit for mass action, the victim of a false pride which he is too weak to confess until physical and nervous weakness break him down; and his fate becomes a moral horror compared to which death in the field is merciful.
Victor and Auberon are Mr. Montague’s leading types of the physical and moral effects of war on the soldier. Other characters and phases deepen his background and extend his scope. There is Colin March who enlists with Auberon and Victor as a private, but takes cover in the general staff—and emerges covered with decorations for which his frank humor offers a disarming apology: “Of course, I’m the jeune premier des embusques—I’m juvenile lead in the whole farce of funk—I’m the Unconscientious-Objector-in-Chief.” There is no figure in the gallery of war rogues so scorned in fiction as the vulgar, low-bred nobleman who sold the War to the gudgeon public as news and took blood money for lies. W.L. George did the type in Caliban. Mr. Montague reproduces it in Sir George Roads whom Auheron has to entertain at the front. “He brought two Rolls-Royce cars and two chaufieurs, a body servant, a golf professional, a short-hand clerk and a masseur—all young, strapping men in high condition. His papers were crying aloud at the time for ‘firmer’ dealings with Quakers and other refrainers from the fight. But the baronet’s darling hobby was ‘German atrocities.’ All his papers offered a full supply of these daily—crucifixion of captured British soldiers, preferential bombings of British hospitals, cannibalism by Germans in the field and so on. He buried to reciprocate these visionary crimes.” There is the Rev. Cyril Ducat, the head of Auberon’s college, whose habitual snobbishness partakes of the prevailing thirst for blood. “Forty-seven eldest sons of peers, he bade Auberon mark, had fallen in the first year alone. He had by heart a list of famous houses to which they had been heirs, and he described the family portraits.” There is Lord Wynnant, perfectly informed and perfectly cynical. “I suppose it can all be hushed up —French’s flight and Rawley’s cropper in 1916 and the way Hubert Gough was deserted in March”—etc.
But Rough Justice is not written in bitterness or cynicism. The angry spirit of protest which animated the first flight of war novels is here subdued to a mood of reconciliation. The beauty of the world and of humanity has survived the destruction of war—thus far. There is a chance for the future.
This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.