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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

The Impact of the War

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  • 1 Bonar LAW, in a Speech in the House of Commons, November 27, 1911.

If, therefore, war should ever come between these two
countries [Great Britain and Germany], which Heaven
forbid! it will not, I think, be due to irresistible natural
laws, it will be due to the want of human wisdom.1

  • 2 C.E. Montague’s Disenchantment is an exception: it was published in 1922. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade (...)
  • 3 “Why We Are in Favour of this War,” in Further Speculations, Minnea-polis, 1955, p. 186.

1The impact of the First World War on English society cannot be over-estimated. In 1914 most English people saw it as a war in defence of Democracy; they looked upon it either as a possible source of regeneration or as a rallying of forces that would eventually contribute to the building up of new social structures. Only a minority, it seems, saw it as a dreadful cataclysm. To all, however, it brought only disappointment, suffering and bitterness. The transition from patriotic enthusiasm to disenchantment and its remoter effects is recorded in many war novels. There is no equivalent in fiction to the poetry written at the beginning of the War by Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, because most war novels were not published until the late Twenties,2 when their authors had digested their experience. The unanimity of their response is, therefore, all the more striking. Some novelists merely described life at the front; others also examined the causes of the conflict and the reaction of the English public to it. But all were urged to protest against militarism and to reveal the truth about war to those who could not possibly imagine its horrors. Even those writers who were enthusiastic about the War when it broke out explained how their attitude changed into one of disgust. For instance, until he died in action in 1917 T.E. Hulme thought that war was necessary and said so, but at the same time he expressed his reluctance to fight.3

  • 4 See Ottoline, The Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell, ed. by R. Gathorne-Hardy, London, 1963.
  • 5 H.L. TOMLINSON, All Our Yesterdays, Leipzig, 1930, p. 14.

2When trying to account for the Englishman’s readiness to answer the “call to duty” at the beginning of the War, most novelists ascribe it to the Kiplingesque idealism that was gaining ground in the first years of the century. Lady Ottoline Morrell writes that military frenzy had overtaken England as early as 1909,4 while H.M. Tomlinson states that in January 1914 “most people [had] got war on the brain.”5 There reigned in England, and for that matter everywhere in Europe, a climate of opinion which held war as either necessary or inevitable. Yet people did not really believe it could ever happen and were taken aback when war actually broke out. This contradiction reflects the uncertainty, the mixture of fear and excitement which prevailed at the time. Still, currents of opinion are not so easily clarified, for they are made of many complex elements. Thus an important pacifist movement had developed in the nineteenth century, and many people in England believed that they were now too civilized to make war. On the other hand, there was much social unrest and an undercurrent of violence in the pre-war years due to a rising agitation among the working classes, to the suffragette movement and to the passionate controversy about the Irish question. The War created a convenient diversion and momentarily put an end to all expressions of discontent.

  • 6 See, for instance, the letter he wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith on January 31, 1915: “The War finis (...)

3Among the people who protested against the War from the first and foresaw the full horror of it were Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell and D.H. Lawrence. To Lady Ottoline and her pacifist friends, courage meant resistance to collective war hysteria and to the “myths and falsehoods” of a distorted patriotism. Both Lady Ottoline and Bertrand Russell felt frustrated at not being able to serve England, but they were also distressed that a majority among the English should be prepared to suffer yet also to present acts of cruelty and intolerance as a sacred duty for the sake of a mysterious primitive emotion. D.H. Lawrence, who in 1914 was closely associated with them, voiced the most passionate protest against war; the most eloquent expression of his rage and despair is to be found in the chapter entitled “The Nightmare” in Kangaroo. In his “war letters” fury and harsh contempt for humanity alternate with the most poignant distress.6 Lawrence saw that the call to war appealed to false ideals which would eventually conduce to disappointment and cynicism. Characteristically, it was with the living he was concerned, with the survivors, who would come back from the War “inwardly lost.”

  • 7 D.H. Lawrence is an exception, and much of his aggressiveness, as well as the public’s reaction to (...)

4The war novels are mainly about the officer class and their experience at the front. One must remember that until after the Second World War the bulk of English literature was written by, and about, the middle and the upper-middle classes.7 Two notable exceptions, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930) and David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937), describe the ordeal of the private soldier. Unlike most war novels, they are not anti-war books, and they are free from the self-pity and semi-hysterical denunciation which sometimes mar the other war testimonies. Though very different in style, they both bring out the continuity and universality of the soldier’s experience; both Manning and Jones relate their own vision to time-honoured war literature, namely Shakespeare’s and Malory’s. On the contrary, the other war novelists concentrate on the particular historical and social significance of the First World War as a trial. They consider themselves and their fellow-fighters as victims of the social system and debunk its obsolete and, in their eyes, deceptive values. They show that the smugness of the English, particularly among the middle class, their self-confidence as a nation and their often sentimental attachment to communal institutions made them blind to the real implications of the concepts of heroism and self-sacrifice.

  • 8 Ford Madox FORD, Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926), Last Pos (...)
  • 9 No More Parades, p. 231.
  • 10 Alec WAUGH, The Loom of Youth (1917), London, 1955, p. 137.
  • 11 Siegfried SASSOON, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), London, 1960, p. 256.

5Many war novelists look upon the public-school system as the institution that most contributed to produce a generation prepared to sacrifice itself for the sake of duty. They sharply criticize the rigid set of rules that made the young unfit to discriminate between the merely conventional and the essential. Tietjens, the martyr-hero of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy,8 suffers all kinds of injustice rather than clear himself of false accusations, because “the vilest of all sins is to peach to the head-master.”9 In The Loom of Youth Alec Waugh writes that his generation “was being taught to blind itself to the higher issues.”10 Richard Aldington, whose Death of a Hero is, among other things, a harsh and bitter indictment of Victorian ethics and of the pre-war Establishment, denounces the public-school system and the compulsory O.T.C. training of the students as an organized sapping of truly vital values and a systematic preparation for death. The Kiplingesque idealism and strict respect for conventions instilled into the young made them prejudiced, lifeless, hypocritical individuals; but they never questioned their duty to the community, and at the beginning of the War they all responded to the demand made upon them by a frantic society. According to Siegfried Sassoon, “the exploitation of courage was the essential tragedy of the War.”11

6In Death of a Hero a British officer is heard addressing his soldiers in the following terms:

  • 12 Richard ALDINGTON, Death of a Hero (1929), London, 1930, p. 259.

‘You are the War generation. You were born to fight this War, and it’s got to be won – we’re determined you shall win it. So far as you are concerned as individuals, it doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn whether you are killed or not. Most probably you will be killed, most of you. So make up your minds to it.’12

7These words forebode the doom not merely of the war generation but of English civilization as it was understood by nineteenth-century liberals, and the attitude which informs them denies the moral values of the humanist tradition in England. Tietjens, who represents a feudal and authoritarian tradition, knows well enough that this is not his war, and his experience at the front makes it all the clearer to him that the conception of gentlemanly behaviour he stands for is definitely out of date. But those who went to war, or supported it, out of a misconceived humanitarianism – and there were many – were disillusioned on every account.

  • 13 Siegfried SASSOON, Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920 (1945), London, 1945, p. 124.

8The Battle of the Somme was for the English a turning point in the War and the mainspring of their disenchantment. The loss in human lives reached undreamt-of proportions. The soldiers began to feel that they were being sacrificed for nothing. They suspected they were the victims of politicians and of the authorities’ mismanagement and incompetence, and felt only hatred and contempt for the people who sent them to the front but “fought their country’s battle from armchairs.”13 Actually, the dispersion of the Allied troops lay at the root of their weakness; yet it was not until the last year of the War that the Allies agreed to a single command. Meanwhile, the much-praised heroism of the soldiers was the source of so much misery that it was becoming a meaningless word:

  • 14 Ford Madox FORD, No More Parades, p. 8.

These immense sacrifices, this ocean of mental sufferings, were all undergone to further the private vanities of men who amidst these hugenesses of landscapes and forces appeared pygmies! … They could die, they could be massacred, by the quarter million, in shambles. But that they should be massacred without jauntiness, without confidence, wtih depressed brows: without parade. …14

9The fighting conditions were disheartening: the Germans were stronger than expected, and the soldiers discovered that as human beings they were not different from themselves and just as courageous; no attack brought the English further than they were. In addition, the men were constantly worried by forms of petty militarism, by punishment out of proportion with the offence, not to mention executions by the British themselves for cowardice or desertion. The survivors were consumed with bitterness, a dreadful feeling of futility, a sense of waste and of impotence. Many wanted to die or simply thought it inconceivable that they should survive the War. Total disillusionment with humanity and its capacity for evil is the main theme of many war novels.

  • 15 Robert GRAVES, Goodbye to All That (1929), London, 1931, p. 283.

10The spiritual crisis which caused the debunking of idealism was sharpened by the estrangement between soldiers and civilians, which was itself responsible for the degradation of the national spirit. The soldiers who went on leave could not understand “the war madness that ran about everywhere looking for a pseudo-military outlet.”15 At the front there was the horror and endless-ness of war, the debasement of human beings; but when they went home, they found that the civilians were worried about rations and did not want to hear about the fighting:

  • 16 Siegfried SASSOON, Siegfried’s Journey, p. 14.

It wasn’t possible to imagine oneself even hinting to them that the Somme Battle was – to put it mildly – an inhuman and beastly business. One had to behave nicely about it to them, keeping up a polite pretence that to have taken part in it was a glorious and acceptable adventure. … I felt that no explanation of mine could ever reach my elders – that they weren’t capable of wanting to know the truth.16

11Another source of humiliation for the soldiers on leave was the slight contempt of their women, who had retained their beauty and worth as individuals and felt the soldiers’ sense of futility as a degradation. Both Tietjens and Winterbourne are relieved to go back to the front and the fellowship with their men; they also perceive that if they survive the War, they will be handicapped in comparison with those who have not served at the front or with the new generation. On the other hand, the civilians were hurt by the self-protective silence with which the soldiers met their lack of understanding, while the men on the home front resented the contempt of the fighters and hid their shame at not making the one sacrifice that mattered by being contemptuous in their turn. Even the forbearing Tietjens cannot refrain from bitterness at fighting for a nation who, out of misplaced pride, are prepared to immolate those from whom they demand victory:

  • 17 Ford Madox FORD, No More Parades, pp. 236-7.

Naturally, the civilian population wanted soldiers to be made to look like fools: and to be done in. They wanted the war won by men who would at the end be either humiliated or dead. Or both. Except, naturally, their own cousins or fiancees’ relatives. That was what it came to. That was what it meant when important gentlemen said that they had rather the war were lost than that cavalry should gain any distinction in it! 17

12The First World War marked the beginning of England’s decline as the world’s greatest power. This was a major unforeseen consequence of the conflict which both civilians and soldiers had to face. A war of attrition could hardly gratify their patriotism. The older generation, who had sent their children to fight for their country, looked forward to a glorious issue, but to their suffering at having lost their sons was added their disappointment as citizens. Nor did the War bring forth the expected regeneration; in fact, hatred and aggressiveness were prevalent emotions during the War, and many shrank in horror at their own capacity for barbarism. As to the young, their bitterness was enhanced by the feeling that their country was gaining nothing by the War and that their sacrifice was vain:

  • 18 Richard ALDINGTON, Death of a Hero, p. 227.

You, the war dead, I think you died in vain. I think you died for nothing, for a blast of wind, a blather, a humbug, a newspaper stunt, a politician’s ramp. But at least you died.18

  • 19 In Contemporary Europe: a History (1961) Stuart Hughes explains that the peace treaty was a failur (...)

13At the Peace Conference the delegates disagreed from the outset about how to treat Germany. Although hatred was still strong in England and America, the French were almost alone in uncompromisingly wishing to keep Germany down. The Big Four finally agreed on a compromise, but hardly anyone who took an interest in the Versailles Treaty was satisfied. Here again, the war novels voice the two trends of reaction to the Treaty. For some, the Allies were countenancing the “revenchard” spirit of the French and were too harsh on the German people, who after all, were not wholly responsible for the War and had suffered as much as the Allies. For others, if the Germans were not severely punished once and for all, they would think that they could provoke a world conflict with impunity.19 In Last Post when Mark Tietjens hears of the terms of the Armistice, he decides that he will never speak again and he keeps his word. He considers that France was betrayed by her allies at the moment of triumph; by refusing to occupy Berlin, the Allies were committing an intellectual sin:

  • 20 Ford Madox FORD, Last Post, p. 132.

Let them, too, know what it was to suffer as France had suffered. It was treachery enough not to have done that, and the child unborn would suffer for it. … It was the worst disservice you could do your foes not to let them know that remorseless consequences follow determined actions. … If the Germans did not experience that in the sight of the world there was an end of Europe and the world. What was to hinder endless recurrences of what had happened near a place called Gemmenich on the fourth of August, 1914, at six o’clock in the morning? There was nothing to hinder it.20

  • 21 Ibid., p. 13.

14According to Mark, “a world with England presenting the spectacle of moral cowardice would be a world on a lower plane.”21

15Not all war testimonies are works of art. Some writers cannot look back on their experience with detachment, and a few even go so far as to suggest that the War was meant to destroy them personally. Not so Tietjens, Ford’s hero, who accepts the War very collectedly and is all the time sufficiently above the conflict to under-stand its true causes and to foresee its consequences. Though not exclusively a war novel, Parade’s End offers the most eloquent vision of the War and of its meaning for the ruling class, for England and its traditions. Even before the War Tietjens is aware that social and political tensions threaten the secure and ordered world of the Georgian upper class. At the end of the War the aristocratic tradition he stands for and the values of his class have been destroyed or have become meaningless. Ford presents an England doomed to lose its power as a result of the decline of its governing class. His tetralogy illustrates the deterioration of the national spirit in England and the decay of standards quickened and brought to light by the War.

  • 22 Ford Madox FORD, Last Post, p. 185.

16Tietjens is a Tory gentleman born and bred, extremely conscious of the privileges and the duties of his position. His experiences are not always plausible because too many catastrophes and trials are piled on him, while his wife, Sylvia, is too incredibly bad. A good and noble person, he is also intelligent and capable, but he allows himself to be cheated by everyone; on the professional plane he is considered unsound because too brilliant, although he shows neither the initiative nor the boldness which gave power to his class and to England. Also, he lacks the intransigency required from the man of action: as an officer, he is too humane with his men; he is punished for indiscipline and ends the War shamefully, leading a convoy of prisoners. Tietjens is a tragic symbol of the decline of the English aristocracy and a significant figure in the transformation of English society. He refuses to sanction the increasing corruption of the people of his class, yet he is too gentlemanly to denounce it. He remains imprisoned in his rigid code of honour until he has suffered all indignities and acknowledges at last the incongruity of the accepted rules in the new social reality. He then decides to live according to his own conscience and agrees that “if a ruling class loses the capacity to rule – or the desire! – it should abdicate from its privileges and get underground.”22 Groby, the Tietjens manor, is let to American nouveaux riches. In spite of his protest, they cut down the ancient yew-tree, a symbol of Old England, showing thereby that the values Tietjens stands for can no longer be taken seriously.

  • 23 The contrast between this sense of security, which was never recovered, and the confusion and anxi (...)

17The abdication of responsibility by the ruling class brought to light the obsoleteness and inadequacy of the social framework; it intensified the sense of insecurity created by the War itself. Not only Ford Madox Ford but Siegfried Sassoon in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and even Aldington evoke the pre-war world with nostalgy and lament over the disappearance of its peaceful-ness,23 which they contrast with the post-war restlessness and disenchantment. What the war novels make clear is how serenity – which was partly based on unawareness – gave way to a sense of insecurity, how man lost faith in man, in his country and in God, how he made life itself the supreme value and how the individual became more important than society. This new outlook was to inform the literature of the inter-war period and to induce novelists to search for new ways of describing man’s fate in a changing society. Naturally, the War was not the sole cause of literary renewal; a reaction against established forms and attitudes had begun to take shape before 1914, but in this as in other matters the War was a catalyst.

18The First World War haunts many novels of the inter-war period. The theme of the returned soldier who cannot adapt himself to civilian life was treated by widely differing writers like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and Isherwood in The Memorial. The impact of the War on the younger generation is a major theme in the satire and social comedy of the Twenties and Thirties. These interpret the young people’s disenchantment and cynicism, and render the atmosphere of forced gaiety and anxiety which prevailed in the post-war decade. The young were eager for life and wanted to be free of the old restraints. The break between old and young, which was one cause among others of the deterioration of the community spirit, resulted from the young people’s contempt for the inadequacy of the established rules of conduct and way of life. They also accused the old of having mismanaged the War, of having resorted to moral blackmail by instilling into them false concepts of patriotism and heroism; indirectly, they accused the old of being responsible for the one million dead and the two million wounded of the British Empire. On the other hand, the young who had missed the War envied the returned soldier his experiences at the front. These contradictory feelings together with their disillusion about humanity as a whole lay at the root of neurosis among the younger generation. They were “inwardly lost,” living in an age in which traditions were being overthrown and all values questioned. The typical hero in the satire of the Twenties is an innocent and clever young man who is convinced of the futility of war but also of life in peacetime; he is a thwarted idealist, often a romantic who refuses to acknowledge it and becomes a cynic out of a sense of frustration. It is no accident that the best interpreters of his dilemma were themselves young men who had missed the War: Huxley, who was unfit for service, and Waugh, who was too young. Their novels trace the spiritual development of the post-war generation: their confusion, disillusionment and cynicism in the face of a crumbling world, and then, very often, their search for meaning and security through religious conversion or commitment to a political cause.


1 Bonar LAW, in a Speech in the House of Commons, November 27, 1911.

2 C.E. Montague’s Disenchantment is an exception: it was published in 1922. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End appeared between 1924 and 1928, but Ford did not fight in the War.

3 “Why We Are in Favour of this War,” in Further Speculations, Minnea-polis, 1955, p. 186.

4 See Ottoline, The Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell, ed. by R. Gathorne-Hardy, London, 1963.

5 H.L. TOMLINSON, All Our Yesterdays, Leipzig, 1930, p. 14.

6 See, for instance, the letter he wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith on January 31, 1915: “The War finished me: it was the spear through the side of all sorrows and hopes…. All the while, I swear, my soul lay in the tomb – not dead, but with a flat stone over it, a corpse, become corpse-cold.” The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. by H.T. Moore, London, 1964, pp. 309-10.

7 D.H. Lawrence is an exception, and much of his aggressiveness, as well as the public’s reaction to his work, may be traced to this. In fact, his position as an outsider may account both for the view he takes of English society and for his reputation among many writers of the post-Second-World-War generation.

8 Ford Madox FORD, Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926), Last Post (1928), Penguin Books, 1948.

9 No More Parades, p. 231.

10 Alec WAUGH, The Loom of Youth (1917), London, 1955, p. 137.

11 Siegfried SASSOON, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), London, 1960, p. 256.

12 Richard ALDINGTON, Death of a Hero (1929), London, 1930, p. 259.

13 Siegfried SASSOON, Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920 (1945), London, 1945, p. 124.

14 Ford Madox FORD, No More Parades, p. 8.

15 Robert GRAVES, Goodbye to All That (1929), London, 1931, p. 283.

16 Siegfried SASSOON, Siegfried’s Journey, p. 14.

17 Ford Madox FORD, No More Parades, pp. 236-7.

18 Richard ALDINGTON, Death of a Hero, p. 227.

19 In Contemporary Europe: a History (1961) Stuart Hughes explains that the peace treaty was a failure because it was too much of a compromise. (French translation: Histoire de l’Europe Contemporaine, traduit de l’anglais par Marc BAUDOUX, Verviers, Marabout Université, p. 153.)

20 Ford Madox FORD, Last Post, p. 132.

21 Ibid., p. 13.

22 Ford Madox FORD, Last Post, p. 185.

23 The contrast between this sense of security, which was never recovered, and the confusion and anxiety which prevailed between the Wars, is admirably rendered by Orwell in Coming Up for Air.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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