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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

William Gerhardie1

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  • 1 The author’s name was spelled “Gerhardi” until fairly recently. In a letter to the T.L.S., October (...)

There can be no happiness for us, it exists only in our
(CHEKHOV, The Three Sisters)

  • 2 In the introduction to the Uniform Edition of his work published in 1947.
  • 3 See, for instance, the review in the T.L.S., September 13, 1947. It is entitled “Satire in the Twe (...)

1William Gerhardie is a minor writer now mostly forgotten by the larger public. Yet, his early fiction seems to have been greatly appreciated in the Twenties, probably because it was so well suited to the mood of that period. Like the early works of Huxley and Waugh, his first three novels describe a young man’s experience of a world falling apart at the end of the First World War and render the particular quality of life which prevailed at that time. Gerhardie himself strongly objected to being called a critic of the times. He thought that, viewed over a long period, life offered the same recurring pattern of war and peace, of folly and disillusion, which testifies to the continuity of the human character; he asserted that he only meant to describe the human condition in general and to give a few examples among many of the usual folly of mankind. Whatever he may have written about his fiction, Gerhardie does give a satirical picture of the Twenties. That the satire was not intentional, as he explained at length,2 in no way alters the vision of society he conveys in his early novels. These are typical products of the post-war era and have always been regarded as such.3 Moreover, their success at the time they first appeared and the praise they received from well-known writers may suggest that they gave the public a recognizable image of itself. It is worth noting that, like Firbank’s novels, Gerhardie’s work enjoyed a period of revival after the Second World War, though, unlike Firbank’s, it was of short duration. This makes it perhaps more obvious that some element in the life portrayed in his novels is peculiar or congenial to post-war society.

2Gerhardie’s first novel, Futility (1922), owes its melancholy mood to the author’s gentle evocation of a world coming to an end. The characters witness this disintegration without being aware of its implications. They cling with chimerical hopefulness to privileges which have already vanished except in their imagination. It is a novel of thwarted hopes, of illusion and disappointment, which takes place at the time of the Russian Revolution. It is strongly influenced by Chekhov, and its theme has much in common with that of The Three Sisters. On the eve of the First World War the narrator, a young Englishman of Russian upbringing, attends a performance of the play with the three charming Bursanov sisters and their father. He is unaware of the similarity between the lives of his companions and the existence of the people in the play, who distress him by their melancholy, their incredible inefficiency and their inertia. Yet, gradually, he is made to realize what Bursanov meant when he sadly observed that Chekhov was a great artist. Nikolai Vasilievich Bursanov is entangled in a complicated and inextricable net of relationships with his former wife, the woman he lives with, the young girl he wants to marry and a host of relatives, friends and servants; they all expect him to support them and follow him from St Petersburg to Vladivostok on a errand which proves as useless as the British intervention in Russia.

3The correlation between the confusion prevailing in social and political affairs and the muddle of private lives is felt throughout the novel. The latter is divided into four parts: The Three Sisters, The Revolution, Intervening in Siberia, and Nina. In the first part, which, as its title indicates, owes much to Chekhov’s play, Gerhardie describes a Russian bourgeois household just before the outbreak of the First World War. He expresses their uneasy feeling that their way of life is doomed and that something ought to be done to prevent further disintegration. In Chekhov’s play Irina longs for a purposeful life:

  • 4 A. CHEKHOV, The Three Sisters, translated from the Russian by Stark Young, New York, 1941, p. 26.

We must work, work. That’s why we are not happy and look at life so gloomily – we don’t know anything about work. We come of people who despised work.4

4Similarly, Nikolai Vasilievich is fond of repeating that he wants to act:

  • 5 William GERHARDIE, Futility, London, 1947, p. 78.

‘We ought to do things. I want to do things. This moment I am teeming over with energy. I could do and settle things to-day, square up our affairs, and start life afresh. – But –’5

5Actually, he simply sits and worries, deliberately ignoring the situation. His usual inertia and the complete uselessness of the few initiatives he takes are striking examples of the futility of a social class which cannot keep pace with the changing scene and allows itself to be overtaken and ruined by the Revolution. They are bored and restless, but they are paralysed by a sense of impotence and by their inability to visualize their future clearly.

6The second chapter is a counterpart to the first and describes the chaos in public life. The Revolution doesn’t mean much to the characters. They keep waiting for developments that will not occur. For Nikolai Vasilievich the Revolution is hardly more than a further delay to the removal of his difficulties. “My house – the mines” is what he mutters when faced with the real circumstances of the Revolution. He and his hangers-on are involved in events too big for them to understand. Only uncle Kostia is aware that they are caught up in a vast turmoil which matches the confusion in their private lives:

Issues, motives being muddled up. This ethical confusion, and the blind habitual resort to bloodshed as a means of straightening it out. More confusion. Honour is involved. Bloodshed as a solution. More honour involved in the solution. More bloodshed. That idiotic plea that each generation should sacrifice itself for the so-called benefit of the next! It never seems to end. (p. 75)

7As the novel develops the futility of both public and private attitudes becomes increasingly devastating:

I remember there was something hopeless about that night, a sense of dread about the political and economic chaos, that seemed to harmonize with Nikolai Vasilievich’s state of mind. I think it may be that he found a kind of ghastly pleasure in the thought that if he was miserable, if destitution stared him in the face, the whole world seemed also to be tumbling about him into decay and ruin. (p. 79)

8The British army and Nikolai Vasilievich “intervene in Siberia,” the former in the vain hope of defeating the Bolsheviks, the latter with the equally vain purpose of recovering his mines. Both interventions are conducted with unbelievable misjudgment and inefficiency. The British “are fussing over us [ Russians] and always in the wrong direction, running about like clowns in a circus.” (p. 160) Nikolai Vasilievich follows them about and prepares himself to … wait for a miraculous unravelment of his situation. Through upheavals of all kinds the three sisters are content to live, that is to say, to indulge in what the present offers without allowing circumstances to impinge upon their joy of life. Their gradual emancipation and their untiring dancing to the sound of jazz music foreshadows the insatiable search for pleasure of the young heroines of the Twenties. There is also a touch of restlessness in Nina; she turns the narrator’s three months’ journey to Vladivostock to propose to her into another “adventure in futility” comparable to the Russian general’s vain attempts to join Wrangel’s army and “seriously” begin to reconquer Russia.

9Gerhardie renders a particular quality of living which consists in waiting indefinitely for a better life to start. The characters’ blind hope that something will turn up and save them emphasizes the futility of their motives and of whatever move they make. The novel is indeed a drama of futility: the futility of attempting to maintain the old order of things and the old way of life, the futility of intervention, whether in private affairs or in the civil war, the futility of the inevitable horrors of the war, of political action, of hope, and in the end even of love. The narrator himself is filled with a sense of futility and a feeling of impotence when he seriously suggests a plan for settling the difficulties aroused by the complicated relations between the members of the Bursanov household and their hangers-on. He is sharply rebuked because they think he cannot really understand their troubles and turns them into a joke. What Andrei Andreiech fails to grasp is that human beings cannot be made happy by a simple and reasonable solution of their difficulties. Their unhappiness doesn’t spring from their predicament so much as from their inherent inability to be satisfied with what they have. The best example of men’s constant craving for an impossible happiness is Nikolai Vasilievich, who becomes involved with one woman after another because the object of his desires ceases to appeal to him when it has become his. Happiness, Gerhardie suggests, does not depend on the particular circumstances of men’s lives but on the latter’s reactions to them. Everything in life is futile because men forever pursue an ideal which eludes them since their desire is spent with the attainment of their purpose. They live in hope, not in fulfilment. That is why “waiting” is a predominant aspect of man’s attitude to life and adds to its futility by preventing him from concentrating on the present for the sake of an improbable future.

How melancholy, but strangely fascinating were these evenings: this gathering of souls dissatisfied with life, yet always waiting patiently for betterment: enduring this unsatisfactory present because they believed that the present was not really life at all: that life was somewhere in the future: that this was but a temporary and transitory stage to be spent in patient waiting. And so they waited, year in, year out, looking out for life: while life, unnoticed, had noiselessly piled up the years that they had cast away promiscuously in waiting, and stood behind them – while they still waited. (p. 151)

10The melancholy which pervades Futility springs from the characters’ feeling of expectancy, from their awareness of lost opportunities as well as from the narrator’s nostalgic recollection of the three charming sisters. It blends with humour to give the novel its peculiar tone, which is an important element in this first and best “humorous tragedy.” Gerhardie has created a type of Russian characters known to Western readers through nineteenth-century Russian fiction. He succeeds in rendering the humaneness which underlies their tolerant acceptance of extraordinary and unconventional forms of behaviour, their hospitality, their mixture of boastfulness and shyness and, above all, the tragicomedy of their lives. Their behaviour is at once more ludicrous and tragic in view of the social and political background, for the two predicaments, the private and the public, result from the same human folly. Uncle Kostia, the eternal philosopher, is quick to point this out to Andrei Andreiech when the latter asks him “whether [he] is doomed by [his] sense of inutility”:

My inutility! your inutility! What the devil does it matter whose inutility? Is your Admiral very utile, may I ask? What I was saying was that we all behaved as if we were actually doing things, boarding this Trans-Siberian Express as if in order to do something at the end of the journey, while actually the journey is in excess of anything we are likely to achieve.’ (p. 119)

11Similarly, the narrator’s musing on the inability of human beings to make the most of life makes it clear that, interrelated as they are, the private and the social situations are primarily examples of the absurdity of men. At this early stage Gerhardie did not yet think that “Nothing is until it’s over”; he did not yet associate living with the past but with the present. Living is an awareness of the potential richness and value of the passing moment.

12Like Chekhov, Gerhardie attempts to render life in its fluidity, complexity and elusiveness. He wants to convey the sense of living which he identifies with a sensibility to the quality of experience rather than with experience as such. In this respect he might be compared with Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, who encouraged him as a writer. But apart from Futility his achievement as an interpreter of the human psyche is negligible. This is indeed the only novel in which he strikes a perfect balance between sentiment and humour to render his vision of a bewildered humanity. At the same time, it is easy to see why Futility, together with Gerhardie’s other early novels, was hailed as a “novel of the Twenties.” Not only is the characters’ bewilderment in keeping with the madness of the world in which they live, that world is shown falling apart as the Western world was shown disintegrating in other English novels of the period. Nevertheless, it is chiefly the tone, the mixture of self-pity and flippancy, as well as the attitude to life illustrated in the novel that strike us now as characteristic of the post-war decade: nostalgia for better times, the sense of living in a world without values and the feeling that nothing matters more than the passing moment; above all, the meaninglessness of all action. Naturally, the meaningless-ness of life is not necessarily a matter of social or political disorder, but awareness of it in the Twenties certainly matched a mood prevalent in that period.

  • 6 William GERHARDIE, The Polyglots, London, 1947, p. 31.

13A sense of futility also runs through The Polyglots (1925), which has a similar background and is set in Far East Russia after the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The absurdity which underlies the characters’ behaviour is further emphasized, and the contradiction between their aspirations and their actions is more manifest. There is Aunt Theresa talking of the heroism of war, discoursing in terms of blood and fire, then getting anxious because her son, who is fighing in Belgium, hasn’t written for six weeks. She is angry with Georges, the narrator, for telling her that “the dead are the victims of the folly of adults who having blundered the world into a ludicrous war, now build memorials – to square it all up with. If I were the Unknown Soldier, my ghost would refuse to lie down under the heavy piece of marble; I would arise, I would say to them: keep your blasted memorials and learn sense!”6 Shortly afterwards they hear that Anatole has been court-marshalled and executed on the eve of the Armistice, because he had fallen asleep while on guard in place of a friend. Georges is indignant with humanity at large and with his family in particular for “talking murder,” then crying for their loss. “With opinions like those – opinions that cause murder – what right have they to hope that their sons will survive?” (p. 46) Anatole himself was a militarist at heart but he was also a generous man who could have fought more profitably for life. Instead, he fought with courage and devotion for a cause which had long ago become meaningless, “was a carcass like the man who died for it.” The same is true of the men who die for the “Russian National Cause,” refusing to acknowledge that it is a lost cause. They cannot see that the Revolution was inevitable, and they attribute it to the work of German and Jewish “agitators” or regard it as a bad joke. Their men desert and go over to the enemy, for the Revolution has now become the “Russian National Cause.” Meanwhile, Russian generals keep deploring the liberation of the serfs!

14The extraordinary conditions of life which prevailed at the time in that part of the world emphasize the impression that the individual characters drift like everything around them. Again, the interrelation between the disorder in public life and the madness in individual behaviour is evident. Uncle Lucy, whose dividends used to contribute to the support of the whole family, becomes insane and commits suicide, not only because he is ruined by the Revolution but also because “the ordinary normal spectacle of life as it is lived on our planet proved too much for him.” (p. 198) The people of all ages and nationalities who live on him fret and get agitated to no purpose, each worrying about his own small problems. They are rather pathetic because of their helplessness, though sometimes contemptible, but they are also capable of disinterestedness. They form a microcosm, confused and bewildered like the world at large, a world which for the older generation has lost all meaning. The narrator portrays the characters with humour and compassion, sometimes critically but never with malice. Nor does he spare himself, since his own behaviour is just as absurd as that of his relatives. His reaction when Sylvia is to marry Gustave Boulanger is quite irrational. He takes her love for himself for granted and is not sure that he wants to marry her, but when she is to marry someone else, he feels cheated and realizes that he has missed his chance of being happy. Still, on their way back to Europe, when his passion is satisfied and he understands that he will not rid himself easily of his relatives, he envies Gustave who has been left alone in Harbin. His emotional life in no way gratifies his deeper needs, and, like Gerhardie’s other commentators on life, he attributes this failure to human nature:

I fretted, but all the time I felt that I was fretting over things not worth the pain. We were so earnest, so unforgiving, exacting, intense; we were shouting ourselves hoarse till we were deaf to the real inner voice which even in moments of peace seemed scarcely resolute enough to make itself heard; and beneath it all was the sense that all this, as it were borrowed emotion, though consuming and painful enough, was trivial and unnecessary. (p. 230)

15Georges somewhat resembles the heroes of Huxley’s early novels. However, he is more conscious of his failings as a human being, and he understands that his dissatisfaction and melancholy are due to his own incapacity to enjoy life. “Why don’t we make haste and live? But how? How to make the most of life? If you grip it, it runs through your fingers.” (p. 160) Already at his age he declares that “life is best in retrospect.” (p. 28) Yet he can also show the unconcern of youth and be cynical, though he is capable of genuine affection as it appears from his friendship with the exquisite Natasha. The mixture of cynicism and tenderness in his affair with Sylvia foreshadows the relationship between Nina and Adam in Waugh’s Vile Bodies: the characters find themselves in similar circumstances since each allows the woman he loves to marry someone else and becomes her lover afterwards. Georges also shares with Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr a tendency to get involved with women, a familiarity with “polyglots” and a bent for philosophical speculation. He is more English and more “modern” than the narrator of Futility, who was unashamedly romantic, but he is the same type of man rendered more sophisticated by experience. The narrator of Gerhardie’s first two novels is a happy combination of the Russian pre-war hero and the English post-war Bright Young Man. He has experienced war, not on the Western Front but in a part of the world where heroism seemed more futile yet because it didn’t conduce to victory and where chaos, futility, and despair were felt long before they became noticeable in post-war Western society. This may account for the more articulate nature of his disillusionment as well as for his constant preoccupation with death and with the meaning of life:

I don’t know what it’s for, why or who wants [life]. It seems so unnecessary, useless, even silly. And yet I cannot think that it’s all in vain. There must be – perhaps a larger pattern somewhere in which all these futilities, these shifting incongruities are somehow reconciled. But shall we know? Shall we ever know the reason? (p. 78)

16This kind of questioning echoes Rachel’s in The Voyage Out, though, as I have already suggested, the way in which Gerhardie answers these questions in his later works cannot compare with Virginia Woolf’s.

17The narrator’s uncertainty about the purpose and meaning of life gives The Polyglots its melancholy undertones. The absurdity and the inefficiency with which the characters attempt to extricate themselves from their predicament are often tinged with sadness. At the same time, Georges’ persistent endictment of the folly of war and of the ensuing chaos emphasizes the social disorder, which is given additional stress by the variety of the characters and of their follies. Moreover, The Polyglots is one of the rare post-war English novels in which the characters actually see their world crumbling about them and are shown experiencing the kind of situation which led to disappointment and confusion in post-war society. However, here, as in Futility, there is a correlation between social disorder and the muddle of private lives rather than a cause-and-effect relationship. The two situations and the sense of frustration they give rise to are due to the irrationality shown by man in all circumstances. The narrator comments with the same disenchantment on all the follies of men, on their self-contradiction, whether in matters of love or politics, and on their failure to make the most of life’s opportunities. Yet, already in this second novel the author is too theoretical and long-winded in his search for the meaning of life. Instead of presenting the characters’ disillusionment through their attitude, he tends to describe it and to discuss their failure to achieve happiness. The novel is a medley of tragi-comic incidents, portraits of eccentric personalities, and humourous and sentimental passages. The narrator is alternately delighted, bored, or desperate. He is shocked at the inconsequence of his fellow-beings in their personal life and in the conduct of the War, in the drawing up of the Versailles Treaty and the taking up of “causes.” Yet, he is mollified by their helplessness and by their blindness to the futility of life. Each episode adds to their bewilderment. Endless dissatisfaction and absurd conduct, Gerhardie seems to say, give life its flavour, but they also create disorder among his “polyglots.” The effect is no doubt enhanced by the mixture of political madness, romance, philosophy, and extravagance, all embodied in a somewhat loose narrative, for Gerhardie himself hasn’t quite mastered the general confusion.

  • 7 William GERHARDIE, Anton Chehov, London, 1949, p. 16.

At least one half of Chehov’s attitude to life was humorous. Apart from his farces, his humour was of that high comedie quality: never quite divorced from a suspicion of tragedy. It is warm and human.7

  • 8 See the introduction to the Uniform Edition of his work, p. xix.

18Gerhardie’s remark about Chekhov could apply to his own early novels. His analysis of the Russian writer’s work shows how much he is indebted to him for his definition of life and the rendering of it in literature. Gerhardie’s happiest imitation of Chekhov is in the blend of pathos and humour in Futility and The Polyglots. In these works the characters seem real because he shows them actually living. He is not averse to sentimentality, particularly in describing Natasha’s death in The Polyglots, but it is restrained by a delicate sense of measure and seldom becomes melodramatic. He described his novels as “humorous tragedies” in accordance with his belief that insight into the tragic condition of man coupled with “compassionate humour” for his weakness conveys the only vision of life that is not out of focus. He insisted that he was not a satirist, that he had no axe to grind and that his work had been misinterpreted by most critics for twenty five years.8 Incidentally, his complaints about being misunderstood and his detailed “literary credo” are rather overdone. After all, a novel should speak for itself and cannot be entirely dissociated from the reader’s response to it. When all is said, there is social criticism of a kind in Gerhardie’s novels, if only because the follies of men he describes are the expression of their bewilderment at a time of historical and social crisis.

19More than any other novel by Gerhardie My Sinful Earth is the work of a particular moment, indeed one of the most typical “post-war” novels. The author himself did not deny this and called it “a novel of the Twenties,” so obvious is it that it can be identified with the mood of that period. It is a pity that he did not retain the original title Jazz and Jasper which he later found nauseating. “My Sinful Earth” deliberately echoes the philosophical implications of Shakespeare’s sonnet but it is quite inappropriate to this comedy, which often verges on the farcical. Frank Dickin, a not very successful writer, is acquainted with a beautiful Russian émigrée and her even more beautiful daughters Zita and Eva. He becomes a protégé of Lord Ottercove, a powerful and immensely rich press baron. The latter supports his niece and her husband. Viscount de Jones, a scientist who has always been in love with the Russian émigrée. All these people are involved in complicated relationships. Eventually, Dickin, de Jones and Ottercove are good-humoured rivals in their efforts to win over the delightful Eva, who favours all three of them. Viscount de Jones is obsessed with the idea of destroying the world but he has never been taken seriously. He disintegrates the atom and the earth, saving only a rounded mountain top which revolves by itself round the sun with only a few survivors. The inhabitants of this new planet get busy reorganizing life on the same absurd principles and ideas as in the old world.

  • 9 Lord Beaverbrook, who was a friend of Gerhardie’s and the original of Lord Ottercove, also served (...)

20Lord Ottercove’s personality as well as the dynamism with which he runs his affairs and, to all appearances, a big part of the world, set the tone of the novel. This all-powerful man, “the big drum in the jazz band of our civilization,” (p. 240) who can do or undo everything on earth, whether private lives, reputations, fortunes or international wars, is a symbol of the new values which he helps to set up. Money is the all-important asset. Since Ottercove has an unlimited amount of it, acquired by his own intelligence and ability, he belongs to the new race of potentates who exercise a strange fascination on their contemporaries by their capacity to act. “Frank believed High Finance to be closely allied with Mysticism. It was ineffable and inutterable: it could be revealed but not explained; its priests were inspired.” (p. 74) Lord Ottercove9 launches men on successful political careers, takes up the silliest causes and rallies the nation to support them. This is pleasantly satirized in the “crop-increasing stunt” and the “dog campaign” by which Ottercove hopes to ensure the political victory of his friend Joe. Public events and international conflicts are parodied as well as the blind acquiescence of most people in opinions and actions dictated to them by the press lords:

Lord Ottercove hailed the prospect of war with mixed feelings of journalistic felicity and human discomfiture. As the probability – and later the unavoidability – of war became more certain, the humane resistance in him yielded to patriotic excitement, and he wrote himself the leading article, heading it: ‘The Nation demands –.’ And the nation, reading it at breakfast next morning, felt that, yes, it was in them to demand, and they demanded and would not sheathe the sword until they had fought to utter exhaustion. … Once again there was ‘A Cause.’ (p. 179)

21It is not so surprising then that an Ottercove should regard the world as a sort of chess-game in which he can move the pawns at will and feel that he has some kind of supernatural power which entitles him to interfere in all aspects of life. He is alternately a good and an evil spirit, stimulated by the effect he produces on people and by his influence on the events of his time. Like a god, he takes his role very seriously and enjoys his sense of power. In addition, he is convinced that he is of service to mankind by giving in his papers an image of the world which hardly corresponds to reality:

Life is a dream, according to my philosophy, a dream of illusions. And this faculty of creating illusions in a world of appearances is, I claim, the function of the journalist, (p. 70)

22In the run for power over mankind Ottercove has a serious rival, whom he has never taken seriously because he thinks money can buy everything, even the right to exist. When he offers de Jones to buy the visible world from him and the latter refuses, he is beside himself with anger until he realizes that the disintegration of the world is going to make first-rate news. But de Jones does disintegrate the world in order to revenge himself for not being taken seriously. Scientists of his type will blow up the world in the belief that they are fulfilling a mission, while the men in power are irresponsible enough to take the chance of disregarding warnings. In fact, the world is in the hands of press lords like Ottercove who “give the public what it wants” but would not exhort them to behave reasonably, and of scientists like de Jones who cannot increase the crop-growing capacity of the earth but are proud to be able to destroy it altogether. That men are unwilling to improve or are incapable of it is further illustrated on the new planet when de Jones kills the inn-keeper because she protests against her son’s disintegration. He kills her to ensure peace on the planet, and he imagines his descendants and Frank’s armed to the teeth, not for aggression but for defence alone. All this is conveyed with detached and humorous zest, though the narrative is too often sprinkled with philosophical speculations. Like one character in The Three Sisters, Ottercove is fond of asserting that the ordinary visible world doesn’t exist but merely “seems”; de Jones repeats that God wants the world to be detroyed so that it can resurrect, and that he is God’s chosen instrument; Dickin wants to escape life in time. It is not always clear whether this pseudo-philosophy is meant seriously or is being ridiculed by the author. Probably, as in his other novels, Gerhardie wants to stress men’s incapacity to discover meaning in life, but this metaphysical concern is out of tune with the farcical context of the novel.

23My Sinful Earth is another of Gerhardie’s variations on the absurdity of life. But, above all, it expresses with fantasy the temper of the post-war years. The rhythm of modern life is felt through Ottercove’s restless activities either in London or on the Riviera. The dissatisfaction which runs through the characters’ life in spite of their merrymaking is typical of the atmosphere of the post-war novel. Pleasure-seeking and melancholy are also characteristic features of Firbank’s fantasies, and melancholy easily turns into bitterness or a sense of frustration in Huxley’s or Waugh’s satires. This seldom happens to Gerhardie’s young men perhaps because, unlike most post-war heroes, they are fairly lucky in love. The female characters in Gerhardie’s novels are incapable of serious or coherent thinking, but they are charming and loving women. They are eccentric and have no sense of reality: Mrs. Kerr, for instance, spends lavishly one day, then works the next as a servant in order to feed her children. Eva, her daughter, is equally irresponsible and exhibits the innocence and impudence, the fragility and toughness which characterize the heroine of the Twenties. Gerhardie’s young women never show the callousness nor the mercenary disposition of Waugh’s female characters, but like the latter, they are lacking in moral sense. They have the knack of ignoring the uglier aspects of life and contribute a good deal to the general atmosphere of extravagance and lunacy.

24My Sinful Earth is not so polished a novel as Futility or even The Polyglots. There is a strong autobiographical element in Gerhardie’s work; it is obvious from Memoirs of a Polyglot that he exploited over and over again the events and incidents of his personal life. But the personal element is less successfully transmuted in My Sinful Earth than in his first novels; the narrator comes too much to the fore though his possibilities as a character seem to be exhausted. Frank Dickin often sounds trivial and cheaply sentimental. Yet he is also inclined to cynicism and with Ottercove and Eva delights in the atmosphere of general inconsequence and lunacy. Here is life at its craziest with evenings at the Kiss-Lik Club, reminiscent of Michael Arien, Mrs. Kerr’s extravagant outings and Eva’s most unlikely adventures, all of which take place in a world threatened with destruction. Ottercove, who will appear in most of Gerhardie’s later novels, is presented as a new world master, and his revolution in journalism is shown to affect all aspects of life in an unprecedented way. Jazz and Jasper was the first modern novel to satirize the overwhelming influence of the press on behaviour and ways of thinking. It showed how the sensational press fostered a feeling of insecurity among the public; it created an artificial world in which disasters and the doings of the great were of paramount importance and aimed at making people forget the grim reality of their own existence. However, Gerhardie’s stroke of genius was the atomic disintegration of the earth, his prophetic, though humorous, vision of the sinister threat that was to hang over coming generations.

25There is little to be said for Gerhardie’s later novels. After My Sinful Earth he never regained the freshness and spontaneity of his early work. He seems to have applied a recipe which, having worked in the past, was expected to work indefinitely. The novels he wrote in the Thirties often present the same characters in exactly the same terms and merely reproduce the passages which concern them from one novel to another. Nor is their author against telling the same jokes in several novels. This repetitiveness is irritating and adds to the tediousness of his later fiction. The characters are never real because they merely talk about their feelings but are not shown experiencing them. Their life is too trivial or presented too flatly to arouse interest. Essentially, the theme of Gerhardie’s fiction remains the same: the insanity of mankind, the futility of man’s exertions to attain objects that are themselves devoid of significance. He describes man’s bewilderment and anxiety and explains that these are unnecessary though inevitable. As previously, he takes examples in contemporary life to illustrate the follies of men. In Of Mortal Love the characters spend most of their time attending Bohemian and fashionable parties in Bloomsbury and Mayfair, while some are involved in Left-wing politics or support Social Credit. My Wife’s the Least of It pokes fun at the political conflicts of the Thirties. Mr. Baldridge enjoys parodying political orators and making speeches to support the “Marxism of the Upper Classes.” Still, Gerhardie insists that contemporary events do not really impress individuals, who are more affected by the unsatisfactoriness inherent in all human existence.

26The “philosophy” Gerhardie attempts to build up on this view of life becomes increasingly obtrusive in his later novels. “Nothing is until it’s over” is the essence of ordinary living. Men only realize the value of experience when it is over. While they are waiting for “real” life to begin, it slips away unnoticed. Then, they suddenly become aware that the small irrelevant things which they had disregarded but which buried themselves in their consciousness was their real life. The sense of lost opportunity in all novels by Gerhardie is a consequence of man’s inability to concentrate on the present because he is not aware of its potential richness. He saves his chances of happiness for an uncertain future, and he keeps going supported by the idea of “Paradise Deferred.” In his introduction to Resurrection Hugh Kingsmill explained that Gerhardie believed neither in the good time nor in the bad world but was most concerned with knowing why man “was having a bad time in a good world.” The question was partly answered by his assumption that man was by nature unable to live in the present. He also thought that life as we know it is but a distorted, partial image of an unknown whole from which we are severed during our existence in time. In his later novels his characters’ sense of frustration is contrasted with the fleeting moments of bliss they experience when they recollect the past and are momentarily serene and free from craving. The quality of these moments treasured and remembered gives meaning to life.

27The analogy of this approach to life with Proust’s is obvious. Indeed, Gerhardie forces the comparison upon us by frequent references to his master in Resurrection. That we do things on earth because we have already done them in a previous life, the impossibility of knowing other people, the maxim “Nothing is until it’s over” expressed slightly differently, all these elements are to be found in one passage of Le Temps Retrouvé. Even the expression “real but not actual, ideal but not abstract,” often used by Gerhardie to describe aspects of things usually hidden from us and revealed in moments of ecstasy, is taken from Proust. But Gerhardie discusses theories and methods; he cannot make use of them and never renders through art the evanescent beauty of a moment of fulfilment. Since he hardly uncovers the emotional life of his characters, neither their experiences nor their reactions to them are convincing, the more so as these reactions are always fairly similar in order to prove the unchangeableness of human nature. Proust often shows man failing to appreciate happiness as long as he feels it to be secure, then becoming restless when he realizes that he might lose it. The changes of moods and feelings of his narrator are described with subtlety, and their psychological truth is impressive. The detailed analysis of feelings and the psychological elucidation which are the subject-matter of Proust’s writing are absent from Gerhardie’s work. When Proust’s narrator fails to fully enjoy experiences which he had craved for, it is often because they are so fertile in sensations that he prefers, as it were, to keep his impressions in store until they can be recollected and appreciated in all their complexity later on. With Proust the deferment of happiness is a source of emotional enrichment which gives significance to time past. In Gerhardie’s later novels the past is meaningless and trivial, while the description of the present doesn’t even make real the sense of frustration it is meant to convey. These novels consist of disparate elements which do not blend. Though Gerhardie asserted that he was doing something similar to what Proust did in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, he was not equipped as a writer to carry out the task to which he applied himself. He reduced all life to a repetitive and almost mechanical rejection of the present in order to delight in a past nostalgically remembered but recreated without imagination.

  • 10 This expression was used by Cyril Connolly to describe the hero of the novel of the Twenties in En (...)
  • 11 Introduction to Futility, p. xv.

28The significance of Gerhardie’s criticism of society is limited to his first three novels. This is not, as might be supposed, because his later work aims so deliberately at illustrating his philosophy, for in developing this philosophy Gerhardie may have been influenced by his vision of the world in the early Twenties. His belief that our apprehension of the reality and wholeness of life is evanescent was shared by other writers at the time: as I have already suggested in dealing with Virginia Woolf, it may well have been prompted, or at least strengthened, by the unsatisfactory state of the world in the post-war years. Yet with the publication of each novel and for years afterwards Gerhardie felt the need to explain that he was no committed writer, that he had no axe to grind and did not wish his novels to be taken for satires. So much insistence indicates that some elements in his novels could be called satirical. When he surveys the contemporary scene, as he does in most of his novels, Gerhardie ridicules social chaos in the same way as the other follies of men. True, individual life does not usually depend on social and political circumstances. On the other hand, a significant interpretation of life should transcend the particular circumstances which inspired it or convey the further implications of these circumstances. Gerhardie’s criticism of society in his later novels is limited because his characters are on the whole too flimsy to represent anything but themselves, just as they are too trivial to illustrate his philosophy convincingly. Paradoxically, Gerhardie was at his best when he recreated the surface life of an era, as he did in his early fiction. His first three “humorous tragedies” do voice, as this expression suggests, the “comic despair”’ of Petrouchka10 “Humour,” Gerhardie writes, “is clairvoyance in the service of this life. It is pure perception.”11 Humour is the best corrective of our distorted and partial view of life for it tempers exaggeration and helps man to acquire a sense of proportion. It brings out the vanity of human beings, but it sheds light on their unhappiness. Gerhardie’s use of “compassionate humour” made him an excellent interpreter of the contradictory moods of the post-war years: the coexistence of frivolity with melancholy, of pleasure-seeking with a sense of frustration, of futility with a craving for permanence. This interpretation of individual unrest at that particular time is also the best illustration of his philosophy of life.


1 The author’s name was spelled “Gerhardi” until fairly recently. In a letter to the T.L.S., October 12, 1967, he mentioned that he had reverted to an “earlier ancestral spelling of his name.”

2 In the introduction to the Uniform Edition of his work published in 1947.

3 See, for instance, the review in the T.L.S., September 13, 1947. It is entitled “Satire in the Twenties” and compares the novels of Gerhardie with the satires of Wyndham Lewis, Huxley and Waugh.

4 A. CHEKHOV, The Three Sisters, translated from the Russian by Stark Young, New York, 1941, p. 26.

5 William GERHARDIE, Futility, London, 1947, p. 78.

6 William GERHARDIE, The Polyglots, London, 1947, p. 31.

7 William GERHARDIE, Anton Chehov, London, 1949, p. 16.

8 See the introduction to the Uniform Edition of his work, p. xix.

9 Lord Beaverbrook, who was a friend of Gerhardie’s and the original of Lord Ottercove, also served as a model for the newspaper magnate in Waugh’s Scoop.

10 This expression was used by Cyril Connolly to describe the hero of the novel of the Twenties in Enemies of Promise, p. 54.

11 Introduction to Futility, p. xv.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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