By Rod Beecham
Dear BGO Members,
I write to draw your attention to my eBook, ‘The Evidence of Our Senses’: Language, Belief and Britain’s Great War. The book is the product of a student of English literature whose interest, in postgraduate years, turned more specifically to history and the relationships between language, patterns of thought and decision-making. The book examines the confection of a British sense of national identity during the second half of the nineteenth century and relates this to the illogicality and irrationality of the British decision to intervene in the European war that broke out in 1914. It examines the language of English poetry of the war, avoiding the sterile labels of ‘pro-‘ and ‘anti-‘ war verse. It gives the most thorough account to date of Siegfried Sassoon’s 1917 protest against the war’s continuation, demonstrating that the incoherence of that protest is attributable to the incoherence of the war itself (i.e. there was nothing identifiable against which to protest). It reviews British military conduct of the war, demonstrating that the shortcomings of senior British commanders are attributable to their subscription to the meretricious value-system confected in the nineteenth century. It reviews the Treaty of Versailles, confirming both that the Treaty was an improvisation and that the tenets of economic orthodoxy are fundamentally incompatible with a world-view that accepts the possibility of war. It reviews the factitious ‘war-books’ controversy of 1930 and indicates that latter-day attempts to attribute negative British perceptions of the First World War to the influence of a handful of literary works are recrudescences of the mind-set that created the war itself. In this sense, the book is an allegory of the contemporary Zeitgeist. An earlier version of Chapter One appeared as, ‘Confecting a British Identity’, in The New Nationalism and the First World War, ed. Lawrence Rosenthal and Vesna Rodic (Basingstoke and New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 19-46. An earlier version of Chapter Three was delivered as the paper, ‘Gesture and experience in “patriotic” and “anti-war” poetry’, at the English Association Conference, ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, at Wadham College, Oxford in September 2014. An earlier version of Chapter Seven appeared as, ‘Fiction and Memoir of Britain’s Great War: disillusioned or disparate?’, in the European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 22:5, 791-813. In an age of ‘fake news’ and labyrinthine relativism, I believe my book is extremely important. At the very least, it could start a discussion about the nature of truth and how we are to establish it. I think that is a discussion we need to have.
I hope I have not committed a solecism by advertising my work here. Of course, I hope that people will be interested in my book, but I understand that advertisements can be irritating!
Several years ago, Sebastian Faulks made a four part series for the BBC called Faulks on Fiction. This is the book of the series.
Like the series, it is split into 4 parts - Heroes, Lovers, Snobs and Villains - and concentrates purely on British novels. Austen and Dickens merit two inclusions - Emma Woodhouse (snob) and Mr Darcy (lover), and Pip (snob) and Fagin (villain). His attention spans from 18th century doorstops like Robinson Crusoe to, most recently, Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal and Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Faulks' intention is not to provide any historical context for the characters he considers, but rather to focus on them purely in terms of their actions in the novels in which they appear.
Some of the characters appear in surprising places. most obviously James Bond, a snob rather than a hero due to his devotion to certain brands and a particular way of mixing his drinks. In addition Faulks, as the writer of Devil May Care, a Bond novel authorized by Ian Fleming's estate, can't resist talking at some length about the development process of that book rather than focusing on Bond himself, a character with very little interior life on the page anyway. Faulks also argues that John Self from Martin Amis's Money, a character so odious that I had to stop reading the book, is a hero simply through surviving his over the top lifestyle.
Perhaps understandably, Faulks seems to have picked personal favourites so obvious snobs like Stevens, the butler in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, are overlooked where, if I was writing the book, he'd have been top of the list. Pip from Great Expectations, is, I suspect, a snob because Faulks wanted to write about him but didn't know where which heading to put him under.
One's enjoyment of each section of the book will probably correlate with whether one has read the novel under discussion. Thus, my attention wandered in the parts about Robert Lovelace, the villain in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, for example, but I reveled in Faulks's considerations of Jeeves (snob) and Sherlock Holmes (hero).
Ultimately, the book failed for me in that Faulks didn't persuade me through his enthusiasm for particular novels or characters to read (or reread) something I hadn't considered tackling before or to have another go at something I'd previously disliked.