the Insiders


February 3, 2012 1:43 PM

Eye, Media

The Passionate Reader: February 3, 2012

Fans of PBS' much-talked-about series "Downton Abbey" on "Masterpiece" often want to read more about the Edwardian era and World War I....

Fans of PBS' much-talked-about series "Downton Abbey" on "Masterpiece" often want to read more about the Edwardian era and World War I.

wharton.jpgA good place to start is with Edith Wharton's novel "The Buccaneers," published after her death in 1938, which is about American heiresses crossing the Atlantic to marry into titled English families in the late 19th century, à la Lady Cora, Elizabeth McGovern's character in the series.

Then there's E.M. Forster's celebrated 1910 "Howard's End," which concerns the conflict between three classes in turn-of-the-century England over a piece of property. Hector Hugh Munro, a.k.a. Saki, satirized Edwardian conventions in his remarkable short stories, such as "Esme," "The Open Window" and "The Un-Rest Cure." Although officially over-age, Munro enlisted in the British Army Fusiliers and died in 1916 at 45 at the front in France.

galsworthy.jpgAmong the books which were popular reading during the period were the novels of John Galsworthy's intergenerational "The Forsyte Saga," the first of which, 1906's "The Man of Property," concerns the nouveau riche Soames Forsyte, who is obsessed with controlling the life of his beautiful wife, Irene. At the time, Galsworthy's novels were lauded for stripping away the Victorian pieties about family relationships. The books were made into a very popular British miniseries in 1967 and again in 2003.

brittain.jpgTo read about World War I, begin with Vera Brittain's lyrical memoir, "Testament of Youth," published in 1933, which describes the loss of a sizable portion of a generation of idealistic young Englishmen. The combined casualties of the war -- wounded, missing or killed on both sides -- added up to an almost unimaginable 38.88 million. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British suffered 57,470 casualties. At one point, English mounted equestrian troops were going into battle against German machine guns. The years-long stalemate in the trenches was irrational, enervating and sordid.

Vera's younger brother Edward Brittain, fiance Roland Leighton, and friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, accomplished public school students who were headed to Oxford or Cambridge, were all killed during the war. Their correspondence with each other appears in the book "Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends," published by Abacus in 1999. One result of the carnage of the war was that Brittain, who had left Oxford to become a nurse with the V.A.D. during the conflict, became a lifelong pacifist. After the war, she returned to university and later became the mother of the Liberal member of Parliament Shirley Williams, (now Baroness Williams of Crosby).

poets.jpgThen there are the works of the great World War I poets, first among them Wilfred Owen, whose "Poems" appeared two years after his 1918 death. Owen was strongly influenced by Siegfried Sassoon, who edited his poetry and was also instrumental in getting it published. Sassoon was known for his reckless bravery at the front, which earned him the nickname Mad Jack; he eventually was wounded and could not return to fighting. Owen had been hospitalized with a concussion and shell shock, but later went back into battle and died a week before the Armistice was announced on Nov. 11, 1918. Bells were ringing in celebration when his parents received the letter that told them of his death.

The poem of Owen's that must be read is the brilliant, harsh "Dulce et Decorum Est" -- a Latin tag that means, "Sweet and Fitting It Is" -- which is about a death during a gas attack. It begins, "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,/ Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs/ And towards our distant rest began to trudge./ Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots/But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;/Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots/ Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind./Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,/ Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; /But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,/ And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime..."

owen.jpgOwen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" starts with the lines: "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/ Only the monstrous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle/Can patter out their hasty orisons."

Sassoon lived to be 80; one of his most notable poems, ironically, is "How to Die." Here is its second stanza: "You'd think, to hear some people talk,/That lads go West with sobs and curses,/And sullen faces white as chalk/Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses,/But they've been taught the way to do it/Like Christian soldiers; not with haste/And shuddering groans; but passing through it/With due regard for decent taste."

graves.jpgSassoon had become great friends with poet Robert Graves at the front, but he was alienated by his portrait in Graves' wonderful memoir of the war, "Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography," which first came out in 1929. The book describes Graves' experiences in combat -- he suffered for years afterward from shell shock -- and explains why he is leaving England.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart, for his part, seems to have written only one poem before he fell in France in 1917, but it's a great one and reflects his reputation as a classicist: "I saw a man this morning/Who did not wish to die/I ask and cannot answer/If otherwise wish I/Fair broke the day this morning/Against the Dardanelles;/The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks/Were as cold as cold sea-shells./...Was it so hard, Achillles,/So very hard to die?/Thou knewest, and I know not-- So much the happier I."

Rupert Brooke's reputation has suffered from what many see as the jingoism of his best-known poem "The Soldier": "If I should die, think only this of me/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England." Then there's the fact that he was devastatingly good-looking, which can lead people to underestimate men as well as women; even Virginia Woolf bragged of skinny-dipping with him!

sassoon.jpgHowever, Brooke never made it to the front lines -- he died of sepsis at 27 on a hospital ship off Greece -- and so was unlikely to write the sort of verse about the horrors of trench warfare for which Owen and Sassoon are known. But he did write "Dust," which begins, "When the white flame in us is gone,/And we that lost the world's delight/Stiffen in darkness, left alone/To crumble in our separate night;/When your swift hair is quiet in death,/And through the lips corruption thrust/Has stilled the labour of my breath -- When we are dust, when we are dust!"

Then there are the novels. Ernest Hemingway's second, 1929's "A Farewell to Arms," concerns a doomed romance that takes place between Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver, and Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, during the Italian campaign of the First World War. "Le Feu [Under Fire]," is Frenchman Henri Barbusse's story of life at the front; Barbusse enlisted at 41 and later became a Communist and went to live in Russia.

There are also Wharton's less-well-known novels, "The Marne," published in 1918, about American Troy Belknap and his tutor, M. Grantier, who are in France remarque.jpgwhen war breaks out, and "A Son at the Front," about American painter John Campton and his only son George, who was born in France and thus drafted into the French army, which appeared in 1923.

No catalogue of World War I literature would be complete without Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 classic "All Quiet on the Western Front," which concerns the disillusioning experiences of a German soldier. And finally, there is Woolf's modernist masterpiece "Mrs. Dalloway," which came out in 1925. It takes place just after World War I, and is about a society hostess, Clarissa Dalloway, who is preparing for a party, and a shell-shocked veteran, Septimus Smith.

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