Bad News for Francis Ledwidge; Ford Skewers a Squire; Thomas Hardy is Only a Century Out of Date

Bad news today for Private Francis Ledwidge of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. As long ago as the spring his girl Ellie Vaughey had thrown him over for John O’Neill, but Ledwidge still had hopes. Until today, when Vaughey and O’Neill were married. All of Ledwidge’s home affairs had now gone awry. First the political; and now the personal–it might have felt as if there was little reason, now, to ever go home to county Meath. What was left?

Well, poetry. And the grim winter barracks life and future uncertainty of the army.[1]

 

From a fledgling poet to a master. Thomas Hardy has been awkwardly navigating the shoal waters of jingoism and propaganda since August: a few questionable close calls, but no total disaster yet. If he continues to survive without writing something truly terrible, he may yet metamorphose from hoary Victorian Legend to the supreme ironist among poets, a sage worthy of the suffering soldier poets. (Spoiler: he sure will! We’ll hear from Charles Sorley in a few days on Hardy’s great merits.)

In any event, Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance have come out, and will, at least in Paul Fussell‘s opinion, prove the true harbinger of the war’s literary art. But today another pre-war project long in the works now bore fruit–ironic and bitter fruit, of course. The Dynasts, Hardy’s massive, masterful, strange, and difficult verse drama of the Napoleonic wars was mounted for the first time tonight as an actual theatrical production.[2] The great man himself had a cold, and did not attend. Reviews were cordial.

 

And another curious literary debut in today’s issue of The BystanderFord Hueffer‘s “The Scaremonger” is a charming but faintly bizarre combination of mild “never fear!” propaganda, mean-spirited caricature, and whimsy.

It’s a pleasant, very English little tale, something like Wodehouse covering Wells: there is a meddlesome “squire” in an east coast town, a retired money-man who has devoted his leisure to recondite research in the classics (the Latinist as extravagantly detached luftmensch was a familiar type) and annoying the locals. But now the squire is seized by war fever, and his philological battles against a Prussian professor give birth to paranoia: he has become convinced that a German submarine will make a secret landing on his part of the coast, unleashing “Huns” to rape and pillage the defenseless English countryside.

This is rather irritating to the officers of the local New Army unit that is responsible for coastal defense. The squire is not only frightening the young ladies of the village but there is also the concern that his flamboyant cowardice, no matter how ridiculous, might spread.

So a demonstration is arranged, a dummy raid by one section of the local army battalion against those standing guard, complete with blank cartridges and instructions to any of the soldiers who can manage a bit of German to use it, the better to fool the garrison.

The story is light-hearted, so far, but it addresses a real enough situation. German ships have attacked British shipping in the Channel and bombarded the coast, and a serious raid with civilian casualties will actually take place in a few weeks’ time. Even though an actual invasion is a very far-fetched idea, rumors abounded (Rupert Brooke has written several letters about being mobilized to meet invasion scares, and suggested nastily that a real raid would do the English scaremongers good) and fear ran as rampant as cliche.

So a tale that played up the competence and pluck of the half-trained members of Kitchener’s Army would qualify as useful pro-war-effort writing.

The end of this little tale I don’t mind spoiling: sure enough, as the brave men of the 57th West Kents assemble on the beach to mount their war-game invasion, they run smack into another group of armed men muttering in German. It’s a fearful mix-up, since the West Kents are only carrying blanks and the other German-speaking fellows are quite rude, but no matter: eventually, with the help of one regular sergeant and a boy scout they capture a hundred Prussian commandos and their state-of-the-art submarine.

The terrified squire, meanwhile, charges the beach brandishing several pistols, shooting several English soldiers before turning the gun on himself. Which is a dark turn for a silly story. The moral?

The moral, apparently, is that Ford Madox Hueffer is the sort to pick any fight, no matter how silly and unrewarding. The suicidal hysteric is a thinly disguised burlesque of Edward Heron Allen, English eccentric, Sussex squire, distinguished scholar of Persian, and, according to Violet Hunt, who was then living with Hueffer, despite his marriage, her rejected suitor.

The (historical) story gets weirder: Heron Allen recognized the caricature and railed against the perfidy of a man who came to dinner at your house with his scandalous mistress, then made fun of you, and was a German to boot. He appears to have been able to use that squire-ly influence as well: Hueffer, whose father had indeed been German, will shortly be ordered by the local constabulary to leave West Sussex. Suspicious chap, you know. German name. Strange habits.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 90.
  2. Or, rather, a few selected scenes were staged. The thing is massive.
  3. Ford, War Prose, 140-8.