History


images

So, to the closing of the curtain on Part One of the novel, with this long and crucial chapter in which Willie witnesses the 1916 Easter Rising.

Summary— Chapter Seven

His leave over, Willie wakes in a long army barracks room in Devoy amongst many other men. Getting up, he urinates into a chamber pot. In the act of doing so, he stirs the man in the bed next door. An ugly Southerner, the man leaps up and knocks his Bible into Willie’s full chamber pot. Mortified, Willie offers the man his own family Bible as a compensation. This act at first placates the agitated Southerner: but swiftly the man turns violent, leaping on Willie and strangling him. Willie, bemused, offers no resistance. Eventually the Southerner’s attack peters out, ending in a sardonic declaration that a murder would stop him being sent to France. The man then proceeds to chat amiably with Willie about betting. He introduces himself as from Jessie Kirwan, from Cork. Willie introduces himself, and to the resigned question “What did the Irish ever do?” Billy answers that they died abroad lately. Kirwan laughs and thinks on Willie’s words.

Willie accompanies his strange new friend as they are transported through Dublin. Willie looks for Gretta; Kirwan sits on the floor of the transport, uninterested in Dublin, something Willie cannot understand. Willie eventually sees Gretta on the steps running down to the dock, and in return she sees him: the two wave enthusiastically to each other. Willie is elated. He talks to Kirwan, who mentions his father and asks what Willie’s father does. Willie answers that his father is a policeman. Kirwan replies his father, being against the law, would not approve. Willie asks what Kirwan’s father does. Kirwan’s cryptic reply is that his father is a lithographer, a word Willie does not understand, and this ignorance amuses Kirwan. Yet later Willie reflects that it is Kirwan’s ignorance of the character of the war that he is now headed towards which is worthy of pity.

Willie’s transport unloads its men onto the organised chaos of the docks. As the soldiers assemble, a horseman arrives bearing a message for the commanding officer. Amidst general confusion, Willie finds that he and the other men are being marched back into Dublin.

There they find the crowds already gone. Kirwan speculates that the war might be over and if it is so, he will, as one of Redmond’s Volunteers, leave the British army. Willie cannot understand Kirwan’s point and sardonically states that he too is a volunteer. When their column arrives at the O’Connell monument on Sackville Street (where his father played his part in the 1913 violence) the pair find a city in flux. Their column halts to see a thing that astounds Willie: a cavalry charge up the street. The gathered crowd cheers the chivalric sight before, even more bizarrely, firing begins from the General Post Office and cuts down the charging soldiers. Willie at first thinks the Germans have invaded Dublin. A civilian offers Willie a sheet of paper as he watches, and making to take it, an officer commands that Willie step back in line and not “parley with the enemy”. He tells Willie that if he takes the paper, he will shoot the civilian. Willie’s column is then marched across the city towards the Mount Street Bridge.

Willie’s column marches up Mount Street to find a battle ensuing, centred on a building to the left of the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, troops also advance. Willie’s column are commanded to improvise a barricade across the street by pulling out the furniture of local households. They then begin firing at the occupied building. A machine gun opens fire from the building, shooting down the advancing British soldiers on the other side.

Willie’s company are commanded to cease fire once it is realised that their own fire could be hitting the British soldiers opposite. Willie is dumbfounded by the scene. Belatedly, he realises that Jesse Kirwan is crying. Kirwan, having read one of the sheets blowing about the street, realises that the men in the building are “our fellas”, Republican rebels against the British. He is distraught. The command is made to prepare to charge under the cover of machine gun fire. British machine gunners, ensconced in a building on the right of the street, spot a young groom walking six horses on the road, and proceed to shoot him dead.

Willie and his comrades charge, and his many of his fellow soldiers are hit in the rifle fire from the rebel-occupied building. The charge only makes it halfway up the street before taking cover. Willie, stunned, finds himself next to an officer badly wounded in the shoulder. Suddenly a young man appears behind Willie holding a revolver. Nervous and pressing this to Willie’s chest, the young man declares that Willie is a prisoner. Willie cannot comprehend the man’s words, but the officer beside Willie immediately reaches over Willie’s shoulder and shoots the rebel.

Willie tends to the man on the floor, and asks him if he is a German. The dying man tells him he and all the fighters are Irishmen, then speaks an act of contrition before desperately grasping Willie as he violently chokes on his own blood. The blood of the man sprays over Willie in his long and horrible death. Willie finally says a quick prayer over the man’s dead body.

Willie’s company are withdrawn from the battle and marched back to the dock, where they are immediately decanted onto the troop ship. Confusion reigns amongst the soldiers. Willie worries about Jesse Kirwan and seeks him out on the ship. He finds him solitary beneath the ship’s second funnel as the ship chugs out to sea. They share a cigarette, and Willie asks whether the volunteers Kirwan declared membership of were the rebel force in the city. Kirwan, exasperated, explains that the rebels are those who disagreed with Redmond’s pledge to aid Britain. Willie, uncomprehending, explains that he is a volunteer too, but Kirwan points out that Willie volunteered in response to Lord Kitchener. He goes on to explain the origins of the Irish Volunteers as a Nationalist response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, with their pledge to resist Home Rule for King and Country.

Willie is nonplussed. He asks where it all leaves Jesse, and what the printed declaration he read about allies in Europe means. Kirwan explains that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity”, referring to the opportunity that Britain’s struggle abroad affords the Irish. Kirwan opines that he regrets not listening better to the lessons of his radical Nationalist father. Willie feels angry at Kirwan, and points out that many Irishman have died fighting against Germany, but intuits that his new friend, tolerant of Willie’s own ignorance, does not deserve anger. Kirwan’s final words to him are that he knows of the Irish dead.

Willie goes below decks to sleep and realises that his uniform is stained with the young Irishman’s blood. He tries to clean his uniform the next morning, but the blood will not wash out, and remains on his uniform until he arrives once more in Belgium.

Some thoughts on narrative

A remarkable set-piece, then, this eruption of the Irish struggle for independence within the narrative. The Easter 1916 Rising as depicted by Barry in chapter seven is as surprising to the reader as it was to the largest part of the Dublin population at the time— at no point in the chapter previous does Barry signal that Willie’s furlough is on the Easter weekend of 1916. Before moving on to ask questions pertinent to the study this chapter, I’d like to stop and consider the way that this chapter transforms the narrative as a whole.

Previously in the novel I think it is fair to say that we have been steered to anticipate that the events of Easter 1916 will feature explicitly or implicitly within the narrative (in any tale of a Dubliner during the First World War it could hardly be otherwise). The importance of the 1913 Sackville Street Riot in the story has implicated the novel’s main characters in a crucial event in the pre-war Irish history of labour struggle and civil rebellion. The description of the massacre of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers by gas at Ypres similarly entwines Willie’s experience as an Irish soldier within the complicated fabric of Anglo-Irish identities and loyalties, as this young Irishmen— indeed, at the time, a young Briton— fights for the British army abroad and sees his Irish comrades massacred. On a more subtle but perhaps more fundamental level, the language that suffuses the story— Hiberno-English— in its particular wording and unique syntax makes this a tale structured around an Irish lived experience, and specifically Irish ways of expression and thought. This narrative is ‘thrown’ into the Irish world. We rightfully expect, therefore, that the defining Irish political event of the First World War will make its force felt in the story: but perhaps not as directly as it does in this chapter.

I would argue that this is because the novel so far has been a story which has played on our readerly expectations of a number of other conventional narratives, despite its focus on the Irish and Irishness. First, and dominating the reader’s reception of the early part of the novel, we are reading a story about a young soldier caught up in the events of the First World War. The conventional First World War narrative typically tells of a young and somewhat naïve man journeying abroad to fight for his country, destined in doing so for an irrevocable change in the face of unimaginable violence and tragedy. Certainly the story until chapter seven has broadly followed this trajectory. Another conventional story is also nested within this narrative; the story of a boy and a girl who meet and fall in love, whose relationship will either succeed or fail. This subplot has teasingly remained nascent within the war narrative, but doubtless we anticipate some kind of deepening of the couple’s relationship to come, or an ending in some way caused by the war: again, a conventional element in war narratives. Finally, also nested within the war story, there is the story of the son who has lived in the shadow of his father’s desires, who has lived some of these as his own, but has begun to suspect their essential worth. The story, in other words, of an Oedipal rebellion that will create another identity for Willie, and the hard-won freedom of a knowledge that will encourage him to follow a new path in life.

The presentation of the Easter Rising at the end of the novel’s first act marks the moment when these conventional narratives are forcibly shifted or translated into a part of a different narrative, that of the historical struggle for Irish independence from Britain. The story thus far has been, as we have seen, particularly interested in Irish lives, and in its realist detail has traced many of the effects of British rule in Ireland. When the King of Ireland visits Dublin; when a supply trench in an Irish section of line is named Sackville Street; when Willie and his family live in apartments in Dublin Castle; when Christy Moran scorns the English and decries “the same fucking army that always done for us”, while fighting in that selfsame army; when Captain Pasley wonders at Moran’s lack of Gaelic; when marching Irishmen sing ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’, but also sing ‘Take me back to dear Old Blighty’; when Gaelic syntax or calqued words and phrases endure in the English speech of the narrator and characters—all these are among the signs and symptoms that show the effects of many hundreds of years of British colonial rule, seams that reveal the motley and variegated fabric of Irish identity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, in this scene that closes the first act of the novel, Barry’s narrative presents the eruption of violence on Dublin’s city streets, bringing revolutionary conflict front and centre for the reader.

This is, in one sense, a return of the repressed. Not that the Easter Rising is somehow a forgotten event: it is clearly central to modern Irish identity, as was made clear by the national remembrance of it in Ireland in 2016. This is not as true of British identity, where the centenary passed mostly unnoticed and uncommemorated (the Rising being a beginning of one forcible divestment of Empire amongst many others that still remains too painful to confront, perhaps). Nonetheless, in focusing on that peculiarly Irish experience of the First World War, Barry is engaged in the recovery of a forgotten history. Those Irishmen who fought with the British Army during the First World War have, in a sense, been orphaned by history: for a long time now, no nation has been particularly interested in remembering them as their own. To fight bravely for what was once an occupying power is no source of deep credit in a post-colonial nation like Ireland, fashioning a new sense of identity. Similarly, the sacrifice of outsiders for an Imperial nation at war may for a time provoke feelings of almost mystical reverence amongst some at home: but that recognition of contribution sooner fades away into disinterest and often, after a time, bemusement at the ties of feeling that once bound foreigners to the homeland (how many in Britain now understand why Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, West Indians and Irish, amongst many others, fought under the Union flag?). History has shown that bemusement has been shared in post-colonial countries too.

So it would be one thing for Barry to write that Irish First World War novel, to try and recover the Irish experience of fighting in the British army during the First World War, and present all the multifarious reasons for which Irishmen did this. In doing so, he recoups some of the meaning that the Great War had for a disparate people. The conventional First World War narrative has definitively been changed, however, when Barry presents a key moment of fracture in the history of both Britain and Ireland— that moment in Irish history when, as WB Yeats famously wrote, all “changed, changed utterly”. History by its nature is multifaceted, but revolutions demand you take sides, and to remember and represent the beginnings of one is to unearth the forgotten trauma of that choice. The narrative takes a significant turn in this chapter which means, whatever happens next, the story is more than that of an Irish soldier at war.

Questions

“It was the very seam of night and morning, and Willie woke with ease and freshness. His body was warm and his limbs did not ache. It as very odd really.” So this chapter begins, with a suggestive metaphor of dawn. A seam is the line where two fabrics are stitched together. In war zones, it is also a home to lice. Why do you think Barry begins chapter seven with this metaphor?

The mercurial character of the nationalist Jesse Kirwan is one of the most vivid to feature in the story so far. Yet the beginning of this chapter, with the altercation surrounding Kirwan’s urine-soaked Bible, has the exaggerated and confusing character of farce. What are our first impressions of the Cork man? Why does he act the way he does? Why do you think that Barry introduces Kirwan in this way?

The detail about Jesse Kirwan’s father is suggestive of a particular kind of upbringing or worldview, very different to Willie’s. One of the songs that Kirwan’s father would sing, and Jesse repeats to Willie, is the old Scottish folk ballad, Helen of Kirconnel— “It’s a good one,” said Willie (p.84). When Willie tells Kirwan his father is a policeman, Kirwan replies “My father wouldn’t think much of that. My father doesn’t hold with laws and policemen and the like.” When Willie asks if his father a robber, Kirwan counters that he is “A lithographer” (p.84). A lithographer is someone who produces printed material from lithographs, either in the form of pictures or text: what do you make of this cryptic answer? Can you build your own imaginative portrait of Kirwan’s father, given the information the narrator supplies? What kind of relationship do you think that he would have with his son? Note that Kirwan later ruefully notes of the Rising that “my father said it would happen. He sees a long way into things. And I should have paid better heed to him, I think.” (p.96)

It could be argued that Jesse Kirwan is a kind of mirror to the character of Willie. In some ways he is very similar to Willie, in others almost a reverse image. Detail the ways in which Kirwan and Willie differ as characters, and the ways in which they are similar. Why, despite everything, do these two young men get on?

“‘Step back in, Private,’ called the captain. ‘Don’t parley with the enemy.’ ‘What enemy?’ said Willie Dunne. ‘What enemy, sir?’” (p.88). Ever the innocent (or perhaps, in Jesse Kirwan’s words, a “gammy fool”), Willie’s confusion and incomprehension in the face of the Dublin fighting performs a narrative function. Willie is constantly asking questions that ask to be explained or making assumptions that demand correction. What freedom does Willie’s limited perspective on events allow the writer in presenting the Easter Rising?

“Their column was fiercely halted and things took place now that no one could understand the purpose of. For here now, as real as a dream as one might say, a little contingent of cavalry was drawn up just under the awnings of the Imperial Hotel…” (p.87). Yeats wrote that in the wake of the 1916 Rising that all was “changed, changed utterly”. Revolutions demand not only the transformation of objective society but also a shift in the perception of those living within that society. As Barry describes it, the beginnings of this occur in the tumult of the Easter Rising. In what ways is familiar Dublin defamiliarised in his description of the Rising? What does the rebel violence reveal about the relationship between the Irish and the British?

 Read the accounts of the Battle of Mount Bridge Street in the following two articles. Note that these two historical narratives take very different perspectives on the Easter Rising. The Western Front Association writes describing the Battle as one among a multitude of others fought during the First World War. The Irish Story article, taken from a larger historical work by John Dorney, focuses more on the Irish rebels. Consider the narration in these articles; the way in which the narrators’ perspectives and selection of detail produce different understandings of this battle in Dublin (both, I want to make clear, are well sourced historical accounts—we are not searching for falsehoods here). How is authority established in the narration, so that we believe these accounts the Battle of Mount Bridge Street? What people and events do these two historical accounts focus on? In what ways are statistics and speculation used in support of viewpoint? Are there moments that could be considered emotive or symbolic of a broader viewpoint on the Easter Rising in these accounts? The purpose of this exercise is not to find bias, as such: this would presuppose that there is some ideal objective narrative out there capable of being told. It is to discover the ways in which storytelling, and the forms we use in storytelling, necessarily produce meaning— and can direct the reader to find meaning.

Willie’s encounter with the nineteen year old Irish rebel (p.92-3) has the character of mythology; that is, it is a scene that could be seen as embodying or symbolising something essential about Ireland and conflict between Irishmen in 1916. It is also another example of the mirroring of character that features in this chapter. What misunderstandings are foregrounded here? How do the two soldiers treat each other? Does this scene suggest anything about the author’s perspective on revolutionary Ireland?

“Ah Jesus, Willie. That’s different altogether. You’re a volunteer for fucking Kitchener. You can’t be this thick. Look it, boy. The Ulster Volunteers were set up by Carson to resist Home Rule…” (p.95). Jesse Kirwan is more clearly a device in the narrative than any other character that has featured in the story so far. What function does this character perform in chapter seven? In what ways does this character give the reader access to a different understanding of the Easter Rising than Willie’s?

Advertisements

images

 

So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll write a more detailed response to the first chapter in a subsequent post. But for the moment, here is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, somewhat perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.

walter_scott_waverley_illustration_pettie-huth

‘Disbanded’, an engraved illustration for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, after a painting by John Pettie. (Wikimedia)

Before we begin reading ‘A Long, Long Way’ we would do well to ask ourselves some basic questions about literature and how we tell stories about history. What kind of story are we going to read? Indeed, what do we already know about ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry?

Barry’s novel, written in 2005, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Willie Dunne, born at the turn of the nineteenth century: turning in pretty quick time from recounting his unremarkable childhood to his ultimately grueling experience as an Irish soldier in the British army during the First World War.

This is about as brief a summary as it is possible to give, what screenwriters call a logline, but it’ll do for now. We’ll avoid spoilers, because we are going to read this story together.

From this summary we already know enough to start locating Barry’s novel within the traditions of literary form. In the following post, I want to focus first on a useful definition of what form in literature actually is; then, I want to examine more closely the type of novel that Barry adopts to tell his story, known as the historical novel.

Form

You’ll recognise the term ‘form’, of course. You’ll have been taught about form, structure and language in English lessons since way back when. This doesn’t mean, however, that the term ‘form’ is necessarily easy to understand, as I can testify from a decade of teaching. In fact, of the three terms mentioned, I would say that form as a concept is often the most difficult to fully grasp. This is because it’s often intuitively simple to recognise form- to see that that some texts are similarly shaped, while others are recognisably different. Yet it is far more difficult to understand or explain why certain forms are as they are, and what categorical details make them similar or different to others. If you’re doing the AQA English Literature exam, recognising and understanding form is important: Assessment Objective 2 demands that students “analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.”

So what is form? Briefly described, form is the organisation, shape or framework for any literary composition, and these forms of literature develop historically. Writers tend to work within the framework of form that they have inherited from previous writers. Form helps shape a writer’s work, supplying an already-evolved framework for him or her to work within and adapt. The expectations we have of form also of course shape an audience’s expectations.

Whilst there are many forms in literature, the three major forms tend to be identified as poetry, plays and novels. These forms have historical roots in the particular societies out of which they grew. Poetry is the oldest literary form, the product of oral prehistoric cultures: a spoken, rhetorical form that developed out of religious and social rituals such as commemorating the heroes and the dead of a community in battle, or celebrating patron gods and goddesses. Drama develops later, first in Europe in classical Greece: there, drama grew out of an extension of public religious rituals and festivals, becoming in democratic Athens a focus for the acting out of ethical and social dilemmas before the public. The modern novel is, by comparison, a very recent invention, emerging in the eighteenth century as a form explicitly concerned with the individual and his or her interior life. While there is a broad debate about what impelled the invention of this remarkable new form, critical opinion generally holds that it developed out of a new emphasis on the individual that ran in parallel with the development of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. The novel, in this sense, can be understood to be an active part of the invention of the individual and individualism in the modern age.

Form, then, is historically derived and grows out of a particular social content: the lives of specific peoples, in specific societies, at different stages of development. These forms remain available for subsequent generations to adopt and adapt.

The Historical Novel

Even the three major forms contain many other forms and subgenres, and these again are historically derived. Let us consider two novel genres: the Gothic novel and the historical novel. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’, the novel that is generally accepted to be the first true historical novel. By contrast, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, similarly generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel, is a fiction set in medieval times and was written before Scott’s novel, in 1764. Despite the fact that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is set some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, it is not read as a historical novel. Why?

The answer is that Walpole’s novel does not seek to realistically evoke the medieval period; the medieval setting is in fact secondary to Walpole’s interest in creating an appropriately fantastical and beguiling time and location for a supernatural tale of haunted castles and talking skeletons. ‘Waverley’, on the other hand, romantically recreates the lost world of the Scottish highlands at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, describing in detail the social tumult that accompanied the death of the clan system and the birth of Enlightenment Scotland. It is not that the adventures of Edward Waverley are particularly plausible in ‘Waverley’ that makes this latter a historical novel; it is, rather, the fact these adventures (however unlikely though they be) are rooted in a particular material narrative of Scottish history, without which the story of Edward Waverley could not in any meaningful sense be written.

How might the invention of this genre be said to be historically derived, then? Marxist literary critics such as Georg Lukacs argue that the historical novel is invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century precisely because the French revolution and the triumph of bourgeois society across Europe led to a new consciousness of history as a dynamic narrative, as a story in which there is social rupture and radical political change— a narrative that could be written. The same critics would argue that the Gothic novel stems rather from an earlier secularisation of the West, caused by advancing industrial Capitalism. This secularisation led to English writers expressing a growing fascination with the Catholic ‘Old World’ of Europe as exotic, mysterious, enchanted and grotesque. Indeed, in the more fully industrialised and secularised eras of the Victorian age and beyond, the Gothic has grown increasingly popular as a genre; just as the popularity of the historical novel has continued to grow in the ever-more forward-facing and rootless societies of the industrial West.

Engaging with History

Clearly, ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a historical novel. The book tells a story set over a hundred years before. Moreover, the story is set at the time of two great historical fractures; one in the history of Europe and the world, the other in the history (or rather, histories) of Great Britain and Ireland. The first, of course, is what contemporaries called the Great War; the second, the period of political upheaval during the 1910s and 20s known as the Irish Revolutionary Period. Many critics would argue that the degree to which the novel engages with this history of state violence and revolution will, to some degree or other, determine whether in literary terms it is a successful historical novel.

Yet it may be that Barry has no interest in wars or revolutions at all. It may be that he has chosen, as in fact many historical novelists do, to a present a particular age as a picturesque or interesting backdrop, to create a fascinating setting that adds romance and spice to a tale. One contemporary definition of the historical novel is indeed simply a novel set in the past, after all. Such texts can be fun— the film industry alone makes a lot of money out of them. And indeed, even historical novels that play with historical setting or adapt historical detail to contemporary expectation are not always naïve: it is possible to explore history as one adaptable form of storytelling among others, as a kind of narrative itself (the term for this kind of narrative about other narratives is metanarrative). This can certainly be one kind of engagement with history; though such gaming with narrative will often willfully cleave the reader from a sense of particular time and place within the text. Another name for this state of being cleaved from history, of rootless character and an immersion in a seductive but empty world of objects is Postmodernity, the age in which all of us live, but contemplating that is for another post entirely.

The author’s engagement with history in ‘A Long, Long Way’ could be manifested in any number of ways in the book. The inflection that the narrator gives to this encounter with history will be determined by any number of choices. What is the author interested in exploring? Romantic love? Comradeship? Perhaps a sense of nation or familial belonging? Hatred and betrayal? Trade Union agitation in early Twentieth century Dublin? The violence inherent in European imperialism? The author is not limited to pursuing one of these ideas. Will the story follow the soldier Willie Dunne throughout? Will his character be stationed in Ireland? On the Western Front? In Turkey or Iraq? The story the author wants to tell will engineer and encourage certain encounters with history and exclude others. Will his story reproduce the content of other tales of the First World War? What political or moral lessons will it wittingly or unwittingly propagate?

As readers we need to be sensitive to the presentation of history that we find in ‘A Long Long Way’, and react to it critically. In writing a historical novel, an author makes decisions about a period and the people who live in it, some of which may be conscious, others unexamined. We need to recognise that what we read is the product of certain choices the author has made: it is a construct. Characters, setting, the plotting of events, all are authorial constructions, and to attend to them as such is to refuse an innocent response to the book and to seriously engage with literature as literature. By the same reasoning, as readers, we also need to be self-reflexive in approaching the text, willing to be challenged on our own assumptions about history and what literature should be.

My next post will summarise Chapter One and ask for some first responses to the novel.

football_battalion_poster

A recruitment poster for the Football Battalion (Wikipedia)

 

One of the great fortunes of studying the First World War at A-level right now is the wealth of interesting resources available for you to access. It wasn’t always this way, of course; in the dark days when I first began writing this blog you could barely get an amusing gif of Fieldmarshal Haig tripping on a duckboard.

Not exactly true, but you get my gist. The centenary has been a good time for students of First World War history and literature to learn about life from 1914 to 1918.

On Monday I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Dan Snow’s ongoing Radio 4 series about the conflict, ‘Voices of The First World War’. This series is a goldmine for those of you fretting about your lack of historical knowledge about the war. In the UK you can listen online or download the series as MP3 files (outside the UK, I’m not so sure).

Each episode in the series is under fifteen minutes long, and focuses on a single aspect of the war, from First Impressions on the outbreak of the war to most recently (and fortuitously given my last post!) the emergence of new technologies like Tanks.

The episode that caught my attention was entitled ‘Sheffield and the Somme’. It is, admittedly, an upsetting program. In it, Sheffield locals give their own firsthand accounts of the effect upon the community of the massacre of the Sheffield City Battalion, or as they were then known, the ‘Sheffield Pals’.

The Pals Brigades are one of the more sobering facts of the First World War. They were a successful recruiting method whose formation had unseen and tragic consequences in battle. Men from a particular locale or men who found themselves in a particular type of employment could enlist with friends and colleagues with the prospect of staying with them for the rest of the war. In 1914-15, this break with army tradition was felt necessary to encourage mass conscription. The New Army formed- also known as Kitchener’s Army, named after the Secretary of State for War- was an army of millions, ready for active duty by the end of 1915. In fact, many of the Pals brigades first saw action in the battle of the Somme in July 1916.

The unforeseen consequence of this method of recruiting was that when a battalion faced a massacre, as the Sheffield Pals did on the first day of the Somme, the area from which the Pals brigade was taken took disproportionate and catastrophic numbers of casualties. Between July 1st and July 3rd, 1916, the Sheffield Pals- which had recruited somewhere between 900 to a thousand men in two days in August 1914- sustained 495 men dead, injured or missing. The terrible consequences of such massed death was keenly felt in the districts from which the men came. Whole cities felt the devastation of loss.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, when we judge the formation of such brigades, and certainly they played their part in the creation of a large and well-trained conscript army. Yet  it is too little noted that foresight is a wonderful thing too; would that it had been more in evidence in British plans for the conflict. Sheffield writer John Harris notes of the Sheffield Pals, they were “Two years in the making; ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history”.

‘Sheffield and the Somme’ captures this shocking moment in British history through the dignified testimony of those who suffered. It is well worth your attention, as is the rest of the series. Should you wish to read on- particularly, perhaps, if you are reading Whelan’s ‘The Accrington Pals’- there is also an excellent website, Pals.org.uk, which details the formation of several of these brigades.

hg_wells_land_ironclads_1904

A 1904 illustration to HG Wells’ 1903 tale, ‘The Land Ironclads’.

 

The Guardian ran an interesting article yesterday on their archive blog, commemorating the centennial of another military first.

One hundred years ago this week saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches‘ reflects on the Guardian and Observer’s early coverage of this new technology. The journalistic reaction at that time to the immediate potential of these vehicles was, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic. By 1916, the ongoing stalemate on the Western Front had bred desperation for any breakthrough that might bring the war to a conclusion. For a little while, tanks seemed like they might be just the kind of mercurial invention that could smash through the stasis of trench warfare: a new cavalry, perhaps, whose momentum could help speed Britain to victory.

Tanks were only the latest invention to fail to realise this dream. The history of tanks demonstrate, of course, the invention’s subsequent effectiveness: the successful Blitzkrieg of the second world war was made possible by German Panzer divisions, for example. Yet the immediate employment of Tanks during the Somme did not lead to a lasting breakthrough. The first generation of tanks used at Flers-Courcelette, the Mark I, were mechanically unreliable and struggled on the ragged terrain. In fact, the first real success of the war using tanks did not occur until over a year later, at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, when over 400 Mark IV tanks overran German defences.

Where tanks were an immediate success, however, was in terms of their imaginative potency. I think we can get a sense of this in the early naming of tanks, highlighted in the article: the dreadnoughts of the trenches. Dreadnoughts were big-gun battleships first produced in the early years of the twentieth century, so named after the revolutionary design of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which first saw service in 1905. The Dreadnought became a public obsession in Britain during the global naval arms race of the early twentieth century. Both terrifying and effective as a weapon of war, dreadnoughts were seriously described as “a most devastating weapon of war, the most powerful thing in the world”. So, if the tank were like the Dreadnought, who then could stand in its way?

The metaphor had persisted throughout the tank’s development. Tanks were the product of a British focus on the development of armoured vehicles, led by the Landships Committee in early 1915. The name ‘tank’ in fact only emerged as a code, to hide the true intentions of those developing the vehicle (suggesting a vehicle used to move water, perhaps in hot climates like Mesopotamia). The term ‘Landship’, on the other hand, gave away too much of the designers’ intentions. The true objective was a mobile, well-armoured and armed fortress that could rove the battlefield with the impunity of a battleship on the sea.

One long-acknowledged possible source for this idea is a story written in 1903 by Britain’s greatest science fiction writer, HG Wells. In 1903 Wells published a short story in the Strand magazine called ‘The Land Ironclads‘. Ironclads- late nineteenth century steam battleships armoured with iron plating-  are the metaphorical vehicle Wells uses in this story to suggest the dreadful power and physical imperviousness of the armoured vehicles that rove his future battlefield. In the story, thirteen ironclads defeat an entire army:

“The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon-yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—sham and real—indistinguishable one from the other. The thing had come into such a position as to enfilade the trench, which was empty now, so far as he could see, except for two or three crouching knots of men and the tumbled dead. Behind it, across the plain, it had scored the grass with a train of linked impressions, like the dotted tracings sea-things leave in sand. Left and right of that track dead men and wounded men were scattered—men it had picked off as they fled back from their advanced positions in the searchlight glare from the invader’s lines. And now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

There is an interesting lesson in the power of metaphor here, perhaps. Metaphor, of course, is a conceptual habit of human beings: in using metaphor we have one set of thoughts and images (the world of the land, and battle in the trenches, or a muddy field) and carry this over to another set of dissimilar thoughts and images (an armed battleship on the sea, say, denoted by the words ‘Ironclad’ or ‘Dreadnought’). Out of the interaction of these different forms of knowledge, a novel thought or image is sometimes created: here, a ‘Land Ironclad’.

The introduction of such inventions into the otherwise realistic detail of the Science Fiction writer’s fictional world can be risky- badly handled, the effect of this new thing can be one of absurdity, implausibility, or a kind of predictable mystery. Done well however, metaphor in science fiction prompts revelation and produces strange enigmas. Wells knows this danger, and so when he describes the Land Ironclads resting on the edge of the enemy trenches, his narrator makes explicit the implicit idea behind his invention: he declares that “the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed”. Wells’ genius however- once he has admitted to the reader one of the roots of his metaphor- is to draw us back to the peculiar and personal sense of threat that such new technological possibilities always present: so, “now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

The well-judged metaphor is something more than just a plausible concept: it has an emotional, persuasive, almost pre-rational weight. Anyone who loves poetry knows this. The notion of the Land Ironclad was ultimately a thought so persuasive, and the desire for its successful realization during the First World War so powerful, that when technical innovation caught up with imaginative thought, the time of the ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches’ had finally come.

 

 

 

000048e2_big

So it is a hundred years since the declaration in Great Britain of war against Germany. One hundred years ago from 11pm tonight, the deadline expired that Britain had set Germany to end its invasion of Belgium and France. And as I walked the streets of London tonight, in the darkening evening, I thought back to the London of old, and a picture that seems emblematic somehow of the naiveté of the age, of ranks of men raising their hats in cheer in Trafalgar Square. And of course to Edward Grey’s apposite and prophetic words as dusk fell: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes”.

I won’t rehearse a long speech of familiar lessons to be drawn from the war. To be frank, I’ve found the commemorations alienating. The art has been misjudged, the television programs unmemorable, the newspaper articles a familiar recasting of attitudes of the present in the clothes of the past. The gatherings of the heirs of the British Establishment in our finest churches, and of European leaders standing in line before great memorials, “in stately conclave met”, seem to me to be a wholly appropriate repetition of the scene of the crime.

It also seems to me that far from lighting a candle— as some have suggested– to commemorate the war dead, should we wish to make a profound or meaningful connection to those past events, an effort should be made to de-ritualise the commemoration of the war. And as an English teacher, I can fortunately say that it is books, and reading, that are the way to do this.

The First World War was, and remains, a written war. Very many of the soldiers who fought were the product of the late Victorian education acts, and they wrote home to their families about their experiences; they wrote to their friends about their experiences; they wrote poems, plays and novels about their experiences. The raw and shocking and humbling stuff of the war is already out there. If you are reading this, you are a literate person: so, if you truly want to commemorate the war, don’t follow a timetable set for you by some sentimentalising politician, but read about it, read, read, read. Read the accounts of the men themselves, read the great writings that they produced, and read history books. Don’t have your thoughts about the war predetermined by me or anyone else. Read.

You’ll be a better person– and ours will be a better world– for it.

 

I’m currently reading Frederic Manning’s ‘Her Privates We’ in an excellent edition published by Serpent’s Tail Classics. It’s a major First World War text, much regarded by great modernist writers such as Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound– and I must say that, as I read, I haven’t enjoyed any piece of writing from the period quite so much since I read ‘Goodbye To All That’, long ago. I’m sure I’ll return to it on the blog at some point in the future (together with some posts about Jules Verne’s ‘The Begum’s Fortune’ and Jessie Pope), should I have the chance.

Anyway, I found that, as I read ‘Her Privates We’, I was having trouble with something that I think you, as A-level students, will also have trouble with as you start your course. If you’re studying ‘Journey’s End’, ‘Goodbye to All That’ or any other First World War text, it helps to know the hierarchy of the British Army; to know your Private from your Captain from your Major. I found a simple explanation on the structure of an infantry battalion on the always informative website ‘The Long, Long Trail’, here. Check it out if you want to know your Batman from your Band Sergeant.

Next Page »