Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
Goodbye to All That is an autobiography by the English poet Robert Graves, written upon his "bitter leave-taking" of England in 1929 when he left his home country to live with his mistress, Laura Riding, in Mallorca. Graves was only 34 years old, but much had happened in his short life. His earliest memory was of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and he had been unable to take up his scholarship at St. John's College, Oxford because of the outbreak of the First World War.
Graves joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served in France alongside his close friend and fellow soldier, Siegfried Sassoon.
Graves is obviously the principal character in the story. A man of tempestuous temper, he is unapologetic about his own sometimes anti-social behavior and about the choices he has made. He describes his upbringing in a Wimbledon home by upper-middle-class parents; his father was an Irish poet and his mother the descendant of German writers, one of whom Graves was named after: Robert von Ranke Graves. He later describes how this name plagued him in the trenches of World War I.
Graves was not at home for long, however; his parents are not major figures in the story. Soon enough, he was sent off to prep school, and then to Charterhouse. At Charterhouse, we meet two other major figures in Graves's early life: Peter, a boy with whom Graves fell in love, and George Mallory, who was best man at Graves's later wedding and who would subsequently die in the attempt to climb Everest. Peter was a slightly fickle young man, who ultimately turned away from Graves, but Graves describes his intense devotion to him in an atmosphere wherein homosexual (or homo-romantic) "pashes" were common. Mallory was Graves's teacher, a steadying influence who would invite his particular favorite boys into his study and, later, teach them to climb. Graves describes treasured memories of climbing in Wales with Mallory.
Wales was important to Graves. His family had a house in Harlech, and this is largely why he chose the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a regiment when he joined the army. Quite by chance, Siegfried Sassoon had chosen the same regiment. Sassoon was a young man ten years Graves's senior, from Kent, the son of a Jewish father and a gentile mother. He had been raised Christian but was always conscious of his semitic surname and German first name; he and Graves bonded over feeling slightly ostracized because of their names. They also bonded over their mutual love of poetry. The two became fast friends, and when Sassoon, later, decided to object to the war, it was Graves who persuaded the authorities to send Sassoon to a psychiatric hospital, Craiglockhart, rather than have him court-martialed or shot. This experience plays a significant role in the story, and Sassoon is a significant character.
Accompanying Sassoon is David Thomas, a young man who was a friend of both Graves and Sassoon during their time in the trenches. Both were very attached to him; a friendly, pleasant Welshman, his death affected his friends badly.
Most of the characters in this book, given Graves's upbringing and history, are male, but there is also a significant female character, Nancy, a tomboyish young woman who Graves married when she was still a teenager. Graves describes their courtship and marriage and their early married life in Oxford, where Graves eventually went to take up his scholarship after the war. Nancy, as described by Graves, was something of a free spirit but perhaps even younger in some ways than her years; she found it difficult to adjust to life as a young wife and mother to Jenny.