Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3451
Richard Aldington, one of the generation who were young adults in 1914, felt compelled to chronicle the impact of World War I on English culture and society, and all seven of his novels published between the world wars explore some aspect of that obsession. Only the first of these novels...
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- Critical Essays
Richard Aldington, one of the generation who were young adults in 1914, felt compelled to chronicle the impact of World War I on English culture and society, and all seven of his novels published between the world wars explore some aspect of that obsession. Only the first of these novels describes the war itself, but all of them portray the social degeneration that Aldington connected with World War I. This fiction satirizes English class snobbery, moral hypocrisy, selfish commercialism, insensitivity to art, faddish adherence to publicized avant-garde figures, and a culpable ignorance of sexual feelings, which the Victorian generation repressed and the generation of 1914 indulged without restraint, with disastrous consequences.
Death of a Hero
Aldington’s great war novel, Death of a Hero, though a popular success, was sharply criticized as a ranting, inartistic piece of writing. D. H. Lawrence, having read the manuscript, warned his friend, “If you publish this, you’ll lose what reputation you have—you’re plainly on your way to an insane asylum.” Early reviewers found the novel’s style “uncontrolled,” “exasperatingly diffuse,” and “puerile.” Aldington let himself in for a flood of misguided critical response because he disregarded the modernist preference for authorial impassivity. Eschewing the example of Gustave Flaubert and Joyce, Aldington found his models in Laurence Sterne and Ford Madox Ford. In Death of a Hero, as in Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) and Ford’s The Good Soldier, readers find discursive narration, defense of feeling, confusion of author and narrator, temporal dislocation, polemical intrusion, and a tone shifting unexpectedly from angry indignation to ironic self-mockery.
Working through a monomaniacal narrator, Aldington nevertheless orders his madman’s chaotic discourse by suggesting three formal analogies for the novel: a threnody, a tragedy, and a symphony. A threnody is a funeral lamentation that may be written as a choral ode or as a monody; Aldington chose the single-voiced monody, and the narrator’s personality, disturbed by his war experience, distorts the story significantly, as a detailed analysis of the novel reveals. For example, the narrator begins speculating, “I sometimes think that George committed suicide in that last battle of the war,” but by the time he narrates the death, the suicide is not a speculation but a fact. By revealing the death of his hero at the beginning, the narrator rejects suspense; as in the performance of a Greek tragedy, the emotive and intellectual response of the audience is manipulated not by the facts of the case but by the rendition. Although the narrator specifically mentions Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777), the analogy to his tragic tale is by contrast. Both heroes are tormented by Furies, but Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, intervenes at Orestes’ trial to give Apollo’s logic triumph over the Furies’ passion; in George’s war, there is no logical resolution, and the desire for revenge creates a war of attrition—significantly, George dies in the final year of World War I.
The symphonic form of Death of a Hero is emphasized in the tempo markings given to the four sections. The prologue, dealing with the postwar world, is marked “allegretto,” suggesting the spasmodic grasping for pleasures as a response to the suppressed guilt of the survivors in the 1920’s. In part 2, “vivace” sets the pace of England’s economic growth in the 1890’s, which is connected with the fanatical patriotism of the Boer War, with an affected enthusiasm for culture, and with hypocritical attitudes toward sexuality. In part 3, “andante cantabile” marks the self-satisfied ease of the Georgian era, just before the war. The war itself is treated in part 4, “adagio,” a funeral march commemorating the death of George’s generation. As in a symphony, there are several repeated and counterpointed motifs. “Bread and babies” is one of these motifs, linking economic growth and demands with increased population and ignorance about contraception. The “bread and babies” motif is heard in the narration of George’s marriage and early career, in the sordid story of his parents’ courtship and marriage, and, during the war, as one analysis of the forces making war inevitable. This motif is interwoven with others throughout the narrative, creating a complex pattern unlike the linear structure of a polemical speech. Neither an unedited memoir of a shell-shocked veteran nor a propagandistic tract, this novel is distinguished by its formal composition.
Aldington’s deliberate use of sentiment, of repetition, of discontinuities in narrative time, of digressions, and of sudden shifts in mood reflects not only his narrator’s postwar hysteria but also his decision to address his readers’ affective responses. Working in the tradition of Sterne and Ford, Aldington wrote a satiric novel that attempted to chronicle the transitional years from 1890 to 1918 in English cultural history.
The Colonel’s Daughter
Aldington’s second novel, The Colonel’s Daughter, demonstrates his control of a satiric narrative and his mastery of psychological and realistic detail, but the subject, Georgie Smithers, while sympathetically analyzed, is a caricature. A plain girl, Georgie fully shares the narrow cultural and moral perspective of her parents, unquestioning servants to the British Empire. Despite her service as a volunteer nurse, she has been untouched by the revolution in manners and morals introduced by war. She still wears her hair long, unbobbed, and her dress resembles a Girl Guide uniform. A knowledgeable narrator presents Georgie’s actions and some of her thoughts, offering occasional judgments; supplementing the narrator is a skeptical character, Purfleet, whose attitude toward Georgie shifts from amusement to pity to infatuation to calculating irony.
Naïvely, Georgie reveals her desire to be married in her declaration, “I adore babies,” and she would make any sincere man of her class a docile, faithful wife; unfortunately, there are few such relics left in her world. The one candidate who fortuitously appears, having been isolated from change by his position as a civil servant in the colonies, treats her as a sister and is easily seduced by a more fashionably amoral girl. Georgie shows her compassionate nature and essential human goodness as she defends a working-class girl who has become pregnant out of wedlock. Once Georgie overcomes her shock, she acts generously and intelligently to arrange a marriage, a job, and a home for the girl. As the reader contrasts Georgie’s character with the mean-spirited people around her, Aldington’s critique of English morality emerges. Under Purfleet’s guidance, Georgie awakens to her own sexual desires, but she attracts no acceptable mate. After her father’s death, Georgie finds herself fully conscious of being trapped in her poverty, in her duty to her mother, and in her solitude.
Appended to The Colonel’s Daughter is a short satiric and farcical epilogue in which Bim and Bom, two Russians, attack the economic and social bases of English culture. In style and mood, this epilogue differs radically from the body of the sentimental, psychologically realistic novel, but Aldington’s attack on hypocrisy, materialistic values, social injustice, and prudery remains the same.
All Men Are Enemies
All Men Are Enemies, Aldington’s third novel, presents the odyssey of Anthony Clarendon from 1900 to 1927. Like Homer, Aldington begins his modern odyssey with a council of gods determining the fate of his hero. Athena, goddess of wisdom, gives the hero the gift of loving truth—clearly not the gift of devious Odysseus. Aphrodite places him under her erotic influence. Artemis, goddess of pain in childbirth, promises to stir up hatred for Clarendon. Ares promises him strength. The exiled goddess Isis, whom Aldington introduces to Zeus’s council, dooms the hero to seek a lost beauty and an impossible perfection. Until the last pages of this novel, the curse of Isis prevails.
The first part of Clarendon’s life includes his intellectual and emotional education, his first loves, and ends in 1914 as he parts from his perfect mate, Katha, an Austrian with whom he has enjoyed an ideal affair. The literary source of Katha’s primal eroticism may be glimpsed in the D. H. Lawrentian name of her English aunt, Gudrun. The war separates these lovers, and the remaining three-fourths of the novel chronicles Clarendon’s long, painful journey back to Katha.
Aldington skillfully describes the vivid nightmares and suicidal apathy of the war veteran Clarendon, who condemns the meaningless frivolity and opportunism of postwar society. Clarendon’s roots in prewar English culture have been destroyed, not only by his wartime experience of the blind hatred, or by the deaths, but also by the pressures to conform. He observes, with profound regret, a friend encased by “a facetious social personality so long and carefully played up to that it had ended by destroying the real personality.” He avoids that fate by leaving England, separating from his wife, and aimlessly traveling in Europe. By chance, a mutual acquaintance helps him relocate Katha, and they are reunited after a speedy automobile pursuit, a rough boat ride, and a tenderly hesitant courtship. As Odysseus is reconciled with Penelope, so Clarendon and Katha resume their idyllic love. The novel’s conclusion celebrates the future happiness of these two battered survivors, their passion freely expressed. However improbable, the romantic denouement seems to fulfill Clarendon’s wish that the postwar world not be as superficial as he had believed. Aldington’s subsequent novels are less optimistic.
Women Must Work
Women Must Work addresses the tragedy, as Aldington sees it, of the liberated career woman, who, despite her idealistic dreams, becomes selfish, unconsciously repeats the mistakes of her parents’ generation, and, consequently, fails to enjoy her financial and social success. Etta Morison’s culturally narrow childhood in a bourgeois family instills in her a desire to escape from restraint. Introduced to the woman suffrage movement by a friend named Vera, Etta plans her escape, learning the clerical skills by which she hopes to earn an independent living. Her strategy, advancement through education, has been a successful formula for heroes of the bildungsroman, but for a young woman education opens fewer doors. Without her family’s approval, Etta flees to London, finds a cheap room in a nearly respectable boardinghouse, and takes an underpaid job she hopes will lead to advancement; instead, it leads to near starvation and an improper proposal from her boss.
Unlike the unfortunate, fallen heroines of the naturalistic novel, Etta escapes the corrupting forces of her environment and moves into a better situation. She throws herself on the mercy of a kind, wealthy woman devoted to woman suffrage and is hired as the woman’s personal secretary. As in a traditional romance, Etta falls in love with her boss’s attractive young nephew, but she scruples to take advantage of her position within her benefactor’s house. The war separates the confessed lovers and then almost unites them, but Etta, after preparing for and promising her lover all the sexual joy she had previously denied him, again refuses, because her brother has been declared missing at the front. The young man, frustrated and uncomprehending, does not communicate with her again until the war’s end, when he returns to attempt a reconciliation, only to find Etta pregnant by a wartime lover who has abandoned her.
Unable to trust a man’s fidelity, Etta rejects her soldier and turns to Vera, and the two women retreat to a pastoral cottage, where Etta’s daughter is born. Their futile attempts to manage a farm reflect Aldington’s own postwar experience and also demonstrates the impracticality of a pastoral retreat from the problems of the modern world. Casting off the faithful Vera, Etta rises again with the assistance of yet another woman, who launches her on a successful career in advertising—an occupation selected to symbolize the postwar commercial society. There is no moral triumph in her success once she returns to the city; Etta succeeds in advertising because she has learned to use people and to manipulate their desires to meet her own.
Etta’s story resolves into a series of renunciations and frustrations that transform her personality, so that the idealistic young woman who longed to be independent becomes a hard, competitive, selfish, and tyrannical success in the business world. She has survived, but at a cost that seems too great. Aldington’s judgment is clear in his portrayal of Etta’s unintentional alienation of her own rebellious, independent daughter. Despite herself, Etta repeats her parents’ mistake by determining the life she wishes for her daughter rather than allowing her daughter the liberty to choose for herself.
In its narrative, Women Must Work records the successive failure of several traditional fictional forms. The bildungsroman, the naturalistic novel, the romance, the novel of the soil, and the urban success story all collapse as models for Etta’s life. In Aldington’s nightmare, the postwar degeneration of cultural and moral norms abandons both the novelist and the hero in a wilderness.
Aldington’s fifth novel, Very Heaven, a nostalgic return to the outmoded Künstlerroman, portrays a sensitive, intelligent individualist, Chris Heylin, as he encounters his society’s hypocritical ethical codes, dullness, and huddling homogeneity. Forced to leave college by his incompetent father’s financial failure, Chris confronts his mother’s calculating plans for advancement through marriage. Although unable to prevent his sister’s unwise union with a rich older man (who later infects her with venereal disease), he denounces her exchange of sex for money. Refusing a similarly advantageous marriage with an older, richer woman with whom he has enjoyed an affair, Chris makes his way alone in London, living in a small, dirty apartment, toiling as an underpaid librarian and flunky to a condescending and conceited man with great wealth and a desire to flaunt it. His life brightens with the addition of a lover who has no sexual inhibitions and who perfectly understands his problems. (Given the implicit determinism of Aldington’s fictional world, the reader wonders what parents and what sort of upbringing produced this idyllic modern woman.)
After the hero has apparently attained happiness in the prospect of a teaching job at a private school, a continuing love affair, and an extended European tour, he suffers a double disappointment, losing his promised job through rumors of his immoral affair and losing the sponsor of his European tour through arguments over religious and intellectual independence. The novel expires in Chris’s lengthy meditation on his future, as he faces the sea and contemplates suicide. His meditation concludes with his refusal of despair, his renunciation of all formal codes, and his determination to try once more. The hero’s final act, turning to walk toward the light of the town, deliberately recalls the end of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). This ending, inappropriate to the social reality depicted in Aldington’s novel, seems unsuited to the practical character of Chris, whose idealism has been tempered by his contact with postwar materialism. Chris has been portrayed as a survivor, not a dreamer. This odd conclusion belongs to a novel written before World War I.
Seven Against Reeves
Seven Against Reeves offers a sympathetic though comical portrait of a retired businessman besieged by his ungrateful, socially ambitious family and by a series of leeches—gentry and artists—who want some of his earned money. Despite the punning allusion of its title, this novel does not resemble Aeschylus’s tragedy Hepta epi Thbas (467 b.c.e.), the English title of which is Seven Against Thebes (translation 1777). The picaresque adventures of Reeves, at home, in Venice, and on the Riviera, pit English generosity, shrewdness, and misplaced self-confidence against various exploiters, domestic and foreign.
Reeves’s gullibility and good intentions dimly reflect England’s political history in the period between the wars, though Aldington’s aim is less political than moral. The denouement, which is probably farcical, celebrates the authoritarian in Reeves as he asserts his own will over his wayward family; the parallel with the dictatorships briefly mentioned throughout this 1938 novel is unfortunate, for Aldington seems to be echoing or mocking a popularly sentimental conclusion. The father’s strict authority over his family cannot be expected to solve their various complicated problems, nor will his return to business restore moral order to English society.
Rejected Guest, which vividly portrays the life of the idle rich in the late 1930’s, originates in the social disruption of World War I. Aldington consciously takes up one of the stereotyped stories of that social disruption, that of the illegitimate war baby, and uses it as a vehicle for exploring the postwar dislocation of values. Exposing the hypocrisy of assertions that, in this modern age, illegitimacy arouses no shameful prejudice, Aldington presents society’s repeated rejection of David Norris. David’s father was killed in the war; his mother abandoned him to his maternal grandparents to make a respectable marriage. Hurt by the ostracism of his hometown and seeking to escape the poverty of his maternal family, David enrolled in University College, London, but lacked sufficient funds to complete his degree. Desperate, he applied to his wealthy paternal grandfather, who, moved by sentiment and remorse, and checked by shame, supplied a stipend large enough for David to live luxuriously, on the conditions that David live abroad and never claim kinship. Suddenly, with the values imposed by years of poverty, David finds himself living with a playboy guardian among the wealthy elite on the Riviera. He adapts, but, through his outsider’s observations on the customs and morals of the international set, Aldington continues his satiric attack on postwar society.
Aldington’s indictment of hypocrisy and selfishness seems, once again, to be mitigated by eros, as David falls helplessly in love with Diana, an independent and passionate young woman. Swimming, sailing, and making love in the blue Mediterranean, they plan a yearlong sail through the tropics. When the Munich crisis threatens war, however, Diana’s selfish instincts reassert their control, and she abandons David. The wealthy grandfather dies without having provided for David in his will, and the young man is forced to accept a job as an office boy in London. The war baby finds no home among the people who produced him, for, as a living reminder of their failure in World War I, David disrupts their comfortable illusions. The political parallel in Aldington’s ironic moral fable may be heard when David’s playboy guardian advises him, “Kindly remember that I am only acting in your own interests,” and David interrupts, “as the Nazi said when he robbed the Jew.” The social elite of England and Europe, playing on the Riviera, choose to ignore their world’s political affairs until war threatens to spoil their idleness. Aldington’s critique of their selfish indifference is unambiguous.
The Romance of Casanova
Aldington’s eighth and final novel, the historical fantasy The Romance of Casanova, abandons the social and psychological problems of the twentieth century. This purely entertaining novel presents Giacomo Casanova as an elderly man wondering if he was ever loved for himself rather than for his reputation or his skill as a lover. Answering that doubt, Casanova narrates his affair with Henriette, the romance of his youth. He was captivated with her beauty even before learning her name, and he describes their lovemaking in passionate detail. Their affair was destroyed by his own infidelity and by his ambitious involvement in political intrigues. The novel was perhaps influenced by Aldington’s measure of Hollywood’s standards, clearly lower than his own as a novelist of the 1930’s.
In her Composition as Explanation (1926), Gertrude Stein wrote that the most significant effect that World War I had on literature was to force a contemporary self-consciousness. Her suggestion helps explain not only the themes but also the experimental forms of Aldington’s long fiction. His contemporary self-consciousness demanded affective response to the war and its aftermath. He rejected Joyce’s method in Ulysses (1922), which he found vulgar and incoherent, and embraced D. H. Lawrence’s eroticism and the cult of personality. Though he denied that he was an interpreter of his age, he believed that an author’s composition is shaped by the spirit of the time. Like Stein, he believed that the attitude of the writer had changed as a result of World War I; writers of his own age, he felt, were reacting against stagnation. His own fiction, reacting against the stagnation of old forms and the formlessness of modernist prose, provoked much hostile literary criticism yet won a following of appreciative readers. The uneven reputation of Aldington as a novelist validates Stein’s paradoxical 1926 dictum: “The creator of a new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic.”