Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1440
First published: 1941
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Sentimental romance
Time of work: Summer, 1940
Clive Briggs, a soldier
Prue Cathaway, Clive’s beloved
Monty, Clive’s friend
Dr. Cathaway, Prue’s father
Clive Briggs was home on rest leave after the disaster of Dunkirk. He went first to Leaford and then to Gosley, both resort towns on the coast of England. At a band concert in Gosley, he met Prudence Cathaway, who was stationed nearby with the women’s army corps. Prue was of an upper middle-class family and Clive was from the slums, but they were attracted to each other and became lovers the second time they were together.
Prue told him of her family. Her grandfather had been a general in the last war and felt unwanted and useless in this one; her father was a doctor, a famous brain specialist. She told him of her Aunt Iris, who wanted only to get to America and who pretended that she wanted her children to be safe when she really feared only for herself. Iris’ brother was in America, buying steel for the British government. Prue also told Clive that she had broken her engagement to a conscientious objector; because she was ashamed for him, she had joined the W.A.A.F.
Clive seemed reluctant to talk about himself, other than to say he had been born in the slums. In fact, it was many days before Prue knew he was in the army and had been in the rearguard action at Dunkirk.
When they found that Prue could obtain a leave that would give them ten days together, they went to Leaford. Most of the time they were quite happy, but each time Prue mentioned the war, Clive became angry and sullen and seemed to get pleasure from taunting her about her family. Sometimes they quarreled without knowing the reason and were reconciled only because of their desire for each other.
During the last five days of their stay, Clive’s friend Monty joined them. Monty was also born in the slums. Monty had told Prue of Clive’s heroism at Dunkirk, and his story puzzled Prue more than ever. She could understand even less why Clive was so bitter.
While they were at Leaford, air raids became frequent. One night during a heavy raid, Clive told Prue why he would not go back to the army and why he intended to desert. He told her of his childhood, of his illegitimate birth, and of his sordid remembrances of childhood in the slums. He asked her if a country was worth fighting for that ignored its poor. England was still fighting a gentleman’s war, he said, and the leaders were asking the slum boys to win the war and then go back to the mines, factories, and mills from which they had come. He was through. Prue tried to tell him that he must go back to save himself. She said it was his pride that had brought him up from the filth, and his pride and that of the others like him would change all the conditions of which he had told her. He would not listen to her.
At the end of the leave, Prue returned to her camp. True to his word, Clive did not go back to the army at the end of his furlough. He wandered along the coast while trying to decide what he really wanted to do. Once he went into a church and talked with the pastor, but he scoffed when the minister told him that people fight because they have faith in their own ability to build a better life than they previously had. He accused the minister and all the churches of betraying Christ and His teachings because the rich who support the church must not be told of their sin in neglecting their fellowmen. Before he left the church, the minister told him that realism and reasoning like his had brought war and hunger and cruelty and that only faith could restore human dignity and freedom throughout the world.
At last, Clive tired of running away; there was no place for him to go. Finally, he decided to give himself up, to let the army decide for him whether he was wrong, for he was too exhausted to decide his problem for himself. Perhaps Prue and the minister had been right; perhaps faith in himself meant faith in his country and the willingness to die for it.
On the train to London, Clive suddenly remembered something Prue had said, a remark that had no meaning at the time. Now he knew she was going to have a baby. He felt that he could not give himself up before he saw Prue and asked her to marry him. He managed to evade the military police in London and call Prue. They arranged to meet at the station in London and to marry as soon as possible. Clive knew at last that he loved Prue, and he was determined that his child would never know the hurt an illegitimate child must always feel.
While he was waiting for Prue’s train, a bomb fell on a nearby building. As he tried to help rescue a woman trapped in the basement of the building, the wall collapsed on him. He regained consciousness with Prue sitting beside him in a hospital room. Monty and her father had helped her find him. Prue’s father was honest with her. He had tried to save Clive’s life with an emergency operation, but part of the brain tissue was gone, and there was no hope that Clive would live. During one of his periods of consciousness, Clive told Prue that he had risked his life to save a strange woman, because he knew at last that he did have faith in himself and his country.
Clive died in the night during a heavy bombing raid. Afterward, Prue walked along the streets of London and saw the volunteer firemen and the Cockney policemen performing their duties among the wreckage, and she knew why Clive had died. Feeling the child stir within her, she hoped that by sacrifices like Clive’s his child and all children might have the chance to live in a good and free world.
The title of THIS ABOVE ALL is taken from Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true....” This theme runs through the novel and is the fundamental lesson that the principal characters must learn. The characters of THIS ABOVE ALL and their problems are intended to represent the people and tribulations in any period of peril. The author made a conscious effort to achieve a universality with his picture of wartime England. The protagonist, Clive Briggs, doubts whether England is worth fighting for, but beneath his bitterness, a deep loyalty remains firm. Eric Knight generally avoided sentimentality in his treatment of both love and war; he understood the dangers of romanticizing heroism and patriotism. The author questioned many assumptions of contemporary British life, but he always returned to a deeply rooted belief in the British people. THIS ABOVE ALL is not a great novel, but it presents a vivid panorama of a violent and traumatic moment in British history.
The descriptions of the cities and countryside are accurately portrayed, and the scenes of bombing raids are particularly effective. The dialogue is realistic but too discursive. The book would have profited and been better art if the conversations had been condensed; dialogue in a novel should seem real but cannot be authentic without risking boredom. Knight’s greatest triumph is with his secondary characters, who seem to possess a vitality that escapes the principal characters. Old Hamish and Gertie, the elderly dancer who has lost her leg, are touching in their scenes together and suggest a quality for endurance against all odds, which is one of the great attributes of the British people.
Clive insists that each person in the world encompasses all the rest of the world within himself. People should admit, he tells Prue, that they are cowards as well as heroes, that they can be cold and yet friendly, moral and immoral, religious and indifferent to religion. The author represents all levels of society in this novel and illustrates how peoples’ fundamental natures are laid bare in time of crisis. Individuals, he seems to be saying, sometimes have more in common than they realize. If they are true to themselves, they cannot help but be true to one another.