Today’s Really Like This Book’s podcast script catch-up about political fiction is about a novel that’s 100 years old: Non-Combatants and Others, from 1916. It’s by the British novelist, journalist and traveller Rose Macaulay, and is set in London during the early part of the First World War. I need to pause here to crow (SQUEEE!) and redirect you temporarily to this page to read the good news about my next book. You’re back now? Good. You’ll understand my exuberant feelings. We’ll carry on.
Non-Combatants is about how one can fight in a war, and for what one should be fighting. It is, as Selina Hastings says in her excellent biography of Macaulay, a novel of unflinching realism, about the effect of war on the people who cannot fight it, or cannot fight in it. The Non-Combatants of the title are the women, and the men who either choose not to fight (it is set just before conscription arrived), or who are physically unable to. Tommy has a frozen lung, which appears to be an asthmatic condition, and Oliver has a heart condition. Mr Vinney won’t join up because he has a wife to support and sees no reason to fight: his younger brother Sid says he’s not going into the army because he can’t leave their mother on her own. Tellingly, later on in the novel, both Vinney brothers join the Territorial Army as officers because they can see conscription coming, and decided to get into the army quickly so as to arrange better terms and conditions for themselves, rather than be conscripted as privates. Macaulay treats them with some sardonic irony on their first appearance, because they are also uninteresting, platitudinous young men: characters with no interesting conversation are not characters to admire. But she refuses to make jingoistic capital out of their slowness in joining the army, because to join the army to was to queue up for a slaughtering machine, and why should the Vinney men join that queue, when the slaughtering was so futile?
Every man who returns from the war in this novel is wounded, some more than others, and not always visibly. For a novel published in 1916, it has some pretty harrowing descriptions of physical damage and mental suffering. John answers questions from his family at supper steadily and easily, but at night he’s crying while sleep-walking, and talking loudly about pulling his friend’s leg out of the rubble of their trench. The details that shock the reader most are slipped in under our guard, when someone is answering questions about a letter, and we have to complete the unsaid words ourselves, from what we already know. The knowledge that Basil has been wounded is presented point by point, in conversation: it was a time-bomb, and he’s dictating the letter rather than writing it, so his right hand is damaged, and from this we realise, with a sickening lurch in our stomach, what has happened to Basil’s career as an artist.
The women in the novel fit into three groups of non-combatants. Mrs Orme has two sons in the army, and one daughter, Betty, who drives ambulances in France. She and her remaining two daughters work in hospitals and on committees. They are hosting a Belgian refugee from Antwerp, and their cousin Alix, an art student whose Polish father is long dead, and whose pacifist mother Daphne is in the United States working for the peace movement. The Ormes are a little embarrassed about Daphne, since pacifism is as bad in their eyes as being pro-German. They are kind to Alix when her mother is mentioned, they don’t blame her for her mother’s eccentricity. The Ormes are very keen on fighting the war and doing the Hun down. They have no finer shades, and Alix finds them unbearable.
She is a different kind of non-combatant, because she so desperately wants to fight in the war. But not only is she sexually unfit to fight, because she is a woman and thus barred from all armed services, she is physically unfit from a childhood illness, and walks with a stick, so she can’t drive ambulances like Betty, or be useful in hospital like her cousins since she is sick at the thought of bodies. Alix’s young brother Paul is in the war, her secret love Basil is a soldier, and she cannot do anything to be with them or to protect them. She turns away from war completely, refusing to notice it, to discuss it, to participate in anything to do with it. She rejects the war from her mind since it has rejected her. And naturally this makes her very unhappy indeed.
The third group of women non-combatants are the utterly indifferent, those for whom the war is something terrible happening a long way off, and a great pity it is too, wasting so many lives, and lowering wages, and making the quality of bread and floor polish less reliable than it should be. In her desperation to get away from the relentless heartiness of the Ormes Alix moves to live with the commonplace Framptons (even more distant relatives), because she needs to wrap herself in their cotton-wool of indifference. Mrs Frampton is kind and welcoming, utterly uneducated, and her daughters are much the same. Evie thinks of nothing but blouse patterns and having a good time with young men who spend their money on her. Kate’s life is devoted to finding fault with their meals, their floor polish, their servant, their neighbours and what the grocer sends them. She attends church five times on a Sunday, and wears an unbecoming blouse when Mr Vinney comes to call with his wife, because she is secretly in love with him. She wants very much to be a modern Christian martyr, and is well on the way to becoming a joyless old hag. In such awful surroundings with such wearying people Alix finds a kind of peace, because they want to have as little to do with the war as she does. Then her artist friend Basil comes home on sick leave, with his finger to be amputated, and meets Evie.
Where are the politics in this novel? The obvious opposites of jingoism and pacifism are certainly present. The Orme family is divided because Daphne’s pacifism is simply not understood by her hearty and unthinking sister and nieces. Other aspects of jingoism on the home front are derided. Macaulay expects us to be sympathetic to her contempt for non-combatant women who send men out to war while they stay safe at home. There’s an excellent satirical poem called ‘The Jingo-Woman’ by Helen Hamilton, which Macaulay may have known, since it is a savage attack on the women who handed out white feathers during the war to men who they thought ought to be fighting. You can download it here: The Jingo Woman.
A second layer of politics takes place between the non-combatants: those who want earnestly to do something for the war effort, and thus support the war through their efforts; and those who ignore it, and refuse to have anything to do with it. There is not so much a balance of power here as a balance of moral integrity, and intellectual clarity. Macaulay’s position is that the women who make bandages and knit endless comforts for the troops are supporting the war, and sustaining the endless life-eating machine of slaughter. Those who don’t because they’ve thought the thing through and have reasons for their resistance to war, and their utter rejection of it, are more honest, if profoundly less popular with their unthinking neighbours and friends. Those who ignore the war because they don’t see that it has anything to do with them are at best lacking in human compassion, and at worst are selfish, and possibly cowardly. (Those who are completely muddled, like most of us, are to be pitied, and encouraged to some kind of rational position.)
Lurking underneath all this is a power struggle, a love story being fought out between Alix, and Basil, and Evie. Evie is oblivious to any struggle: she goes out with Basil, likes him, gets bored of his increasing passion, and drops him. She drops him because she’s been encouraged by Alix, who has lied dishonourably that Basil never means anything serious when he is passionate about a girl. This lie doesn’t make much difference to Evie, who has already met someone more to her taste, with more money, but it matters to Alix’s self-respect, for having failed to live up to her own standards of behaviour, and it breaks Basil’s heart. These are the politics of the human heart, which cause just as much damage as human politics. Basil is never going to fall in love with Alix after meeting Evie, and thus two lives are wrecked, temporarily, assuming that Basil survives the next two years of war.
Macaulay’s final statement of the politics of how one should fight in war is that one should actively fight against war, and do something to make it stop. The peace movement – which used politics to advocate pacifism as a position to be adopted by nation states – is not the only way. Macaulay’s strong Anglicanism is brought in here as Alix’s solution, and I have to say that Alix’s slightly reluctant acceptance of the Church after a lifetime of atheism doesn’t quite work for me. Perhaps I need to read the novel again to be more sympathetic to Alix’s desperate misery and the suffering she undergoes: Macaulay’s words are so much more persuasive than any paraphrase I can give. But overall, this excellent novel, which I really do like and admire, even if it is sometimes a rather bracing experience, is truly brilliant in its presentation of moral politics in wartime.