My colleagues David Owen and Cristina Pividori are editing a volume on WWI and I was commissioned to write a piece on two middle-brow best-selling novels, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921). I’m writing on men’s friendship, considering the idea of whether WWI forms a divide after which any expression of male same-sex love/affection was necessarily tied to (homo)sexuality. I am worried indeed that this may sounds homophobic but my argument is that heterosexual men have lost or are repressing a wide range of feelings for fear of homophobia, feelings that pre-1930s fiction candidly indulges in. We may call them homoerotic but I think this is not enough.
Well, before I drift off my topic… It turns out that Ewart’s excellent novel, a very complete portrait of combat in WWI, also offers a terrific insight into women’s lives. Upper-class, yes, and as such, limited but fascinating nonetheless. (Spoilers ahead!!!)
This is done by means of one of those sacrificial heroines that I dislike so much: Rosemary. Since this poor thing is not the main protagonist and her demise is balanced by the pragmatism of the other main female character, I cannot really accuse Ewart of following a simplistic anti-feminist line. It’s more complicated than that, as the question Rosemary answers is what happened to post-Victorian women when suddenly WWI gave them the chance to free themselves. The answer is that not all knew how.
Let me give you the basics of the novel. This is the story of 21-year-old Adrian Knoyle, who’s living ‘la vida loca’ (the ‘gay’ life in the text) with his buddy Eric Sinclair. Adrian is the romantic celibate type and he absurdly idealises the beautiful Rosemary, ensnaring her into a betrothal for which she’s not ready. Eric, fond of dining and wining, etc, a string of chorus girls, typically chooses the steady, down-to-earth Faith to put an end to the fun period of his life. All are rich, by the way.
Here’s the surprise the men are in for: Rosemary’s mercenary mama finds Adrian too poor, Faith finds Eric ‘nice and gay’ but just ‘a little playboy.’ This is solved by WWI, which makes a man of the delicate, girlish Eric. Tall, dark Adrian is not so lucky: his papa dies, he becomes rich, Rosemary’s mama grants her permission.. but the girl insists on living her own ‘via loca’ (and being unfaithful).
What’s wrong with Rosemary? Nothing according to our current standards: she’s a 19-year-old girl who wants to have fun. Her problem is that fun as we know it today had not been invented yet. Initially, she worries herself sick because her mama will think her wicked for being alone, unchaperoned, at all hours with Adrian. As the novel progresses, though, mama looks the other way since Rosemary’s other boyfriend is loaded. He gets free access to their flat and eventually to her body (if I read the opaque prose of the novel correctly, for it took Lawrence still a few years to unveil sex for fiction).
Adrian reappears twice to claim her back from her profligate ways but the idiot decides to join Eric back in the trenches rather than stay cowardly at the home front. Without him, dependent Rosemary spirals down into a course of self-destruction which includes the drug addiction that eventually kills her. More or less accidentally.
I think of Peaches Geldof, 25, wealthy career woman, happily married and a mother of two, dying in April this year of a heroin overdose in the same room where her baby slept. And it seems to me this would have been Rosemary’s fate if she’d married Adrian. The heroine destroyed by heroin, forgive me, is also celebrating its centenary together with WWI.
The usual argument in the case of pre-WWI heroines like Madame Bovary or Edna Pontellier from The Awakening, is that these were women striving for their freedom who chose death instead ( I wonder why Nora’s slamming the door is less often mentioned than Hedda’s shooting herself). What strikes about Rosemary is that when WWI sets her free she does not know how to react.
Her friend Faith blames Rosemary’s mother and the whole social system for failing to provide women with guidance at this time of crisis. Yet, surely, the whole point is that neither could really provide any pointers as nobody had a clue about what was going on. Reading about Rosemary and Adrian’s new-style of courting, with no chaperons, I suddenly realised that this is very new. The rules were so confusing that Rosemary has to force Adrian to spend the night with her –yet, it seems clear they spend it ‘making love’, that is, talking about love, rather than ‘making love’, that is, having sex. (I think it’s not so with the other boyfriend)
Rosemary thinks she’s found in Gina Maryon’s avant-garde clique the answer to her search for excitement but Ewart points out this is just shallow excitement. If she were alive today, Rosemary would be performing fellatios non-stop in a Majorca disco or getting drunk on a boat off Barcelona’s coast. Professionally, she’d be a successful top model. The idea is the same one: you’re young, beautiful, rich and female –your mama no longer controls you, and society tells you you’re free to behave as you like as life is short and who knows what the future may bring. Rosemary gets so afraid she begs Adrian to rescue her; needing rescuing himself he fails to play gallant knight. And down she goes.
Now here’s a nasty thought (which never crosses desolated Adrian’s mind): perhaps if Rosemary had been drafted into combat, as young men her age were, she would have found all the excitement she craved for. Sometimes, being a woman is strangely privileged.
Still, I thank Ewart for his peculiar insight into the problem of women’s freedom. And on terrible, fascinating WWI.
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