‘THE most daring and original novel of the century is When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne.’ Since the date of publication was 1903, this claim by the publishers might look as cautious as a bet on a cert. How many still more daring and original novels had had an opportunity to be issued since the twentieth century began?
The answer is that although the publishers’ statement might in one sense appear somewhat absurd, it was not merely true, but stayed true, or as true as any such assertion can be held to be, for years and years. When It Was Dark was one of the most significant works of the Edwardian and early Georgian eras. It was read by people who found little to excite them in the novels of the period which have, as the saying goes, ‘lived’. It is, by any standards, a tour de force of extraordinary vivacity and skill. And its stew of spicy cunning, gross pomposity, wild melodrama, heavy religiosity, anti-Semitism and acute class-consciousness, has a niff and flavour which re-create that not very distant age more vividly and authentically than many far better books.
An early and useful summary of this plot was given by the Bishop of London, who, soon after the book was published, preached about it at Westminster Abbey. He said: “I wonder whether any of you have read that remarkable work of fiction entitled When It Was Dark? It paints, in wonderful colours. what it seems to me the world would be if for six months, as in the story is supposed to be the case, owing to a gigantic fraud, the Resurrection might be supposed never to have occurred, and as you feel the darkness creeping round the world, you see how Woman in a moment loses the best friend she ever had, and crime and violence increase in every part of the world. When you see how darkness settles down upon the human spirit, regarding the Christian record as a fable, then you quit with something like adequate thanksgiving, and thank God it is light because of the awful darkness when it was dark.”
Guy Thorne, a prolific novelist and journalist whose real name was Ranger-Gull, opens his book, subtitled The Story of a Great Conspiracy, in the study of Mr Byars, Vicar of St Thomas’s, Walktown. (The church itself has long rows of cushioned seats each labelled with the name of the person who rented it. The congregation consists of ‘the moderately prosperous and wholly vulgar Lancashire people’.) To the distress of Mr Byars, “Walktown was a stronghold of the Unitarians. The wealthy Jews of two generations back, men who made vast fortunes in the Black Valley of the Irwell, had chosen Walktown to dwell in. Their grandsons had found it more politic to abjure their ancient faith. A few had become Christians – at least in name, inasmuch as they rented pews at St Thomas’s – but others had compromised by embracing a faith, or rather a dogma, which is simply Judaism without its ritual and ceremonial obligations. The Baumanns, the Hildersheimers, the Steinhardts, flourished in Walktown … The vicar had two strong elements to contend with … on the one hand the Lancashire natives, on the other the wealthy Jewish families. The first were hard, uncultured people, hating everything that had not its origin and end in commerce. They disliked Mr Byars because he was a gentleman and because he was educated.”
This Ambrose Byars is in bad trouble because his curate, Basil Gortre, who is engaged to his daughter Helena, is leaving for a London parish and it is going to be hard to replace him: ‘The best men would not come to the North. Men of family, with decent degrees, Oxford men, Cambridge men, accustomed to decent society and intellectual friends, knew far too much to accept a title in the Manchester district.’ No wonder the vicar is worried. But Helena knows of a remedy. Entering the study she announces : ‘I’ve brought Punch, father, it’s just come. Leave your work now and enjoy yourself for half an hour before dinner. Basil will be here by the time you’re finished.’ Anyone today can get an easy laugh out of the thought of a serious man’s serious troubles being in any way alleviated by a half-hour with the latest issue of Punch. But there is more to it
than a laugh. The point is that Thorne had his facts right. A re-reading of Punch for the years, say, 1900 to 1903 proves it. Punch, the fun-bible of the genteel (as distinct from ‘wholly vulgar’) section of the British middle class, portrayed as exactly as does Thorne the atmosphere of a period which, we have to keep reminding ourselves, was part of our own century. A period, that is to say, when ‘men accustomed to decent society’ would only under great pressure venture much north of the Thames Valley, and people with names such as Baumann or Hildersheimer were automatically suspect of undermining the national culture. (‘It was’, says Thorne in one of his frequent anti-cultural asides, ‘people of this class who supported the magnificent concerts in the Free Trade Hall at Manchester, who bought the pictures and read the books. They had brought an alien culture to the neighbourhood.’)
Basil Goitre, curate, now arrives. He is going to be the hero of the book, so he ‘had private means of his own, and belonged to an old west country family’. ‘The three sat down to dine. It was a simple meal, some fish, cold beef and a pudding, with a bottle of beer for the curate and a glass of claret for the vicar. The housemaid did not wait upon them, for they found the meal more intimate and enjoyable without her.’ The fact of not having a servant to wait upon three people is thus seen as a very slight, though intelligible, eccentricity. The ‘simplicity’ of the meal itself, just three courses with beer and wine, has to be seen in contrast to the abominable sensuality of the food savoured by one or two of the villains soon to be encountered.
It is learned that Goitre is to share rooms in the Inns of Court with Harold Spence, who is ‘writing leaders for the Daily Wire and doing very well’, and a famous archaeologist named Cyril Hands who, the vicar recalls, recently discovered some inscriptions in ‘the place which is thought may be Golgotha, you know’.
Harmless enough, you might think nowadays, to announce to your fiancee and your future father-in-law that you proposed to live in Lincoln’s Inn with a distinguished archaeologist and the leader-writer of The Times – for, as later events indicate, the
Daily Wire is a thinnish disguise for The Times. But not so in 1903.
“Isn’t it just a little, well, bachelor?’ said Helena, rather nervously. Gortre smiled at the question. ‘No, dear,’ he said, ‘I don’t think you need be afraid … You don’t know Harold. He is quite bourgeois in his habits; despite his intellect hates a muddle; always dresses extremely well, and goes to church like any married man.’ [The idea that any ordinary man of ‘intellect’ might be expected to love a muddle is characteristic.] ‘The days when you couldn’t be a genius without being dirty’, said the Vicar, ‘are gone. I am glad of it. I was staying at St Ives last summer, where there is quite an artistic settlement. All the painters carried golf clubs and looked like professional athletes. They drink Bohea in Bohemia now.'”
Helena is reassured. She leaves the vicar and curate to smoke their pipes and talk, principally, of anti-Christ. Gotre is full of foreboding.
“Gortre stood by the mantelshelf, leaning his elbow upon it. One of the ornaments of the mantel was a head of Christ, photographed on china, from Murillo, and held in a large silver frame like a photograph frame. There came a sudden knock at the door. It startled Gortre and he moved suddenly. His elbow slid along the marble of the shelf and dislodged the picture which fell upon the floor and was broken into a hundred pieces, crashing loudly upon the fender. The housemaid who had knocked stood for a moment looking with dismay upon the breakage. Then she turned to the vicar. ‘Mr Schuabe from Mount Prospect to see you. Sir,’ she said; ‘I’ve shown him into the drawing-room.'”
This Constantine Schuabe is a multi-millionaire, an M.P. of overpowering intellect and eloquence; he owns the Daily Wire and is ‘one of the ten most striking-looking men in England’. Standing motionless now in the vicar’s drawing-room,
“The man was tall … and the heavy coat of fur he was wearing increased the impression of proportioned size, of massiveness, which was part of his personality. His hair was a very dark red, smooth and abundant … His features were Semitic, but without a trace of that fulness, and sometimes coarseness, which often marks the Jew who has come to the middle period of life. The eyes were large and black, but without animation in ordinary use-and-wont. They did not light up as he spoke, but yet the expression was not veiled or obscured. They were coldly, terribly aware, with something of the sinister and untroubled regard one sees in a reptile’s eyes. Most people, with the casual view, called him merely indomitable, but there were others who thought they read deeper and saw some¬ thing evil and monstrous about the man … now and again, two or three people would speak of him to each other without reserve, and on such occasions they generally agreed to this feeling of the sinister and malign.”
What, in fact, we have here is the first appearance in full rig of a figure who is to reappear with fascinating frequency in British literature right through the first third of the century, most notably in the novels of John Buchan. The social significance of his popularity with the British middle class is profound, particularly when it is noted that, at a slightly later stage, and not by any means in fiction alone, he is discovered among the principal Devil-figures of Nazi mythology.
At first sight it would seem difficult to give any sort of credibility to a figure who is at the same time a multi-millionaire and a devilish and deliberate agent for the destruction of established society. (He is sometimes a multi-millionaire and a Bolshevik, sometimes a multi-millionaire and an anarchist. The label is not of great importance, provided it describes something terribly subversive.) He is, in fact, a figure straight out of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion.
But for scores of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people, he was not merely credible; his existence was a social and emotional necessity.
As a class, the middle class was menaced on two fronts. The threat from below by the working class was increasing in fact and, so to speak, in visibility. It could be discerned as an insistent, persisting threat by people who twenty years earlier might have seen it as a passing wave of agitation. The British industrial crisis, which in less than ten years was going to reach dimensions seeming to justify those who thought the danger of civil war more immediate than that of international war, was already developing – clearly in the sight of some, to others as a bugbear, real part of the time, and part of the time susceptible of being dismissed as an ugly hallucination.
On the other front were the forces known collectively to the middle class as the ‘New Rich’. In one sense, they were not so new as all that. They had been detected, for instance, those threatening, subversive hordes of Midian, prowling around the English Way of Life in Trollope’s great sociological novel The Way We Live Now, published in the 1870s. The figure of Melmotte, so unimaginably rich, so devilish crooked, already lowered and lurched among established institutions. He was a power in the Tory Party. Royalty went to his house.
The phenomenon, however, though ideologically frightful, was not immediately and materially relevant to the lives of most people of the middle class. They felt that they, like the Empire, were at least stable, and perhaps on the up-grade. By the turn of the century this confidence had been badly shaken. It may be supposed that only pundits (and by no means all of them) perceived that the Empire had already passed its zenith, and that the forces which had brought it into being were shifting direction; the character of the central British economy was so changing that the entire structure, still outwardly as stable as ever, was in fact precarious. But the most recondite observations of the pundits are rarely hidden so deep as is imagined. Like other great state secrets, they leak, they make a smell in the air. The man in the street or the lending library may not know what makes the smell, but he knows there is a bit of a stink somewhere. Hobsbawm, in Industry and Empire, remarks that
“The somnolence of the economy was already obvious in British society in the last decades before 1914. Already the rare dynamic entrepreneurs of Edwardian Britain were, more often than not, foreigners or minority groups (the increasingly important German-Jewish financiers who provided the excuse for much of the pervasive anti-Semitism of the period, the Americans so important in the electrical industry, the Germans in chemicals).”
Like Melmotte earlier, the New Rich of the early twentieth century were sometimes mysteriously, sometimes obtrusively, powerful in politics. Like him, they were cultivated by royalty. To put it plainly, they mucked about with the value of money, notably by their demonic abracadabra on the Stock Exchange. Even if a majority of them and their hangers-on were English by birth, their interests were not identical with the interests of the English middle class.
A very large segment of the middle class lived, wholly or in part, on fixed incomes. And the activities both of the New Rich and of the proletariat were seen as jointly responsible for that most immediate and damaging of developments, the rise in the cost of living.
In facing the threat from the proletariat, the middle class found itself in an ideological dilemma. It was a necessary part of its creed that the British working man was good – often a genuine Tory – at heart. Why then did he make unreasonable demands, why did he threaten to strike or actually strike, when strikes could surely be seen as disastrous to ‘the interests of the community as a whole’ ?
It was convenient, and in a sense comforting, to reply that he did so because he was the dupe and victim of foreign agitators, with foreign ideas. And whence did these agitators, who must evidently be operating on a gigantic scale, get their money? Where could they be getting it from except the devious, over-brained, ruthless and essentially un-English Jewish financiers? Thus a composite figure was found who combined the worst features of both the threatening elements.