Monday, January 28, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“SONIA” by Stephen McKenna (first published in 1917)

            Here I go into one of my maddening recherch√© moments. I have just been looking at two books about women, including one about women as they were once depicted by male advertising copywriters. This leads me to consider a novel by a male that conceives of a woman in most unrealistic terms.

            Is the novel worth your rushing out and finding?


            Why then am I dealing with it?

Because the historian in me likes finding novels that so perfectly represent the prejudices of the age in which they were written.

            Stephen McKenna’s Sonia was written and first published during the First World War. High-brow British reviewers praised it and for a time McKenna was regarded as an important figure in modern Eng Lit. I even have on my shelves a couple of “surveys” of early 20th century Eng Lit that mention him respectfully. His books continued to be re-printed for quite a few years, including this one and its sequel – which I haven’t read – Sonia Married. I myself read Sonia in a battered Penguin paperback printed in 1949. Then, inevitably, McKenna slipped out of view and is now quite justifiably forgotten, even though he lived a long life (1888-1967) and apparently churned out nearly 50 novels.

            To show why this should be so, let me ask you to sit, like good children, cross-legged on the carpet in front of me while I give you the novel’s plot.

            It goes like this.

            Ostensibly it is the story of the social butterfly Sonia Dainton, who breaks men’s hearts in the years just before the First World War. In fact, however, this eponymous character is peripheral to much of the novel’s action. The real centre of vitality is David O’Rane, illegitimate son of an Irish peer.

            Narrated in the first person by one George Oakleigh, the novel begins at the public school Melton. A couple of years younger than Oakleigh and his friend Lord Jim Loring, David O’Rane comes as an outsider speaking an odd mixture of Irish and American idioms; but he becomes a school legend with his formidable energy and scholarship.

            Running through the 1890s and 1900s, the novel takes the main characters to Oxford and then to parliament. Jim Loring becomes an ultra-Conservative member of the House of Lords; George Oakleigh, an opponent of the Boer War, becomes a Liberal. David O’Rane has fallen in love with Sonia Dainton, but her parents, seeing her as too young, break off the match.

            O’Rane travels the world and we hear of his daring exploits – supporting Hungarian nationalists in the Austrian Empire; making a fortune in oil with desperadoes in Mexico etc. The narrator gives us great slabs of social commentary about frivolous high society as it contrasts with real social questions on the eve of the Great War. Meanwhile Sonia – who really has an important role only from about halfway through the novel – continues to break men’s hearts. She makes and then breaks an engagement with Jim Loring, because her parents disapprove of Jim’s being a Catholic.

            O’Rane returns to England, filled with energy for reform. He is briefly a Conservative (!) member of parliament. When war at last threatens in 1914, Sonia happens to be travelling in Germany. Posing as an American businessman, O’Rane daringly travels to Germany and rescues her. But she does not immediately submit to him.

            The narrator Oakleigh has been anti-imperialist and even edited a pacifist paper called Peace; but as soon a war breaks out he and O’Rane vigorously support recruiting drives. Jim Loring is conveniently killed in the first year of the war, so he is no longer a rival for Sonia’s heart. David O’Rane is blinded and then crucified with bayonets by German soldiers. He survives and returns to England where he takes a post as schoolmaster at his old public school Melton. Humbled by O’Rane’s experiences, Sonia at last submits to him and they are married. The novel ends with O’Rane preaching the need for a better world.

            Okay, synopses are not the way to criticise novels, but this one may at least help you to get your bearings and you probably already have an inkling of why this novel is now as dead as mutton.

            The obvious defects first. The narrator, for all the events in which he is supposedly involved, gives the impression of being a passive observer, far less vital or interesting than O’Rane and others. There are many creaking flaws in the choice of first-person voice, with Oakleigh most improbably able to report in detail intimate conversations between O’Rane and Sonia. Later, there is the awkward device of Oakleigh receiving letters from his nephew, just so that we can be told how brilliantly the blinded O’Rane does as a humble schoolmaster. No, this is not the conscious “unreliable narrator” technique with which much better novelists like Joseph Conrad were then experimenting. It is simply McKenna’s clumsiness.

            Why was this once regarded as acceptable high-brow writing? It gives a seemingly authentic view of public school, university, parliament, social whirl and marriage market. Its tone is apparently detached, apparently world-weary (the novelist was aged about 30) and with much discussion of foreign policy, politicking and government plans. All serious stuff for the intellectual reader of 1917.

            And why is it now so dead? Because all of its observations are really in the service of a dated, class-ridden, essentially snobbish world view. Sonia does not transcend its age. It simply legitimizes what were, I suspect, the standard views of public-school-and-Oxbridge-educated chaps like the author. Any apparent criticism of society and its rulers is rapidly turned into an argument in favour of the status quo. The narrator may have edited a pacifist journal, but as soon as war breaks out it’s obvious to him that British civilization (the peak of all civilization, dammit!) must prevail to ensure a just peace. At one point, the folk-fiction of an army of Russian soldiers passing secretly through Britain is justly ridiculed. But the equally untruthful propaganda story of German troops crucifying Allied soldiers is made a major plot point. [Check the index at left for my review of James Hayward’s Myths and Legends of the First World War to find out more about this nonsense]. Very well. McKenna was writing while the war was still being fought, and it would be unfair to criticise him for not seeing it with the historical perspective that we now have. Even so, his eagerness to latch onto a lurid propaganda tale says something about his prejudices and preconceptions.

            If you couple the novel’s earlier Oxbridge aestheticism and disdain for London society with its later support for the war, you can quite clearly hear the strains of Rupert Brooke’s delight at “swimmers into cleanness leaping”. Note, too, a very minor strain of anti-Semitism in the novel’s caricature of the German-Jewish London merchant Adolf Eicksteinn.

            But the key figure in this piece of conservative special pleading is David O’Rane. He comes across very much the way the sympathetic German officer does in Powell and Pressburger’s famous Second World War propaganda film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. He is the voice from “the other side”, who most conveniently reinforces “our” view of things. Note that David O’Rane (“Raney”) is the illegitimate son of a peer. (This must have been a sensational plot device at the time. Compton MacKenzie’s Sinister Street, much superior to Sonia as a novel and published four years earlier, also has a hero, Michael Fane, who is an aristo’s bastard.)

O’Rane’s status makes him an outsider, while at the same time reassuring readers that his blood is blue. O’Rane’s Irish and American idiom drops away before the sterling public-school classical education to which he is exposed. Offstage, he mingles with the lowest and most desperate of society and he is determined to bring about social reform. But he does it in the ranks of the Conservative Party. At one point, sheer emotion causes him to weep at the goodness of British civilization, the most democratic in the world, in allowing a penniless chap such as he (a peer’s son) to make something of himself. Presumably in 1917, the dramatized opinions of such a get-up-and-go (!), self-made (!!), mutilated-by-Germans (!!!) “outsider” would have promoted the war effort. Given that the daydream figure of O’Rane is far more engaging than the vapid Sonia, one wonders if he was not the real object of the (never-married) author’s admiration.

            Now let me be a total cad. After all the supercilious mud I have thrown, I actually enjoyed reading this novel, because it is so neatly a product of its age and no other. As always in such circumstances, it gave me the sense – at once comforting and chastening – that all bestsellers are thus. They encapsulate the views and play up the prejudices that people in a particular age wish were true. Thus I happily visualise readers of 2103 digging out forgotten bestsellers of 2013 and chortling over their unexamined prejudices, just as I am chortling over Sonia.
Wikipedia informs me that Sonia was the tenth best-selling book in the United States in 1918. The nine best-selling books ahead of it are all equally forgotten now. There are good reasons for this.

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