Thursday, February 15, 2007

Germane? Go back to Germania!

Ah, the goal of any writers' blog. A back-and-forth between participants.

I had my say last week about popular literature of the 1930s. Chris Nakashima-Brown responded (entertainingly of course) with a survey of men's adventure magazines of the 1940s and 1950s. Chris said that they feel "more germane to these times" than what he (accurately) called the "marginal fantastics" I described.

His post deserves a response. So, Dear Reader, hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frère, let me describe a story to you:

Western soldiers are sent into an Islamic city in the Near East as part of an occupying force. They aren't given enough weapons or adequate supplies. Their political leadership is corrupt and their military leadership is incompetent. The soldiers are ordered to prop up a local ruler who is hated by the majority of the population on religious grounds. The occupation goes bad, and the soldiers are subjected to vicious street-to-street fighting which their training has not prepared them for. After successive defeats and numerous deaths the soldiers are forced to leave the city in disgrace.

The place? Kabul, Afghanistan. The time? The late 1870s. The story?

“English Jack Amongst the Afghans; or, The British Flag—Touch It Who Dare!”, which appeared as a serial in Boys of England from Nov. 1878 to May 1879 and was published as a fix-up circa 1890.

Chris' post got me to thinking about which popular literature I'm familiar with would be germane to current readers, or at least more germane than my beloved gunfighting gorilla and zombie sheriff. And while I could write about the kinds of pulps which appeared in the European countries in various wartimes--France and Germany 1914-1918, Spain 1936-1939, China 1937, Germany 1939-1941--I think the penny dreadful is actually more apposite. Specifically, the war story penny dreadful, or "war dreadful."

slashing lt.

The penny dreadful (which for the purposes of this piece encompasses things like the penny blood and what A.A. Milne called the "ha'penny dreadfuller") was the pulp magazine of the 19th century: stories hastily written for low wages and printed on cheap paper for mass consumption. The penny dreadful gave the world Sweeney Todd and the criminally underrated Varney the Vampire, but at least as many penny dreadfuls were published with the intent of teaching morals and edifying the young as were published to titillate or horrify. And a number of them were written to whip up patriotic fervor and to tell stories of Britons at war.


One thing commonly forgotten about Victorian England is that it was never, really, at peace. As Byron Farwell puts it in Queen Victoria's Little Wars, "there was not a single year in Queen Victoria's long reign in which somewhere in the world her soldiers were not fighting for her and for her empire. From 1837 to 1901, in Asia, Africa, Arabia and elsewhere, British troops were engaged in almost constant combat. It was the price of empire, of world leadership, and of national pride...."

The popular literature of the time--the penny dreadfuls--reflected this.


But the modern reader who reads enough war dreadfuls published over the breadth of Victoria's reign discovers an interesting phenomenon. War dreadfuls published in the 1840s and 1850s, up through the middle of the Crimean War, are more or less uncomplicatedly patriotic, jingoistic (before the word was invented, of course) and assured of the eventual triumph of manly British soldiers and sailors over dastardly, uncivilized, dark-skinned peoples, no matter how large their numbers and how small those of the British.

But from the 1860s onward the war dreadfuls changed. I think it's not a stretch to say that the news reports of the Crimean War and the stories of the veterans--the war was a clusterfudge of military and supply incompetence--were the largest cause of this. There remained war dreadfuls who told the old-style, pre-Crimea war story. But a large number of war dreadfuls became the Victorian version of Vietnam War novels.

"English Jack" is a prime example of this. It was a reaction to the Second Anglo-Afghan War, begun after the troops had left for Afghanistan but before any action took place. "English Jack" is actually not a forecast of the War, but rather is a retelling of the First Anglo-Afghan War and the disastrous retreat to Gandomak.

The reason "English Jack" would be germane to modern readers is that the first third of it, the war dreadful section (the remaining two thirds are adventures-in-India and larking-about-Afghanistan), is a horror story. The British leader, General Elphinstone, is an incompetent drunk. The British troops are outnumbered and outgunned. They know full well that their political leaders, back home, have sent them on an impossible mission. The local leader, "Shah Soojah" (a.k.a. Shuja Shah Durrani) is, in the words of one of the British characters, "a voluptuary, a wine-bibber, and almost a driveling dotard as well, maintained on his throne against the will of the entire nation by foreign bayonets." When the fighting begins it is hand-to-hand, house-to-house, street-to-street, with the Afghans using tactics the British don't know how to handle. British civilians and troops are beheaded and tortured. During the retreat to Gandomak the civilians know that the Afghan troops are closing in and, the narrator laconically informs us, "'Despatch us! Kill us! For God’s sake shoot or bayonet us!' The poor Englishman cried. And in more than one instance the request was complied with."

The war dreadful section of "English Jack" is tense reading. The author, who is not known (but shows signs of intimate knowledge of the Afghans and the landscape of Kabul), imbues it with a palpable sense of desperation. The reader is always aware that the lead characters are constantly in danger, horribly outnumbered, and not as well-equipped as the enemy. There aren't explicit descriptions of heads paraded on pikes or British women being raped, but there are many references to them, in language obvious to contemporary readers and clear even to modern readers. The British troops know how dire their own situation is and are afraid and even resigned to their own deaths. And the retreat to Gandomak is harrowing, with every one of the heroes struck down in the battle of the Khyber Pass. (They are only knocked unconscious, rather than killed, a clear cheat on the writer's part).

And "English Jack" is only one of a number of war dreadfuls I read with similar subtexts--and I only read a fraction of what's out there.

Germane? Yes. Prescient, even.


Stephen Dedman said...

Thanks for this: it brought back memories of 1066 and All That, which IIRC said of the 2nd Afghan War: "Cause: there had only been one Afghan War." And I recently re-read Flashman, which recounts the same retreat and the events leading up to it in equally unflattering terms.

It's interesting that George McDonald Fraser's intro to the latest Flashman novel dryly comments of the Abyssinian War of 1868 "It served no politician's vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover-ups or lies... To quote Flashman again, those were the days."

Jess Nevins said...


Yeah, that comment by Fraser stuck with me as well.

It's an interesting experience, reading Fraser and then reading "English Jack." I doubt very much that Fraser read "English Jack"--I'm sure he read the original diaries and such. But I think Fraser would approve of "English Jack." For a war dreadful, it's gripping stuff and surprisingly honest about the wartime experience. I can't imagine what the homefront readers thought of it.

Christopher Brown said...

Jess -- Great stuff, and right on the money. What about American tales of the exotic East from the turn of the century to the late 1930s? I expect your book will also cover the various "beyond the Khyber Pass" pulp adventures like Robt. E. Howard's bizarro tales of El Borak in Ghulistan?

Jess Nevins said...

Chris--thanks! You are, of course, making me raise my game with each post of yours.

And, yep, the pulp book will cover as many of those Eastern adventures as I can find. Although the British, as usual, did it first and better than us--the noble British spy fighting the Afghan hordes while assisted by his Pathan guide, who is armed with the Brit's cricket bat. Together they fight, among others, a giant, walking statue, animated by the Afghans' black magic.