Fiction and World War One

World War One had a dramatic effect on fiction at the time, as well as on the future course of literature. Not only did it give rise to the booming and still very popular genre of World War One Fiction, it also dramatically affected a number of famous authors, influencing their writing for years to come.

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Katherine Mansfield, Chaucer Mansions flat, Queen’s Club Gardens, West Kensington, London, England in 1913
Baker, Ida: Photographs of Katherine Mansfield. Ref: 1/4-059876-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22317542

One such writer was New Zealand’s (arguably) most famed author, Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield lived in Europe at the time war broke out, having moved there from her family’s home in Karori, Wellington in 1908. Her beloved brother, Leslie Heron ‘Chummie’ Beauchamp was killed in 1915, as a New Zealand soldier in France. Living in London at the time, the shock of her brother’s death lead her to write stories based on her childhood in New Zealand, published in Bliss and Other Stories. In a poem describing a dream she had shortly after his death, she wrote:

“By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands…
These are my body. Sister, take and eat.”
(Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield (2002). Oxford World’s Classics.)

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Katherine Mansfield and her brother Leslie in Wellington in 1907.
Ref: 1/4-010048-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23038688

World War One also had a significant influence on the writing of Ernest Hemingway. He attempted to join the US army in 1918 but, rejected due to poor eyesight, he instead became a driver with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. Only two months after joining, Hemingway was seriously injured by a trench mortar and machine gun. While recuperating in a Milan hospital, Hemingway fell in love with a nurse, and they planned to marry within a few months. However, she later wrote that she had become engaged to an Italian officer. Biographer Jeffrey Meyers claims that Hemingway was devastated by Agnes’ rejection, and this relationship inspires the semi-autobiographical novel A Farewell to Arms. Like Hemingway, the protagonist served in the Army as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War One, got wounded and spent some time in an American Army in Milan, where he met a nurse. But unlike Hemingway, the protagonist starts a love affair with the nurse.

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Hemingway in uniform in Milan, 1918.
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Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License.

Another great author to serve in the war was J.R.R Tolkien. In 1915, Tolkien enlisted in Britain’s New Army, and his battalion was sent to France in June 1916. Although Tolkien himself stated that the war had only a limited influence on his writing, his war experiences are thought to be sublimated in his fiction. They surface in the sense of loss that suffuses the stories, in the ghastly landscapes of places like Mordor, in the sense of gathering darkness, and in the fates of his Hobbit protagonists. Discussing the brutal landscape of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, he later stated in one of his letters,

 “The Dead marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”

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Tolkien while serving in the British Army during the First World War, 1916.
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These are only some of the authors whose work is thought to have been persuaded by World War One. Others include writers of “traditional” war literature Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, and Robert Graves, and also novels by Modernists D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, poetry by T.S. Eliot, and even later novels by Evelyn Waugh, W. Somerset Maugham, Pat Barker, and Robertson Davies.

The following is a sampling of bestselling fiction during the years of World War One:

1914 Pollyanna / Eleanor H. Porter
1915 Michael O’Halloran / Gene Stratton-Porter
1916 Dear Enemy / Jean Webster
1917: Mr Britling Sees It Through / H.G Wells.
1918 The U.P. Trail / Zane Grey

It is interesting to note the trend in interest in books on orphans, as indicated by Pollyanna, Michael O’Halloran and Dear Enemy. Mr. Britling Sees It Through is regarded as H.G. Wells’s “masterpiece of the wartime experience in England.” The protagonist is popularly believed to be an alter ego of the author. A central theme of the novel is the casualties of war, as the protagonist deals with the death of his son Hugh at the front, as well as that of a German student, who formerly boarded with the family. Mr Britling Sees It Through was one of the most popular novels in the United Kingdom and Australia during World War One, and was described by Maxim Gorky thus:

“the finest, most courageous, truthful, and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war . .  at a time of universal barbarism and cruelty, your book is an important and truly humane work.”

Still today World War One inspires and informs many works of fiction for both adults and children alike. Check out our catalogue for more titles.