Where it exists at all, one of the great failings of the literary criticism of Canada’s war literature from the First World War is that much of it fails to deal with the uniqueness of the Canadian war experience, and to consider how that distinct experience is rendered in the nation’s war novels and poetry. Instead, one witnesses the futile attempt to slot the work of Canadian soldier-authors into a larger genre: the War Novel, or the War Poem, genres that were defined in Great Britain or America, without consideration for the Canadian experience. When compared to British or American war novels, under British or American criteria of what war novels should be, the Canadian war novel will always be found wanting.
This strikes me as an absurd way of approaching the literature of arguably the most important event in our nation’s history. An approach, it should be noted, that is curiously and exclusively applied to our war literature, but that no other period or genre is subjected to. One does not dismiss, for example, the works of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill on the grounds they are hardly on par with their literary contemporaries the Brontë sisters, nor have the denizens of Canlit cast aside the depression-era stories of Sinclair Ross because they pale in comparison to John Steinbeck’s. And yet, Canada’s most ardent literary nationalists concede all too readily that none of our war writing has the literary merit of Remarque, Sassoon, Graves, or Blunden, and thus they refuse to treat our war literature with the same seriousness and rigour they would grant any other Canadian literary text.
Consider one of the frequent disclaimers of many war novels: “based on the author’s experiences at the front” or “highly autobiographical.” Contemporary book reviews and publisher’s marketing campaigns, (newspaper ads, dust-jacket blurbs, etc.) often made reference to an author’s war experience, the implication being that their service was an indicator of a certain credibility exclusive to those that had fought. As the decades rolled on, these same biographical claims came to be viewed less as a simple historical reality that establish credibility or authenticity, and more as a signifier that these works somehow lack the requisite artistic creativity to be taken seriously as art.
This dismissal may be a product of an academic generation suckled on the Death of the Author, Vietnam-era sensibilities, or an unwillingness to deal with historical realities closely tied to an unapologetic Colonial/Imperial past. Regardless of the cause, there is a marked refusal to read Canadian war literature on its own terms.
Canadian historians have been far more generous in their treatment of Canada’s war literature, (Jonathan Vance and Tim Cook immediately spring to mind) but historians do not read a literary text with the same attention to ‘close reading’ as their counterparts in the English department. Unfortunately, literary critics tend to ignore significant historical detail necessary to inform a close reading.
A case in point: several literary sources have made passing reference to the play on words in the name of the protagonist in Peregrine Acland’s All Else is Folly, Alec Falcon. The obvious link between Falcon and Peregrine is offered as evidence to stress the biographical nature of the text, and then is dropped. Historians tend not to bother themselves with such trivial textual details. However, in christening his protagonist Falcon, Acland has deployed a complex allusion that gestures towards two separate yet interwoven histories: the first is to the 48th Highlanders, whose regimental cap badge is emblazoned with a falcon (indeed, the current regimental newsletter/paper is titled The Falcon), the second is to the Acland family crest/coat of arms (I am unsure of the correct heraldic term), which is similarly topped with a falcon. Acland combines family and regiment in a very tangible way with the name Falcon; a combination that is stressed further when we are told the fictional militia regiment, the MacIntyre Highlanders, was founded by Falcon’s great-uncle, and that his father served in it until his heart trouble began (Folly: US edition 28).
Given the explication of Falcon’s dual nature, the poet-backwoodsman dichotomy, by such critics as Jonathan Vance, Eric Thompson, and Monique Dumontet, one would expect details like this to be teased out of the text.
Perhaps I’m wrong to read into Falcon’s as I’ve done, that I’m looking for something that may or may not be there. Maybe Falcon is just a clever play on Peregrine and nothing more. But let’s assume for a moment that it’s not, and that Acland deliberately played with character’s names for effect, that his characters are named with a purpose, with multiple possible readings, and not on a whim. That is, let’s treat All Else is Folly like any other literary text, treat Acland with the same courtesy and respect we’d afford any other literary writer.
In a novel where dualities are important, is it not curious that Acland represents both a historical George Bernard Shaw, as when Phyllis Howard chastises Falcon for quoting “warmed over Shaw” (34-35), as well as a fictionalized Shaw using the pseudonym Desmond Law? (124-28). Is Acland not gesturing towards the inherent difficulty between fictional and biographical selves, between the portrayal of a writer and the actual writer, struggling with where these issues overlap and were they diverge?
When Falcon gets a new batman, (a batman is a soldier from the ranks that essentially acts as an officer’s servant) should one consider him just another character, or should we seriously consider that Acland names him after Prime Minister Borden, that this scene is unquestionably comic, but that it simultaneously exonerates the historical Borden from blame?
“But he couldn’t be angry with Borden. He knew Borden too well. If there had been a mistake it couldn’t have been Borden’s fault” (228).
“Borden watched over him like a mastiff. No, like a brother.” (242)
How we are to read these two passages within the traditional context of the anti-war novel? Acland hardly falls into line with the usual motif of finding fault with the “old men” that ran the war, that stayed at home while the young men fought. Is this horribly inauthentic in a war novel, or is it a tangible difference between Canadian and British war fiction?
Recall for a moment that Falcon displays a keen resentment of his father in the opening pages of the novel, due to the pleasure he takes in the “bull-movement of stocks” and his “heart problem” (34). Falcon pere is portrayed as both one of the “old men” safe at home, as well as a profiteer. Doubly condemned, Falcon’s father fits nicely into two of the traditional groups that anti-war fiction so keenly attacks (the other groups are officers, women and shirkers), yet in the closing pages of the novel, Falcon learns that the health concerns he so frequently dismissed were in fact justified, as his father has been “so suddenly yet so inevitably stricken” (330). Is this Falcon absolving the concerns, the fears of the “old men?” Is he acknowledging that perhaps those that went off to fight were too quick to condemn those that did not? If it is, is this not a major departure from what one expects to encounter in a war novel, and thus, something worthy of examination?
A final example, and one that I think speaks volumes about the care and thought that Acland put into All Else is Folly. In the opening scene at the Hotel Whoopee, a Constable from the North West Mounted Police arrives named Brazenose. It’s a curious name, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. To braze is to make of brass, to cover or ornament with brass. Is this a clever allusion to officers, the ‘brass hats’ of the army? Acland mentions several universities in Folly: Harvard, Trinity College Dublin, Oxford –was he aware that Brasenose is the name of a college at Oxford? The college, incidentally, that Douglas Haig attended? (Note: though he does not appear in the novel, Haig was in command of the Canadian forces during the battle of Festubert, Falcon’s first action.) Are we then to read Constable Brazenose as an outside authority figure, much as a Canadian soldier would see a British senior officer?
In Tim Cook’s book Clio’s Warriors, he states “Canadians were seen as undisciplined, unruly troops who had proved their unconventional but adept fighting skills during the South African War; however, they were deemed more brawlers than soldiers” (11). Surely the brawl that the cowboys have at the Hotel Whoopee illustrates this perception. If the officious Constable Brazenose (he announces to Cud Browne that he is to be arrested “on three charges” (13), and he considers the “Regulations of the Royal Mounted” (23) when he contemplates drawing his weapon on Browne) is to be seen as emblematic of a certain type of officer, is it not instructive that he is unable to tame the brawlers, but instead resigns himself to joining in with them? And isn’t it curious that the larger problem Brazenose failed to address was a horse that crashed through the bar floor, unable to move; is this not a foreshadowing of the plight of horses on the Western Front, and the inability of a certain type of officer, enamoured of cavalry, to be able to solve that critical problem?
Maybe. I don’t know for certain. Literary critics don’t ask these sorts of questions of our war literature, so I can’t say for sure. But I suspect that Falcon is more than just a play on Peregrine, as they claim.