When Harry Watson, an attractive and personable ex-Guardsman, becomes involved with the young novelist Martin Murray, he is quick to assimilate Martin’s left-wing views. He fits readily into Martin’s circle, along with the earl’s daughter and communist Lady Nellie Griffiths, her playboy nephew Pugh, and the unconfident Oxford undergraduate Gavin Summers. But then Harry’s enthusiasm leads him to join the International Brigade, and all five are suddenly faced with the stark realities of the Spanish Civil War.
Review by Erastes
This is an English “Gone With the Wind” in a way, in the same way that Mitford’s 1930′s novels are; detailing a way of life that has gone forever–and a book which becomes a piece of social history, because although fictional on the surface, Fellow Travellers was written in the time, and is largely based on real-time events and real people.
The story is told in a fascinating manner; the unnamed narrator is a man who has been meaning to write a novel about these events, but has never really got around to it. (Many of us know that feeling!) So instead of wasting the time and research that he’s put into the project he presents us with his historical records of the events: letters, interviews with the five people involved and his own sporadic author’s notes. He starts off with each of the five people giving their opinions of all of the other five, then deals with their political beliefs, and then the catalysts that led them all charging off to protect the doomed Spanish republic.
It took me a little while to get my head around the way the books was structured, but once I did I found it a much easier read than I had anticipated. The unnamed narrator has an appealing style, and a dry sense of humour at times, and all five of the characters come to life little by little in varying degrees.
We are introduced to Harry first of all
The homosexuality (and indeed bisexuality) in this book is a simple fact, no-one is expecting anyone to judge, and there’s no sense at all of censure (until they go to Spain and Martin is faced with arrogant bigots) as they all frequent a literary pack of like-minded individuals where the right and wrong of gay life doesn’t impinge. Harry and Martin are living in “uneasy domesticity” at the beginning; before Martin took up with him, Harry is “undeniably attractive” but a male “tart” (as he’s described several times in the book), going with anyone who will support him, and – as Martin says he’s sure of – would have come to a bad end had Martin not taken up with him. Although from working-class mining stock, he’s a bit of a chameleon.
His capacity to fit himself into any situation or social circumstances was remarkable in one who had after all come from a miner’s terrace. It was this capacity which had served him so well when he first burst upon London and discovered that there were plenty of willing gentlemen ready to play host to such an engaging personality.
It’s this chameleon quality, his magpie-like capacity to take on the respectability of others, and the political views of others which drives the book along. Harry–the odd-man out in this little group of upper-middle and upper class intelligentsia–becomes the catalyst to events. He finds Martin’s left-wing views and embraces them, joins the Communist Party but soon becoming bored when–in peacetime–there’s nothing much for him to do other than flag waving, speech making and marching.
Second of the characters is Lady Nellie, daughter of an Earl, and sister to an Earl. As many of this class did in this time, she’s the black sheep of her family, the English rebel without a cause, finding a cause within the Communist Party and joining the Party without truly understanding the true meaning of the practicalities of it, despite reading Marx and others.
Gavin is a bit of a wet hen. He is trying to write an autobiographical novel, but moans that nothing has ever happened to him, so why would anyone read it. He scoffs at all of the others’ political and religious beliefs while having none of his own. He had been in love with Harry at one point, and had a brief passionate affair with Pugh, but like everything he does, he can’t commit to anything. His involvement in the war was actually quite intriguing.
Martin is probably the most complex of all the characters – based very strongly on the novelist Stephen Spender – he tries to balance his life around the varying pressures that affect him. After six months with Harry he realises that it’s not going to work, and manages to persuade him to leave, but because he feels responsible for “adopting” Harry and getting him accustomed to a life beyond his means, he continues to support him, with a flat and an allowance. He goes to Spain purely to help Harry out of the scrape he gets him into, again based on fact, as Stephen Spender did for his own ex-Guardsman lover, Tony Hyndham. Incidentally, these elements of the book are echoed in another book that concentrates on this era “While England Sleeps” by David Leavitt which is reviewed here.
Pugh is probably the least clear of the characters, even though his story winds clearly through everyone else’s. I can’t put my finger on why he’s quite so vague as a character–perhaps it’s because there are no actual interview directly with Pugh himself, like there are with the others. We know he’s wanton, bisexual rather than homosexual, and gets into trouble over just about anything. If anyone was going to get into trouble in the war, it was bound to be him.
The characters’ opinions of everyone else are the lightest part of the book, and amusing in parts as everyone thinks they know everyone else and it’s very clear that they know nothing of the sort. Nellie is convinced that Harry is determined to get a job and believes every excuse as to why he won’t take one, Gavin decries everyone, and Martin feels he is acting for the best. As for the political section, I admit that I was a little lost in that, not really understanding the differences between socialism, communism, crypto-fascism and goodness knows what else.
The war itself cover slightly less than half the book, in all, and is only really dealt with in letters from the characters (not Pugh) to the narrator, and from diary entries from Nellie and Martin. But what is written is vivid and unforgettable. It’s hard not to be swept up in Nellie’s and Martin’s exhilaration of the Anarchist spirit of Barcelona and then to mourn with them as they realise that there really can not be any such thing as a purely communist army where everyone is equal, and if it attempts to be so, it cannot help but fail. I for one, with the sang-froid brought on by 40 or so years watching warfare on the TV, felt Nellie’s sheer horror as a new kind of warfare was born–one where cities were destroyed, thousands of evacuees fled from nowhere to nowhere, and where women and children are raked by plane machine guns while already fleeing for their lives.
What is clear, and for me, hard to read, is the way that European events were largely ignored by England. The juggernaut of Hitler and Mussolini lumbers towards the Second World War but it seems that England has its head stuck firmly in the sand. Nellie’s brother David is the face of this denial here. When Pugh decides to join the Carlists, the Catholic Nationalist supporters (and quite the wrong side as far as Nellie and the others were concerned), this is what Nellie reports of her conversation between David and herself:
‘And you’ll just let him throw his life away?’ I said.
‘What’s he doing now but throwing his life away? If he’s going to do that, he might as well do it for something he believes in.’
‘Something you believe in!’ I said furiously. ‘Don’t imagine the he believes in it! He doesn’t believe in anything. Why, Gavin told me the only reason he’d picked on the Carlists was because they wore scarlet cloaks and berets!’
‘Well, he may come to believe in it,’ David said. ‘As I see it, it’s his big chance. He’ll be mixed with decent people and that will be a change for the better you must admit.’
(It should be added here, that Pugh was a step-son of David, the Earl…)
The way that the scales fall from most of the characters’ eyes is sad to watch, after the buoyed up enthusiasm of all the flag-waving and the bonhomie of the International Brigade. The realism that a just cause isn’t necessarily the winning side, and the sheer frustration that no-one is listening to the stories of the prison camps and the persecution.
As is probably obvious by the length of the review I was hugely impressed with this book–for all that parts of it made me feel like an ignorant nihilist–and the characters will stay with me forever, more so, I think because they portray real events and real people, albeit in a fictional manner. If you enjoyed While England Sleeps or Nancy Mitford’s work, you’ll definitely like this.
Highly recommended, and essential reading. You may need to track a copy down, but well worth doing.