FDP member Margaret Keeping’s novel, A Conscious Englishman, about the last years of Edward Thomas’s life was published in February.
StreetBooks, ISBN 978-0-9564242-3-5, paperback, £9.99
It is not often that anyone will read a novel in which the characters, the plot, and the ending, are known to them so thoroughly before reading. The story of the last four years of Edward Thomas has been written before; a man struggling with his demons, battling self-doubt to eventually become a poet, before agonising about whether to go to war, and suffering a tragic death at the Battle of Arras. The bones for a novel are there, yet the question remains: what do you get from fiction that you do not from non-fiction?
The Margaret Keeping novel, A Conscious Englishman, offers a unique perspective on the last four years of Edward Thomas, confronting and imagining inner thoughts and feelings, and conversations with those close to him, questioning the unemotional documenting of facts by biographers. It reaches, and allows us to glimpse, important moments in the life of Edward Thomas that non-fiction is not able to. The novel is based on fragments of truth. Its beauty lies in the way it plays around with fact and fiction. Specifically it complicates and extends two key decisions in the life of Edward Thomas: becoming a poet, and going to war. In the spirit of the letter writing on which the book relies, I am going to dash out the few thoughts I have.
The journey to becoming a poet is written in a tremendously heart-felt and rigorously researched manner and bound up in this wrangling is the fateful decision of going to war. It is a tale of love and the absence of love. A love of landscape, of nature, of place, of community; a love of words, a love between friends, unrequited love, lost love from youth, and a love that can never be wholly given— That I could not return All that you gave And could not ever burn With the love you have… With only gratitude Instead of love – A pine in solitude Cradling a dove.
Scholars of Edward Thomas will no doubt be interested in: how the decision to become a poet is portrayed, and how he came to the decision to go to war. The book successfully muddies both of these issues. It does not make the mistake of saying anything definitive like some biographies have. It follows a fairly regimented, well known historical timeline that anyone with an interest in Edward Thomas will already know, with minute details and little tales from archival material scattered throughout to surprise and delight even the most knowledgeable. I particularly enjoyed reading about the journey Edward Thomas made to the midlands, and the planned journeys further north to write the everyday life of the working classes, pre-empting George Orwell by a few decades; the relationship between Edward Thomas and Edna Clarke-Hall whilst he was billeted awaiting war; and the beautifully evocative walk with Paul Nash and John Wheatley in the snow.
The subject, I, of the piece shifts—a lot like the split personality of the poet himself—from Edward Thomas to Helen Thomas, and from Robert Frost to Eleanor Farjeon, with Edna Clarke-Hall and Elinor Frost further complicating becoming a poet at 36 in the shade. A prologue carries a short reminder of what is going to ensue—Where any turn may lead to Heaven, Or any corner may hide hell. Then comes a tale of friendship, and talks-walking, in Gloucestershire, in Book One, where you find yourself in an adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel of downtrodden country-folk, with Helen Thomas cast—too heartily on occasion—as Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The book shifts about geographically also, with each historical moment being thoroughly located in space as well as time. Landscape is described in detail, as is place, and nature. It comes through in these chapters that the landscape of Steep and Hampshire enabled his becoming a poet, providing the ground bass for the majority of his poems. Throughout these initial books we are reminded constantly of his struggle with depression and life, including the oft-told tale of taking a gun out with him on a late windy night and firing a shot. A Conscious Englishman exemplifies how this self doubt and occasionally loathing affect the two key decisions that alter the rest of his life, exploring his psyche.
As everyone knows, Edward Thomas decides to go to war. Book Three charts his journey to becoming a soldier at Hare Hall on the eastern outskirts of London. It was not a simple decision that was come to overnight: whether he is fighting for the earth of England, to prove himself after a run-in with a gamekeeper, through necessity to be seen as a patriotic poet like Rupert Brooke, or simply to get away from family life and to feel content in mundane tasks, is never fully acknowledged. And this is what I like about the book itself. It allows a skirting of issues and an open discussion of the thinking that goes into such decisions. The final book returns to north-east France. As with the Robert Graves book, Goodbye To All That, there is a detailing of daily life for a soldier, which helps bring something of the tragic death to the page. Although the reader is waiting for the shell it still coaxes forth emotion.
I worry for the future of novels such as A Conscious Englishman in a digital age where letter writing and diary keeping is waning. How will we gain an insight into the loves and hates and hassles of great writers in the future?
I guess there are people out there who read only novels and dismiss excellent creative non-fiction written about Edward Thomas, by writers such as Robert MacFarlane and Matthew Hollis. It might be therefore that the story of Edward Thomas is now read more widely.
James Riding is a Cultural and Historical Geographer interested in literary and creative geographies of place, nature, and landscape. He currently works at The University of Sheffield as an Early Career Research Fellow. A reworking of his doctoral thesis is forthcoming entitled First Known When Lost Journeys in Pursuit of Edward Thomas.