John Horrocks revisits John A Lee’s novel Civilian into Soldier.
“Whoosh – the good old Christian bayonet”: this is the scribbled annotation to a 1937 press clipping in one of John A Lee’s scrapbooks. He was commenting on an editorial in the Wairarapa Standard. It said his novel about WWI, Civilian into Soldier, was “unfit to be placed upon the shelves of a respectable library or in the hands of a decent woman”.
The annotation was typical Lee: forthright, impatient with prudery and hypocrisy, and confident at all times that he was right. His scrapbooks, held at the Auckland City Library, are filled with similar notes on letters and press clippings about his novels. He was still reflecting on the value and meaning of his work at the age of 91. In June 1982, he grumbled in his diary that “I have always marvelled at the way some literary critics have panned my war books.” In the same entry, he noted approvingly that the historian J B Condliffe said that Civilian into Soldier contained the best account of a battle he had read.
Lee, the maverick orator who had written much of Labour’s political propaganda and overseen its state housing developments in the 1930s, was thrown out of the Labour Party in 1940 after publishing Psychopathology in Politics, an attack on the ailing Prime Minister Michael Savage. A last-minute procedural change at the 1940 Labour Party conference gave union delegates the power to cast votes on behalf of all their members. The innovation was designed to get rid of Lee, Labour’s most famous rebel.
Most famous? I have been looking through Lee’s archive, in order to prepare a new edition of Civilian into Soldier. I was interested to know whether anyone else was working on this material, either to study Lee the politician or as the author of several novels. It is a measure of Lee’s energy that in the same year Civilian into Soldier was published he also completed another novel, as well as Socialism in New Zealand, an account of the programme of the first Labour government. (Clement Attlee wrote an enthusiastic foreword and said that he hoped that the book would be widely read in Britain.) Despite this early prominence and the richness of the Lee collection, the archive is now consulted principally because of Lee’s correspondence with Robin Hyde. Lee appears to have become a non-person, largely ignored by researchers since Erik Olssen’s biography in 1977, or written off as a “notorious political fantasist”, the verdict of Auckland historian R J Stone.
The archive contains a great deal of unpublished material. Apart from the scrapbooks, it includes his correspondence with many politicians and a number of authors, including Iris Wilkinson (Hyde), Frank Sargeson, Denis Glover and Guthrie Wilson. There are also stories about the sexual escapades of fellow members of parliament, the dubious links between the beer magnate Sir Ernest Davis and Labour figures such as Savage and Peter Fraser, prefaces and drafts of his literary work, material related to the political party he formed after expulsion from the Labour Party, correspondence about his later activities as a bookseller and advocate for a lending right for authors, and photos such as one of the Burnham Industrial School where he was sent in 1906 after a petty theft. A heavy arrow marks the window of a second-floor dormitory where Lee slept, while under another window is a sticker that says “The window I slid out of” at the time he escaped. The photos are an archivist’s nightmare. They are held down with little tabs of sticky tape or plaster, and some of the pages in the scrapbooks are hard to separate. Lee’s unruly files speak of his energy and need to get everything down quickly. He boasts in one pencilled comment that he could write a novel in three months. Someone to whom I mentioned this claim made the inevitable reply that one can tell.
Lee’s impetuous approach is reflected by the numerous prefaces to his books. There are four unpublished prefaces or commentaries for his WWI novel, which came out in two parts, one in 1937 and the second finally in 1976. Lee wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and was confident about the quality of Civilian into Soldier. He regretted only that he had missed the period of 1930–1934 when the bulk of the WWI novels and memoirs appeared. The draft prefaces reveal that Lee was familiar with these works and distinguished between those written by authors who provided first-hand accounts of an attack and those that were, as he put it, about the “back of the front”. He placed Erich Maria Remarque’s famous All Quiet on the Western Front among the latter group.
His own novel is straightforward enough. It begins in 1916 at Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain, where a private, John Guy, is undergoing training before joining the New Zealand Division in France. Lee described Civilian into Soldier as “the most authentic writing I have ever done”, no doubt because his fictional character’s military service is so close to his own. The climax of the action is during the successful attack at Messines on 7 June 1917, in which John Guy seizes a German machine-gun post and takes a number of Germans prisoner. Lee won the Distinguished Service Medal for similar deeds of bravery that day. Like Lee himself, his hero John Guy is awarded a decoration, though after this offensive he begins to suffer from a mental disintegration so acute that he thinks of suicide. It is only during a spell of leave in London, much of which he spends in the company of a prostitute, that he feels recovered.
This last section is what appears to have most offended the editor of the Wairarapa Standard. Lee’s account of soldiers’ brothels is similar to those seen in other WWI memoirs, as is his scepticism about army padres and the competence of the “Brass Hats”. What was novel was John Guy’s affair in London with what was known as an “enthusiastic amateur”, a woman able to make money because of the war and who wishes the war would never end. In this largely unsentimental episode, which ends when Guy runs out of money, he recognises that a “Flossie” and an infantry private “had a lot in common, for the body of both was in pawn”.
Lee often expressed his frustration about being underrated by the literary community. Sargeson verged on being ingratiating in his early correspondence with Lee and in 1938 praised his work in a review in the Auckland Star. Yet, in a letter to Glover, he dismissed the style of Lee and Hyde as excessively realistic. By the same token, Lee wrote caustically more than once in unpublished notes about Sargeson, who he felt had “plenty of artifice, no damned power”.
Does the power of Civilian into Soldier outweigh its stylistic weaknesses – the moralising, the digressions and the occasional melodramatic language? The semi-autobiographical focus on a single character was the reason James Henle, from the Viking Press in New York, rejected the book for publication in 1934. Yet Henle, who had published Lee’s first novel, Children of the Poor, conceded that some of the battle scenes were magnificent. Civilian into Soldier is also one of the few pieces of fiction about WWI which is written from the point of view of an enlisted man who had a limited formal education. Even Ludwig Renn, who wrote War (Krieg) about a German soldier, did so under a pseudonym, as he was actually the aristocrat Arnold Vieth von Golssenau. Unlike Hyde’s 1936 account, Passport to Hell, based on the memoirs of Private J D Stark, Lee’s novel is drawn directly from his own experience and is free from the sometimes incongruent passages of fine writing that Hyde inserts into the Starkie story.
The only manuscript of Civilian into Soldier in the archive is hand-written. Its bold crossings-out and additions show the degree to which Lee worked on the text. As the two final chapters of the manuscript are missing, we may never know whether he held up approval of a final proof copy in order to excise some of the more “sultry” sections, a claim he made in a letter in June 1937 to Hyde.
The published novel leaves out one chapter. Headed “Alway [sic] an Outlaw”, it is about the men who had escaped from the forces in France and lived a precarious life around the fringes of various army camps. Perhaps it came too close to Lee’s memories of his escape from Burnham, his dramatic arrest in 1912 while fleeing down the Whanganui River, or the year that followed in Mt Eden prison. Writing this draft in 1933 on paper with a parliamentary letterhead, Lee was not to know that, within a few years, he would be a political outlaw himself.
I’d like to acknowledge the considerable help of staff at the Auckland Public Library, whose knowledge of the Lee papers among the Sir George Grey Special Collections was invaluable in navigating an archive that is still only provisionally