The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Hugh gives a second mention to this book which is actually by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Jim recorded in her diary on April 8, 1940, that a friend lent her The Yearling. She read some of it a few days later. By that time, she knew about her ESU interview so may have been interested to read this American author.

Published in 1938, the title of The Yearling refers to a fawn, rescued from beside its dead mother by a boy who makes it his pet. The boy’s father patiently allows Jody to care for the animal as it grows to maturity whilst knowing that separation will be inevitable. Jody’s mother, embittered by the deaths of her other children, is less tolerant but it is she who in the end has the courage to do what is necessary.

The title also alludes to the time span of the book, a year in which Jody leaves his childhood behind and takes responsibility for the farm in the hammock, or hummock, country of Florida in the late nineteenth century. ‘Farm’ is perhaps a misnomer, for the small family are forced to work in order to survive, by tilling the land and hunting around the swamps and creeks, sometimes in the company of their nearest neighbours who live four miles away.  Marjorie Rawlings excels in her description of the setting both in her portrayal of the terrain and in the way she writes the dialogue in dialect.

Hugh was obviously touched by this book, whether from a love of animals or the sense of adventure which he had experienced with his family’s new life in America. Perhaps it took him back to his own adolescence in Scotland and to the transition in his life brought about by the family emigrating when he was only sixteen. As the second child out of six, Hugh would have had to, like Jody, take on extra responsibilities while his father was away from home.

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw

Having rubbed shoulders with members of the Salvation Army on street corners, Shaw saw the possibility of a play to highlight their organisation. When Major Barbara received its first performance in 1905, there was some opposition from the censors. However, attitudes had changed by the time Shaw adapted it for the silver screen. Jim was watching the newly-released film and it sounds as though Hugh was familiar with it too. With Socialism at the heart, the script draws on Shaw’s own experience at speaking on street corners. This is where he met members of the Salvation Army.

In the film, Army member Barbara Undershaft has rejected her capitalist background. Scholar Adolphus Cusins falls in love with her and feigns interest in the Salvation Army. Barbara turns down the offer of a donation to the Salvation Army from her millionaire father.  She sees his armaments factory as an immoral business. However, when she and her father agree to exchange visits to their organisations, she recognises her father’s contribution to society at large.  His workers benefit from homes, leisure facilities and a nondenominational place of worship, all built by the company.  

This is exactly what Jim had on her doorstep when growing up near Port Sunlight. William Lever’s model village has an Art Gallery to this day and, in Jim’s day, the swimming pool she used regularly. Cusins pledges to make ‘war on war’, thus proving himself, like Hugh, a pacifist at heart.

Socialism in Evolution by G D H Cole

Published just three years before Hugh read it, this is a rewriting of Cole’s ‘studies’.  From craft guilds through the French Revolution to Poor Law Reform and Trade Unions, Cole looks at the influence of various movements for change.

Cole shows how reform of education and working conditions led to a clamour for universal suffrage. Hugh and Jim experienced these reforms at first hand. The Great War made people realise what industry could achieve. The paradox was that socialism needed capital. Then came the Depression and the challenges of Fascism and Communism. Cole concludes that a Robin Hood approach to the economy was unworkable. Britain, at least, would continue to be tied up in the class structure. In fact, he observes that industrialisation has produced more stratification of society.

Cole describes the beginning of what was to become the Labour Party. He examines Capitalism more closely, pointing out that, however well the workers are treated, power lies within the hands of the shareholders. It looks as though the economic events of the 1920s put paid to the hopes and dreams of the Whyte family. By 1940, they had become separated from one another in order to seek work. Hugh had strong opinions about this situation, as he discusses in later letters. However, he never mentions members of his family nor their political allegiance.

Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray

Thackeray was born in Calcutta in 1811. Unlike Hugh, he was an only child but he also experienced separation from his parents during his childhood. He was only four when his father died and was sent to boarding schools in England.  En route from India in 1816, his ship paused at St Helena where Napoleon’s residence was pointed out.

Published in 1852, this is an historical novel but has links with Hugh through Scotland, America and war. To give its full title, The History of Henry Esmond Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty the Queen Anne written by himself is set amid the political intrigue of the day. At its heart is the 1707 Act of Union.

The orphaned Henry is taken in by the Castlewoods who have an eligible daughter with whom Henry falls in love. Lord Castlewood dies in a duel. On discovering that he might be the lawful heir to the ancestral home, Henry generously decides not to stake his claim. After Beatrix rejects his offer of marriage, he journeys to London. Finding little success as a writer, he joins the army.  Here, he is reunited with his cousin Frank. The cousins later join the unsuccessful campaign to restore James Stuart to the English throne. Henry eventually marries not the daughter but her mother, his widowed foster-mother Rachel, Lady Castlewood. At the end of the book, the couple emigrate to Virginia.

Midnight on the Desert by J B Priestley

J. B. Priestley is an author with whom Jim would have been familiar through his BBC broadcasts, particularly his Sunday night Postscript series in the early war years. Hugh’s comment regarding Midnight on the Desert indicates that the author’s account may have concurred with Hugh’s own impressions of his adopted country.

The book was published in 1937 when Hugh was possibly dissatisfied with life despite the high expectations his parents had of life in the New World.  As Priestley pointed out, the Industrial Revolution and so-called ‘progress’ often led to poor working conditions. Factory life meant long hours and perhaps little social life. Away from his mother and siblings, did Hugh volunteer for the British forces in order to escape these conditions? Perhaps he had a hankering to return to his country of birth, even if briefly. Or, was it his sense of duty that motivated him?

Priestley autobiography

The title Midnight on the Desert, with its subtitle A Chapter of Autobiography, refers to Priestley sitting in his writing shed at midnight. He is going through his manuscripts and notes for speeches in order to burn them on the stove.

As he handles each script, Priestley relives the circumstances of his life at the time he wrote it.  We therefore learn about his background, family, travels and philosophy. His mind wanders back to his journey to the States and his impressions of places as diverse as New York to Arizona.  He had left Southampton on the Aquitania, a Cunard White Star Company ship, and we have a description of entering New York via the ‘morning mists of the Hudson River.’

Jim experiences America

Hugh would certainly have identified with this, as with Priestley’s reflections on American life and landscape. Priestley shows his appreciation of this natural landscape and didn’t like the temporary appearance of many settlements. During her stay in the USA, Jim visited a Native American community, as did Priestley. She also made A Visit to an American Home.  Like Jim in 1940, Priestley was blown away by city lights.  He noticed that, away from towns, the stars appeared brighter and more abundant.

Priestley talks of the ‘huge resources’ and ‘undiminished stores of energy and enterprise’ as Hugh does in his letter of March 19, 1942. Priestley is amazed at the speed of change in the States and in what we now call ‘the throw-away society’ – which extends to its industries, its buildings and its fashions.

Unlike Hugh, Priestley says he is not ‘of a mechanical turn of mind’ and he has doubts about the fast development of the USA. He admits that, although the US lacks a cultural history, it has a blank canvas on which other fields of creativity can flourish. Maybe Hugh missed the rich culture of his native Scotland. The rise of political instability, guns and gangster culture would have given him a reason to leave the States.

Priestley feels fortunate to have recorded music in the absence of the concert hall. He longs for a gadget which would enable him to listen through earphones wherever he went. What a shame he didn’t live to see such gismos as the walkman and the ipod, let alone mobile phones! He acknowledges that Hollywood produces most films but predicts a world where writers, artists and composers will service the film industry. This has been fulfilled in the twenty-first century.

Like Hugh Whyte’s parents, Priestley had six children. They were extracted from England for a season and deposited in a place of adventures. He compares his own offspring with the new generation of precocious American ones. Contemporary thought saw childhood as a way of life in itself rather than a preparation for adulthood.

Priestley received an honorary degree from the University of Colorado.  Coming across the notes for his acceptance speech, he bemoans the modern novel written by celebrities. This leads to a long chapter about the concept of Time and then to the family’s visit to the Grand Canyon. 

Meeting Shaw

Amazingly, on the morning of their sojourn into the Grand Canyon, the Priestley family met G B Shaw and his wife. The couple were on an excursion from a cruise ship. Priestley and Shaw already knew each other and renewed their acquaintanceship with delight.

Finally, Priestley attempts to describe his philosophy of life before ending with the intention to record all his thoughts in a book! Shaw, by coincidence is the author of the next book Hugh mentions.

An Unsocial Socialist by G B Shaw

An Unsocial Socialist is a Shavian comedy, indeed a farce.  The central character, Sidney Trefusis, makes it his life’s work to promote Socialism. This is also a pro-feminist book. Trefusis is a foretaste of some of the characters from Major Barbara, right down to the mention of him having been a foundling. The story soon reads as a playscript, with a lot of dialogue.

Opening at a girls’ boarding school, a group of three pupils bicker with one another – not at all the setting that would have appealed to Hugh; but the book has political undertones, Shaw using it to attack the rich and privileged.

One of the girls, Agatha, is the ward of her uncle who happens to be Trefusis’ father-in-law. Trefusis runs away from his new bride and disguises himself as a country peasant in the village where the school is located. Inevitably, there are occasions when Agatha and Trefusis meet, each not knowing who the other is. When Trefusis is employed at the school, he literally bumps into his wife Henrietta.  She is visiting the school with her parents because of Agatha’s misbehaviour. Henrietta promptly leaves for London but sees a letter which suggests Sidney is in love with Agatha’s friend Jane.

When Henrietta suddenly dies, Shaw uses the monumental sculptor to exploit the writer’s political views with the craftsman moving from trade unionist to capitalist. Then he uses the invention of the bicycle to indulge in a piece about industrialisation.

Some years later two of the three girls meet at the home of the other, now married, and Trefusis turns up. His matchmaking ploys result in his own marriage and that of the last of the three. So, all ends happily but not before Shaw makes it clear that women no longer fulfil a servile function in marriage. They are capable of playing an equal part in society.

Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring

Jim had started Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring on August 31, 1940, whilst aboard Samaria. Spring began his writing career as a journalist but from 1934 produced best-selling novels. Fame is the Spur was the most successful and it was adapted into a film in 1940. In 1911 he joined the Yorkshire Observer moving to the Manchester Guardian in 1915, a period interrupted by war service. He became the chief book reviewer of the Evening Standard, replacing Priestley.

Quotes from Milton

Like Huxley, Howard Spring quotes from Milton with this book’s title. He expands the lines from Lycidas in one of the two epigraphs:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise

(That last infirmity of noble mind)

To scorn delights, and live laborious days.

Milton’s poem echoes the feelings in mourning a young friend and the book also describes the lives of two people who grew up together. The setting is, at first, working class Manchester where Hamer Shawcross defies his background and, with the help of books bequeathed to him by a local bookseller, takes up politics. In following Hamer’s road to becoming an MP and eventually a Peer, Spring describes the emergence of the Labour Party.  He also looks at how Communism attracted some in inter-war Britain.

Freedom fighters

Spring examines the changing role of middle-class women. There is a moving portrayal of the hunger strikes of the Suffragettes as well as the marches of the depression and the Spanish Civil War. Hamer’s son travels to Spain to offer his services to the communist cause. They passed Gibraltar and steamed north but the son dies when a torpedo strikes the ship. By now, Hugh, also a volunteer, had too passed Gibraltar.

The book was a 1940 publication. However, the story begins in the later decades of the nineteenth century and ends in December 1939. The Spanish Civil War has finished but another war has started. Spring also deals with The Wall Street Crash, The Abdication Crisis, and the Coronation of George VI.  Shawcross endures much sadness in his life. In the end, his fame does neither him, nor the ideals for which he worked, any good. Spring too had a humble start in life.

Hugh Whyte may have identified with the book’s characters. Jim would also have seen aspects of her upbringing. Her household changed from employing servants to one where the womenfolk earned their livings. The watery grave of Milton’s friend is an ominous reminder of Hugh’s dangerous life as a submariner. One by one Hamer loses friends and family members to death, at times tragic. His son had sailed into the Mediterranean and died there. He concludes that his baby grandson is all that matters.

Nanking Road by Vicki Baum

Nanking Road is a long book from 1939. My copy is a 1940 hardback reprint having an inscription in blue ink on its half-title page. The neat hand is that of the Secretary of Carmel Baptist Chapel Sunday School at Briton Ferry. Dated April 1942, the text shows that the book was a gift to Leonard Poley on the occasion of his departure to serve in H. M. Forces. The church wished Leonard Divine Guidance and Protection. The General Register Office indexes show that he had just turned nineteen and that he returned safely to the Neath area where he married in 1948 and had at least two children.

Baum’s novel, which runs to over eight hundred pages, is based on Bloody Saturday, the day in August 1937 when bombs from the Chinese Air Force accidently landed on two hotels in the International Settlement of Shanghai. This was an area where Westerners lived in comfort and a refuge for Jews like Baum herself. The intended target were Japanese warships in the harbour at the beginning of the Chino-Japanese war. Baum uses her Shanghai Hotel as the location for the nine disparate people whose backgrounds she describes in Part 1 of the book.

The characters cross paths

In Part 2, the paths of the characters begin to cross to reveal an intricate network of relationships.  Tension builds as Baum shows how the characters are aware of the threat of war.  They hear the rumble of heavy lorries, warnings shouted by the paper boys and the noise of distant bombs. Out-of-order telephones are another sign of danger but the nine characters continue with their lives, their ambitions, their loves, their addictions. Baum’s knowledge of Chinese culture is deep, from the squalor of the coolies to the luxurious way of life in the tourist area. Drawing on her own visit to Shanghai, she creates a microcosm of Chinese society with its complicated politics, deep-seated traditions and opium dens. The hotel is the final destination of the nine and Baum ends by relating how they died:

How they died

A knock at the door and Yoshio is there returning Ruth’s books as the bomb falls on the hotel. Frank and Ruth die at the zenith of happiness, Yoshio as he bows in politeness, Bogum and Yutsing in the lift shaft. Kurt Planke escapes being arrested for stealing Bobbie Russell’s money, Emanuel Hain fails to commit suicide. The truth about Jelena Trubova will never be found and Lung Yen will never again see his son.

An interesting link is the fact that Baum owed her ultimate success to winning a literary contest where Thomas Mann was a judge. She took this opportunity to acknowledge him in a conversation towards the end of Nanking Road, giving the opening words to Kurt:

Thomas Mann says somewhere that difficult circumstances are the most favourable circumstances, or something of the sort, but he also says that there is nothing more unhygienic than life. For that reason…

“Who is Thomas Mann?” Sir Henry asked.

“You would not have heard of him, sir,” Kurt said airily. “A writer. Nobel Prize. The greatest living German. It doesn’t matter, anyway. What I wanted to say was this: Russell was born to the most fortunate circumstances: money, family, in a country of wealth, security and liberty. He had everything. Nevertheless he went to the dogs. That delights a fellow like me, sir.”

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St Exupery

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St Exupery is autobiographical. It describes the pilot’s experiences delivering mail. He worked in South America, Africa and other far-flung places under hazardous conditions. His writing style is indeed poetic and, even in translation from French, the book exudes beauty of language.

Terre des Hommes

By the time the book of publication in 1939, St Exupery had become a well-known writer, particularly of works about his career as an aviator. Chapter 1 begins in 1926 when he had taken up flying for the second time. He spent these early years on the Aeropostale route to West Africa over dangerous terrain and with few instruments. He describes navigating by geographical features including those in the title. In fact, the original title is Terre des Hommes, referring to his bird’s-eye view of the world – he often wrote from the cockpit.

The English translation has the more descriptive name. Galantiere translated the abridged version for the American public. Both versions earned the author literary prizes. It is therefore likely that Hugh knew of Wind, Sand and Stars before he left America. Did he draw comparisons with his own journeys into the unknown?

Meanwhile, St Exupery was living in New York! He transferred to Argentina in 1929 and draws extensively on the experiences of others there as well as his own. He became the director of operations and was instrumental in exploring new routes through the mountains.


In Chapter 4, there is mention of Joseph Conrad, who, according to his next letter, was another of Hugh’s favourite authors. Here, St Exupery talks about Conrad’s Typhoon (see Books for October 1941) not as the natural phenomenon but by way of the feelings and actions of the one who experienced it. Similarly, St Exupery goes on to describe the night he flew through a cyclone in terms of his reactions at the time. He talks of being ‘imprisoned in a valley’ and how, when his hands go numb, he repeatedly tell his fingers to work. These are mostly physical events in contrast to the emotions he feels upon reflection the following day.  Hugh reflected on his own danger in a similar way.

Sahara crash

The most gripping chapter is the one in which St Exupery describes the survival of himself and his mechanic after their crash in the Sahara. I decided to attempt a long-distance flight from Paris to Saigon. When, on 29 December 1935, I took off, I had no notion that the sands were preparing for me their ultimate and culminating ordeal.  From these words in the first paragraph of the chapter, St Exupery keeps the reader in suspense as the story unfolds. With little food and liquid, they walk for days not knowing whether they have crossed the Nile. Just when hallucinations are warning of their demise, a Bedouin on a camel comes to the rescue. Against expectations, he turns in their direction and saves them from death.

St Exupery’s reputation was such that, too old to be a fighter pilot in 1939, he took a reconnaissance role until the 1940 Fall of France.  Living in exile in USA, he hoped to persuade America to join the war. However, he also writes extensively on the futility of war and, in his concluding chapter, on the tragedy of poverty. His final sentence, in his ever-poetic style, is Only the Spirit, if it breathe upon the clay, can create Man.