Despised and Rejected by A.T. Fitzroy (the pseudonym for Rose Allatini) was not only one of the  first novels to be written about the Great War when it was released in the spring of 1918, it also staked out a position which it continues to share with very few novels, as a great outlier from the common expectations of war fiction.

Universally expected to be over by Christmas, 1914, WWI was still, horrifically, going on as 1918 dawned. Few war-themed novels had been released in any of the belligerent countries.  Short stories  by Arthur Machen, Rudyard Kipling and D.H. Lawrence had appeared in literary magazines. Poems by Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke and Ezra Pound had been published, as well as thousands by patriotic British in daily newspapers.  H.G. Well’s Mr Britling Sees It Through, a stiff upper lip, home-front novel had been published in 1916. In France, the most widely read, and damning of war novels, La Feu (Under Fire) by Henri Barbusse  was published in 1916 and translated to English almost immediately.  It sold over 300,000 copies in France alone.  In the United States,  its troops just barely on French soil,  Ellen Newbold La Motte, a frontline nurse in France, wrote a scathing collection, The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse¹; Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel Home Fires in France and Edith Wharton’s The Marne also appeared. In Germany Ernst Junger’s celebrated Storm of Steel was two years in the future.  The great surge of WWI fiction was to wait until 1929 with Remarque’s  All Quiet in the Western Front, Hemingway’s, A Farewell to ArmsDeath of a Hero by Richard Aldington, and the first of The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederick Manning.  Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy did not appear until 1930.

Despised and Rejected, is not a war-combat novel.  Like Wells’ Mr. Britling, it is set entirely in England, during a time of war.  Unlike Wells, it takes up very fraught matters, under one rubric, that of “abnormality.” It was was banned as soon as it was released, a scandal on two fronts: pacifism, not only as social fact, but as well argued, cogent, arguments strongly advanced.  Young, healthy men are willing to go to prison, endure hard labor and straight-jacket enforced solitary confinement, rather than fight.   

And, two of the men are homosexuals – in love with each other.  A third major character, Antoinette is, in the early pages, entirely smitten by an older woman.  Worse, though the deprecatory  adjectives of the time are applied, to and by, the characters themselves  — “abnormal,” “disgusting”–  the viewpoint of the narrator, reinforced by many stirring conversations and exhortations, is that they should by fully included in society; they are born the way they are and no different from others in their predilections, abilities, and humanity.

On publication it received damning reviews.  The main male character, Dennis, has an “abnormality” which one reviewer says “cannot be mentioned.” Another calls it “hideous,” and the book itself a “literary fungus.”  A few were more neutral, one calling it “well-written”  though because of its subject matter “not to be recommended for general reading.” The publisher, C.W. Daniel, was prosecuted within the year.  Unsold copies were confiscated –not however for obscenity, of which many saw much, but for  the likelihood “it would interfere with recruiting.”  After paying his fine, Daniel, avowed he had not recognized  the nature of “certain passages.”  

Allatini herself had published five previous novels, under her own name – several concerned with the morality of killing, and one about mixed-race issues.  She was known in English literary circles of the time, including to Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury group, though not apparently with much favor.  By the time of her death, in 1980, she had written some fifty novels, under various pen names.   Her authorship of the scandalous book was not known for some time; it was assumed to have been written by a man,  A.T. Fitzroy.

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The novel opens in the summer of 1914, just weeks before the war begins.  In a comfortable summer hotel families are gathered. We are introduced to Mrs. Blackwood, and her two sons:  Dennis, the older, and more “sensitive,” hopes to be composer; Clive, the younger, is a sportsman and keen to sign up for military service as soon as he is of age. For several years,  father and elder son have not seen eye-to-eye;  he is  “perhaps more his mother’s son than his father’s” is the coy suggestion.  Dennis, for his part, “disliked the whole, coarse, overbearing masculinity” of his father. 

Visiting from London, is Antoinette, young and quite unaware that her crush on Hester Cawthorne, is out of the ordinary, perhaps nothing more than a normal schoolgirl crush.

“She was strangely attracted by this woman, with the sombre hooded eyes and down-curved mouth that seemed to speak of much  bitterness and disillusion. “

Mrs. Blackwood, as mothers will do, sees in her a lively engaging girl, one who might make a very good match for her eldest.  Dennis and Antoinette, however, sense something different.

Antoinette asks  “So you, too, are a square peg?”

“He looked at her intently with his clear brown eyes, that were large and curiously soft under his jutting brows.  ‘Yes.’  Then, at a venture, ‘Like yourself…’ and still his eyes held, as if seeing some response, some sign by which he might know that she knew the answer to his riddle.

… A sudden wave of feeling came over Antoinette; love so intense as to be almost pain … “Impossible to express and impossible to be set free—.” In her thoughts she was unconsciously echoing Dennis’s words.  Then, half-aloud: “Perhaps some day it will be set free!”

After the summer holiday, Dennis sets off on a very English ramble with a male friend, not intimate, and begins to think of Antoinette as someone dear and near.  She, meanwhile has visited Hester, with great expectations, only to find out that she is having an affair with a married man.  That love unrequited, she begins to respond to warm and engaging letters Dennis has been sending her.

And then.  Alan. 

Dennis walks into a village smithy to have a look at local work and customs.  He sees a young man “…showing every ripple of the muscles under the fine skin.”   With a miss-blow of the hammer, hot metal strikes Alan’s foot.  Dennis comes to his assistance, with handkerchief to bind it and a shoulder to lean on going back to the hotel.

Alan is the son of a wealthy mining family which wants him to take over the business.  Alan is resistant. The two form an instant friendship, over art and  music and city living.   Alan says it was like  “meeting someone from a world I’ve almost forgotten; ” double entendre seen to some.

And Dennis?

“All night long his heart throbbed to a new and strange music ; and his brain found utterance for that music that was as virile and splendid as the one who had inspired it.” 

But, in England, in 1914,  “he must tear himself away from a danger doubly dangerous, because, far from wishing to avoid it, he longed to succumb to it.” 

And so Dennis and Antoinette place their hopes of pushing back forbidden thoughts on each other.  The end of July is the occasion of a summer ball, and of course the beginning of the war.  Trying to be a good dance partner, and companion to Antoinette, Dennis is more and more troubled.

“…part of himself was being tortured, beating against the prison bars…crying out for help, for understanding to a world that would neither help nor understand, but condemn him to eternal suppression, eternal loneliness.”  

Meanwhile his father, and others of the older generation, want to know what he is going to do about the war.  (Conscription would not come to England for another year and a half). His brother is ready for training.  Other men in their circles are signing up.

“He had no desire to feel his hand upon the hilt of his sword… the whole things was damnable and stupid, and cruel; and so was all the talk and bombast with which everyone strove to gloss over the fact that it was damnable, and stupid, and cruel … pretended that it was a noble thing, a glorious game which every Englishman should be proud to be playing.” 

His father inveighs against him:  

“Your views are disgraceful, sir. Why, to hear you, anyone would think you were pro-Hun.”

“I’m not pro-anything that’s driving millions of innocent people to slaughter and be slaughtered by each other.”

His brother Clive has cold contempt for him.

With this, the pacifist themes heat up.  Dennis moves to London to be away from the constant condemnation of his family;  he and Antoinette find themselves encountering other war objectors at a neighborhood tea house, some more militant than others.  They continue trying to locate  the nature of their friendship: 

“He kissed her with a fervour that seemed to increase in the same proportion as their mental affinity seemed to diminish.” 

She is aware of the disconnect.  When he proposes, she turns him down, but pleads that he remain a part of her life.  For his part, he feels he has understood, at last.  He writes her a letter, breaking off connection. 

” … he found sufficient energy to break away from the deadlock, to end this wearisome game of pretence.  He had thought that with Antoinette he could escape definitely from his abnormality.” 

And then. Alan.

The conscription Bill has been passed (January 1916.) Alan has become a militant pacifist.  He appears one day in the coffee house, surprising both of them.  His views  are fully worked out:

“Beefy, sanctimonious old men, sitting there to tell me it’s my duty to go out and take my share in murdering peasant-boys and students and labourers … And the same sorry old men on their side, egging them on to fight us, with just the same platitudes about duty and honour, and self-defence, saying that we declared war first, just as we say they sprung the war on us.  And the capitalists of all countries coining money out of bloodshed. … The only way to stop the war–not only this war, but all future wars, is by opposing conscription.” 

The question of accepting non-combatant service swirls among the men.  For some, serving as medics, or working in war-necessary industry is a solution.  For Alan, and following him, Dennis, it is not:

“The despicable compromise some men make with their conscience … they think they’re obeying the letter of the law if they don’t bear arms… but they’re scarcely obeying the spirit when the accept work in the munitions-factories, or otherwise release men to be killed in their place.”

Dennis’ mother, has, with so many, grown more patriotic:

“Would that I could give more, and that with impassioned rhetoric I could fire the blood of every coward who lags behind and does not avail himself of the glorious privilege of dying for his country…! 

The trials for war refusers begin.  Alan is sent to prison, from time to time locked into solitary confinement, at least once in a straight-jacket.   Militant about the war, he is also militant about his/their own truth.  During a visit, Dennis, still evading what he knows, says  “I mustn’t take what would really satisfy me.”   Alan responds:

“Then at least accept the fact that you are as you are, and don’t try to pervert yourself into something you never will be … It’s no use running away.  Because you’ll never get away.  We’re made like that; why not look things straight in the face?”

Dennis, resolved as to the war if not to his whole self, refuses non-combatant service, is tried and is sent to prison.

As the novel closes, Antoinette and a friend, keep the memory of their friends alive, in stirring praise.  “Dennis has,” the man says: :

” a woman’s passion as well as a man’s for Alan …  We want more light, more breathing-space, more tolerance and understanding: not this narrow-minded wholesale condemnation…”

Antoinette joins in:

“Everybody seems to imagine that you’re abnormal because you like being abnormal… just as they imagine that men go to prison because they like it better than going to the Front.  As if being different from normal people weren’t curse enough in itself , without having  them think it’s your own choice, and that you enjoy being different.”

She asks him if he thinks Dennis will be all right in prison.  “Yes,” he answers and they, like those who have gone to the front, overcoming their fears,  are heroes … “it is right what they do  – for the love of these, and to save these and such as these in the generations to come that Alan and Dennis and others like them are making their sacrifice. “

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And so it ends, with ideas and whole sentences which could have been said again in the 1960s and 70s, as young men went to prison, refusing conscription and refusing to kill others who were being told the kill them.  Gay liberation which took off in July of 1969 at the Stonewall riots, advanced arguments almost identical to those of the novel, though reaching critical mass and largely, over decades, creating some of the space and tolerance called for.

That being said, the novel, to our modern expectations, is a bit obviously didactic, too plot driven and narrator heavy, as though Allatini, empathetic and observant, but not herself sundered by the passions of her characters, were writing  pamphlets urging tolerance and understanding.  Love between men, and between woman, though unrequited, is written of, with recognition of emotional suffering but no psychological probing or deep emotional struggles. 

It’s value to readers today will be more for historical interest than for deep accounts of love and fear, or pacifism and organizing in the face of virulent opprobrium.  It may also cause us to reflect on authorial courage – daring to write about “the love that dare not speak its name.”  The highly publicized, and scandalous trial of Oscar Wilde, for “gross indecency,” and his subsequent imprisonment at hard labor was scarcely a generation away.  The law used for the conviction, the 1895 Labouchere Amendment, was still very much in effect, and was so until 2003.  It was also used against Alan Turing, the famous breaker of the Nazi Enigma codes, at his trial in 1952; instead of hard labor, as for Wilde, he accepted chemical castration, and died of cyanide poisoning two years later. Allatini couldn’t have predicted the specifics of the reaction to her novel, but was certainly aware that there would be loud outcry and possible legal penalties.  Yet, she wrote. 

The only other novel I know of to center on both war and homosexuality, is John Boyne’s  the Absolutist, (1971) [My review here.].  

It is also worth mentioning that 1918 also saw the publication in England, by another woman, of a novel of the Homefront, and the effects of the war.  Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, about what we now call PTSD, was one of her earliest novels, and one more more recognizably “literary” than Allatini’s.

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¹ La Mott’s novel, The Backwash of War, (1916) was also banned in England and in France for it’s graphic descriptions of war injury and despair.  The opening lines of the opening story are a warning:

“When he could stand it no longer, he fired a revolver up through the roof of his mouth, but he made a mess of it. The ball tore out his left eye, and then lodged somewhere under his skull, so they bundled him into an ambulance and carried him, cursing and screaming, to the nearest field hospital.”

It sold well in the U.S. until, of course, American soldiers were sent to the war.