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Posts Tagged ‘Gertrude Trevelyan’

With thanks to Neglected Books and Boiler House Press for the review copy 

I am failing still to review the majority of books that I am reading, this month feels worse than ever. However, there is one recent read that I really wanted to tell you about. Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan is being re-issued by Boiler House Press on the 30th of November – so you’ve not long to wait, and it’s definitely one I recommend looking out for.  

Two Thousand Million Man-Power is an extraordinary novel. The title I would suggest, doesn’t immediately make one want to grab it off the shelf, though it is at least intriguing. Gertrude Trevelyan herself and her literary legacy has almost completely been wiped from history – funny how this always happens to women writers! During her lifetime she was very well regarded and published eight novels. Trevelyan was a very political and socially aware writer, and in this novel, she shows an extraordinary understanding to all that was happening around her in the later 1930s. However, as the introduction to this new edition explains Gertrude Trevelyan’s name has been completley excluded from all indexes of inter-war literature. So, it seems almost miraculous that Boiler House Press should have even heard of this novel, much less decide to re-issue it, a novel after more than eighty years in the wilderness brought back for a new generation of readers. So, if like me, you enjoy inter-war literature, especially that which highlights ordinary life in a realistic and unsentimental way, this is absolutely the novel you’ve been waiting for.  

The novel concerns Robert Thomas and Katherine Bott from New Year’s Eve 1919 until the funeral of King George V in 1936. Throughout these years they change and grow, experiencing youthful radical idealism, economic boom and bust, terrible poverty, unemployment and comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs with all the trappings. What Trevelyan does brilliantly however is to set her novel and place her characters very much in the context of everything that was happening in society and the wider world. Robert and Katherine move through their world in London against a backdrop of newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts and advertising slogans. The world of the 1920s and 1930s is realistically laid before us.  

“In streets of crowded tall houses and in wider streets of lower houses and on broad high-roads with houses spaced out by gardens and out in Surrey where new red villas were dropped among the pines, and down in the farms and manors of the West Country, and up through the Midlands and North in sudden huddled stacks and unexpected farmsteads, and in the crofters’ cottages and tumbledown castles of the Highlands and in solid Lowland homes and in grey Yorkshire towns and moorland farms and in fishing colonies down the coast, and on the flats of Essex, and in the small new houses beginning to sprout on the extreme northern edge of London, and in the brick and stucco villas, behind tight curtains, and in streets of crowded tall houses, the greater number of the forty-seven million one hundred and thirty-three thousand inhabitants of the British Isles slept or listened to the sounds of sleeping. The Reparations Conference had broken down in Paris: Allied proposals; over in Dublin police were potted at from doorways; civil war in Russia was practically over; Poland was making a defensive alliance with Rumania; in London the Reparations Conference was at it again: German counter proposals. In the early hours of the morning, down off Ladbroke Grove where a coster’s barrow here and there was on the move, Robert opened an eye and saw the room was still half dark and shut it again.”  

When we first meet Robert and Katherine, they are young and single each pursuring their own career, each living in rented rooms. They are both high minded individuals, full of idealism, they meet at an evening lecture after their day’s work. Robert is a research chemist with a cosmetics firm, Katherine is a London County council schoolteacher, with little affection for the children in her care. They begin a relationship, with all the ups and downs of most relationships, it will be several years before they actually marry and set up home together.  

The couple’s fortunes wax and wane – as do some of their youthful ideologies. They move to better, then worse properties, lose and gain employment. Acquire all the modern trappings of successful living, a car, a radio, modern furniture and then sell them again when times are hard.  

I am wary of giving too many spoilers here, but Trevelyan shows us how personalities and relationships are affected by economic changes. She also satirises rather beautifully the suburban bourgeoise life. This is no cosy, love story, it is a realistic portrait of a very believable couple living a very believable life. Robert is easily the most likeable of the two – Katherine is changed too much by her experiences of difficult times, but even as a young, single schoolteacher, she seems more pragmatic than Robert.  

Gertrude Trevelyan is a name which deserves to sit alongside the other literary giants of her generation, and it is good news indeed that this novel is being made available again.  

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