Monday, 30 April 2012

Genesis of a Novel: Richard Nettell

Department of little-known authors. The previous post actually grew from pursuing the background to this pleasant little illustrated booklet, A Pictorial Guide to the Isle of Wight by RG Nettell. It's undated - I'd guess 1960 at the latest - and I'd never heard of the author; but Googling finds his full name is Richard Geoffrey Nettell.

I checked the name, because the booklet reveals him to be more than a writer of guidebooks. It ends with a bibliography of his novels (I've filled in the dates): Garfin's God (1948), Midsummer Spring (1943), Brose and Butter (1948), Drive the Dead Leaves (1940), Rum and Green Ginger (1946), Wait for the Wagon (1939), The Hearthstone Heart (1952), and An Island Romance (19??).

Google Books adds the non-fiction Your Career in Poultry Breeding (1946), and two more novels: Girl in Blue Pants (1967) and Naked to Mine Enemy (1968), the latter two works written in mid-life after what the Pooter column in The Times called "a bad patch":
In middle age a writer looking down can get vertigo. Richard Nettell published several novels before and during the war and then struck a bad patch. He had been an aircraft inspector and a pedigree-poultry breeder (which has its difficulties for a man with a crippled arm). Declining to look down, at 58 he wrote a contemporary story of a protest movement and then a historical romance.
- The Times, Saturday, Apr 27, 1968
I managed to hack from the Google Books snippet view a feature from the long-defunct journal Books and Bookmen. Genesis of a Novel is an enlightening piece by Nettell, giving a lot of autobiographical insights as well as the research background of his 1968 historical novel Naked to Mine Enemy.

Naked to Mine Enemy sounds a good yarn. It's set in part in the Isle of Wight during a turbulent period of history - the Anglo-French War of 1627-1629, part of the Thirty Years' War - around the time when George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was stabbed to death in a Portsmouth pub (an event fictionalized by Alexander Dumas in The Three Musketeers). The murder is generally accepted to have been committed by John Felton, a disgruntled and crippled veteran of the Duke's 1627 campaign; he did come forward and claim responsibility, apparently expecting to be let off because of the Duke's major unpopularity. He wasn't, and was hanged in 1628.

Nettell disagrees about Felton's guilt, considering that it was out of character and that there plenty of others who had it in for the Duke. This isn't the chief thrust of the story, however; the central plot concerns the romance between the widowed Lady Frances Worsley and Colonel Brett, Captain of Southsea Castle, starting from their initial mutual dislike, and leading to their eventual marriage, as told in a footnote (page 153) of The Oglander Memoirs.  Anyhow. I'll let the author explain further:

Genesis of a novel / Richard Nettell
An author on the thought and research which went into the making of his work of historical fiction — Naked to Mine Enemy just published by Hodder.

Literary advisers had been suggesting that the next book should be another historical romance: that my personal enthusiasms should be channelled into the setting, the period and the characters. This was because my first novel [Wait for the Wagon], which had 37 notices, was labelled 'historical' by the TLS; the Cornish setting around 1810-1840 was authentic and the principal characters had gravestones in Breage churchyard. Caroline Rowe was the heroine; she married Joel Andre-Wartha, my great-grandmother's eldest brother. Beyond the story, she remarried with another Joel. She is remembered as having said, 'Both Joels, and both devils!'

The publishers advanced £20 and remaindered 300 copies, if I remember correctly. It did not seem important at that time, in comparison with getting into print. A few years later a novel appeared with a similar theme; there was a distinct resemblance between the heroes— both simple, muscular country boys; one a wrestler, the other a shot putter. Each owed his athletic success to his girl's shrewd knowledge of the sport and to her coaching. Apart from these coincidental, a major incident in each had an amazing common factor. But this second story was a best-seller; it was filmed and its title is still featured on the writer's dust cover as his greatest achievement. This is interesting; nothing more. These things happen: a snip from an old Tribune reads, 'A public service is rendered every time a writer draws attention to George Douglas Brown's grim House With the Green Shutters, even if the rest of the article is devoted to Mr Cronin.'

[RG - I assume he's referring to David Harry Walker's 1950 Geordie, later filmed as Geordie].
My home is the Isle of Wight, where Blackpooling influences are felt but we still have large areas designated as of outstanding natural beauty. And we have many historical associations apart from King Charles' detention and his daughter's death in Carisbrooke Castle. Almost anyone who is anyone in English history crossed to the island — for sport, a wife, death or burial. John Donne came for bloodstones to cut for his friends' signet rings (anchors of hope): his poor wife, to her sister's for her twelfth baby. Edward VI was tutored by Dr Cheke from Mottistone. Elizabeth I took her Secretary of State, Walsingham, founder of the Secret Service, her divine and her physician from Newport, although she does not seem to have slept there. She was, as her ladies used to giggle, perhaps occupied elsewhere. In our most uppity hour, Charles I came with dukes, lords and earls by the dozen, to review troops bound for Rhé.

There had been a great time of building and prosperity about the second half of the 16th and the early 17th century. Shakespeare's Southampton, when he was Captain of the Wight, called it his little kingdom. Many of today's farmhouses are Jacobean.
For these years, the standby of all historians is the diary of Sir John Oglander of Nunwell — A Royalist's Notebook, edited by Francis Bamford, and The Oglander Memoirs, edited by WH Long. From reading these, years ago, I had remembered some footnotes had a recurring theme — 'Killed at the Isle of Rhé', 'Died in the first assault at Rhé', 'Died of wounds received at Rhé'. They aroused curiosity, and suggested a story with local impacts. Research discovered it, full of action, chivalry and terror, and a fearful slaughter through tragic ineptitude at the top. For the most part, England's hereditary leaders showed themselves as so much worm-eaten, dead wood.
Right! Next, the love story. It was there, in about a third of one page in the Notebook—a classic, ageless. What old Sir John told is perfect: the untold must have been excitingly problematical. A knight and baronet's widow, Lady Frances Worsley, was young and one of the handsomest little women that ever our island saw; a Neville— the family that produced Warwick the Kingmaker — and consciously proud of it: and wealthy, lying fallow five years, despising all men and with no liking for any save a numble, witty, dancing fellow.

A regiment was billeted on the island: a company in Godshill, just beyond her gates. Their captain was full cousin of the King's handsome favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, in supreme command of the expedition to Rhé. But this captain was burly, clumsy, not too clean in his linen, a soldier first and last, who felt himself unattractive to women.

The situation was gunpowder, and when they met, aversions sparked. It was Whoomph! and instant war. Her tongue could not lash him enough; he made duty an excuse to provoke her, unmercifully. Each recognised in the other something that made life exciting, a passionate out-and-out rejection.

War and separation worked on them. When he returned, he felt and looked fit only to die. She did the unbelievable, by taking him into her house. She set the island knights and gentry by the ears. Would she marry him? 'If she does not,' Sir John wrote, 'she'll do worse.' Personal involvement? Remember Duncan Crow's recap of the Yelverton caseTheresa. By the time he had told all he knew of that Victorian girl with her red-gold hair, one had the impression that he was more than a little in love with her — as, in fact, any reader could also be. Miss Margaret Body saw that much the same had happened over Frances. She fascinated.

I live only a few miles from her home. She must have looked from her windows  — now long demolished — towards my lane; often ridden that way. It is an ancient road, on the fringe between arable and marsh lands, under the downs. From my windows eight farms with names traceable in the Domesday Book are within sight, as well as Frances' Appuldurcombe. She was a kind of Shakespearian heroine: she lived, a personality, mature and articulate about herself. A dolly lady, it was impossible not to fall in love with her.

There are guest-characters. Buckingham and John Felton, who is said to have murdered him. Maybe he did. but I doubt it. Felton had a crippled hand; this would affect his character. No, Ian Nial [sic]. in his first novel, No Resting Place, had as his non-hero a tinker with a withered arm; nothing will convince me that successful story was not based on a fallacy. I had experienced what I am talking about.

At 18 months old, long before it became fashionable to call infantile paralysis poliomyelitis, I took it in my right arm and leg. At the sanatorium where the baby was sent for electrical shock treatment, he would begin after lunch, every day, lobbying the patients along the verandas, trying to find one who would persuade the nurses to wash, not bath him—a mini torture case.

I admire the disabled who occasionally appear on television; they are so rational, never having allowed themselves to be soured. At my age, that sort of thing no longer matters, but years ago I carried a chip. My mother cherished a photo showing me clutching a bat in my right hand, and a ball in my left; within my memory I have never been able to do that. It exonerated her, because it proved I had been born as normal as the others.

The early years are the Worst; grown-ups talk over a child's head, and his friends tell him the truth. I can remember, at the beginning of my scratchy education, the infant mistress who told me that gentleman always shook with his right hand. The implication sank in: no right hand worth offering, no gentleman! She was a Miss Longbotham — a gift to a small boy.

At that same school, an adored little girl said, 'Of course, no one will marry you!'. As it turned out, one I wanted, did. I cheated, naturally, by asking her at a moment when she was terrified by a violent thunderstorm; but the marriage lines were handed to her before she could change her mind.

I have a theory that society is embarrassed by disabled persons. It rejects them, as a means towards forgetting them. This is not so obvious when the disability is clean and surgical; then the courts and insurance step in to help. But the congenital, the virus infections and muscular degeneration are troublesome. There is a subconscious conviction that with any bodily disability goes a mental inferiority of the same ratio — an article in the Guardian of March 27, 1968, told of a home where the confused, the socially unpleasant and the physically disabled were all roomed up together. This is the folklore of punishment — act of God, the sins of the fathers' visiting! There is a superstitious reluctance to help us help ourselves, a fear of offending the Great Spirit. Thy will, not mine, O Lord. The classic example is the thalidomide case, when parents had to lean very heavily indeed on the Health Service to get an admission that the drug had been prescribed in each of the disastrous pregnancies. Have the babies even yet had official recognition of their right to security?

When Ernie Bevin scraped the barrel, he had us in training centres; those were the only years when society needed us. Collected up, we looked like the beggars out of Victor Hugo. Engineer, highly skilled, was my official classification. After the war, I was lucky to score Clerk. With redundancy, we were the first out. Only my wife's decision to work, on condition that I went back to writing, saved me from going on to Ice Cream Vendor. The disabled are back to the wall. Of course, SET finishes us; we shall be wiped off.

So, to Ian Nial's little tinker. A man with a withered arm might be aggressive, but he does not get himself into fights. He will avoid violence, because he is scared of losing what he has; he is already halfway towards helplessness. He will attack with words. That is why I believe that Felton never quite put through his intention of knifing Buckingham. The island was seething with discontent after forced loans and unpaid billeting; the Duke had dealth harshly with a crowd of women and children at St Martin, on Rhé; several apart from Felton were eager to settle accounts, and someone else did on that morning in Portsmouth.

- Books and Bookmen, Volume 13, 1967, pp402-403
There isn't much else online about Richard Nettell, except basic dates; he was born in 1907 and died in 1984. Wootton Bridge Historical's online reprints of Wight Life magazine have a portrait sketch of him. A number of directories of author pseudonyms mention that he also wrote short horror fiction under the pseudonym Richard Kenneggy. I suspect the award-winning literary journalist and children's books editor Stephanie Nettell is a relative.

- Ray

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