Why novelist Robert Keable deserves a reappraisal

A review for 'Utterly Immoral', by Mariano Torrespico

Where there is Controversy, there is Fact and Fun and Life!
Yes, now is the time to resurrect the works of the novelist Robert Keable, because he speaks truth about power and what great sport the One Per Cent have at the expense of people and the precious lies they are taught to believe. Moreover, that the stylist F.S. Fitzgerald disliked Simon Called Peter (1921) bespeaks a novel of literary merit, if not decent literary art.

Whole-heartedly recommended

A review for 'Utterly Immoral', by Dr George Simmers, Great War Fiction,

Simon Keable-Elliott is the grandson of the novelist Robert Keable, and is understandably interested in his grandfather’s life and work – and especially in Simon called Peter, the book that caused outrage in Britain when published in 1921. It is the story of an Anglican clergyman who goes to war as a chaplain, but starts to lose his faith, partly because the soldiers are not interested in his religious message. He also becomes fascinated by the ‘painted ladies’ who cluster near the soldiers’ bases. Then he meets Julie, a beautiful and very obliging nurse, and he discovers the meaning of life. I read the book a while ago, and thought it highly readable tosh – but it was a huge best-seller (30,000 copies in a year) and undoubtedly spoke to some of the concerns and anxieties of it time. Utterly Immoral: Robert Keable and his Scandalous Novel is the fruit of Simon Keable-Elliott’s researches, and is whole-heartedly recommended to anyone interested in the period, or in representations of the Great War.

Robert Keable was born into a strict evangelical household; his father was particularly hostile to Catholicism and to the ritualism that the Oxford Movement had worked to introduce into Anglicanism. At Magdalene College, Cambridge, he had spiritually drifted Rome-wards, but became an Anglican priest, first in Bradford, and then in Zanzibar, where he was an enthusiastic missionary, teacher and scoutmaster. In 1914 he tried to enlist as an Army chaplain. He was rejected, maybe because Bishop Taylor-Smith, the Chaplain-General to HM Forces, was himself from the evangelical wing of the Church, and suspicious of anyone with a hint of ritualism about them. Keable later probably tried to enlist as a soldier, but was rejected on the grounds of physical unfitness. (Quite a few young clergymen did enlist, despite the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decree that being a combatant was incompatible with being a priest.)

Keable and his wife went to Basutoland (today known as Lesotho), where he preached enthusiastically in favour of the war effort. Then in 1916 the South African Government announced the formation of the SANLC (the South African Native Labour Corps). When the corps recruited in Basutoland, Keable encouraged his parishioners to join; they would by African standards, be well-paid, at £3 a month, which they could send home to their families. Nearly 1,400 men from Basutoland were enrolled, and chaplains who could speak Basuto were needed,

Keable-Elliott’s chapter on the SANLC is the most interesting in the book. He details the poor treatment of the men; they were housed in camps, much like prisoners-of-war, and their diet was so poor that there were outbreaks of scurvy. Keable was unhappy at the treatment of the men he had encouraged to enlist, and this undoubtedly contributed to his disillusionment. The hero of Simon Called Peter is also a chaplain to a labour corps, but an English one, not African. His disillusionment comes from his increasing sense of the irrelevance of Christianity to the men he was supposed to be caring for.

Peter in the novel falls for a nurse called Julie; Keable was captivated by one called Jolie. He had been married before the war, but it would seem not to have been a union of much sensuous delight. With Jolie Buck, Keable experienced a transformation which, being the religious-minded man he was, he translated into spiritual terms.

Keable-Elliott is very good on the book’s reception, and the outraged reviews that doubtless added to the novel’s sales. He follows Keable through an unsatisfactory period of schoolmastering to a time when he could credibly live on the proceeds of his writing.

Keable and Jolie had parted at the end of the war, but were reunited and went eventually to live in Tahiti (in Gaugin’s house). Keable’s devout wife would never grant him a divorce, but Jolie changed her surname to Keable, and they lived together as man and wife, until she died in childbirth.

Keable-Elliott is very good on the fuss surrounding the novel, and on its afterlife (in an American stage production, for example) but does not go in for much literary analysis of Keable’s books, though he quotes interestingly from contemporary reviews. At the time, many who were not outraged considered Simon Called Peter a good book. Is it?

It was Ezra Pound (I think) who produced the tag: ‘Literature is news that stays news.’ by that reckoning, Simon Called Peter is not literature. It spoke to its time, but its concerns have dated. The novel appeared just after the Great War, in which many young people had left the limiting influences of home and family, and had become aware of sexual freedom, and also of religious ideas beyond those of their local church. Simon Called Peter spoke to their concerns and uncertainties, and suggested a new way of thinking beyond conventional sexual morality. The ideas are not so new or surprising now. D.H. Lawrence did the fiction of sexual liberation much better, and even he has, apart from his best work, dated.

So I can’t see the book producing any great resurgence of interest in Robert Keable and his writings – but I can see that this is a book that will be of great interest to anyone trying to understand the literary aftermath of the war. It was a different world a century ago, and this is a book that takes us to some little-known corners of it.

Why we should be interested in Robert Keable

A review for 'Utterly Immoral', by Dr Stephen Lock, former BMJ editor

A Cambridge educated missionary who travels with some of his flock to serve on World War’s Western Front, then becomes a notorious author and finally after world-wide travel restores Gauguin’s house in Tahiti, and settles there. Such might be stuff of a novel – an English counterpart perhaps to The Great Gadsby – but it is the true account of his grandfather’s life by Simon Keable-Elliott. Keable-Elliott, whose father extended his surname, avoids the trap of many family biographers – too many or too boring facts and comments – and his deft prose makes the case why we should be interested in Robert Keable. He shows why his was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s. Though he published 19 books, it was Simon called Peter that evoked his fame, being varyingly reviewed as the best novel of the war or reeking of drink and lust. The book is still available today though Keable, arguably a key figure of he 1920s, is totally forgotten and even absent from the Dictionary of National Biography.  Historians of the Great War might find in the novel and this biography a uniquely fresh description of the privations and abuse undergone by the African auxiliaries, whose ordeals Keable tried to champion.

My Interesting grandfather

A review for 'Utterly Immoral', by Ian Keable (Simon's brother)

I have learnt plenty from this book which I didn’t know. I thoroughly recommend it. It is extensively researched, well written, a good length for an easy read, full of photographs and, although I say it myself, my grandfather certainly packed plenty into his relatively short, and fascinating, life.


A review for 'Utterly Immoral', by Dr Stephen Lock

One of the advantages of being very old is that you can spend the whole day reading if you have the right book. And so I have just finished yours, with great admiration (how your father would have admired the deft way in which you handle so many strands)

Fascinating Book of fascinating man

A review for 'Utterly Immoral', by Trevor

I really enjoyed and learnt from this book which flowed well: I loved the way the three themes were drawn together - the book, the man and importantly, the times. Highly recommended.
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