Talk for branches of the Family History Society

Discovering Robert Keable, the utterly immoral WW1 chaplain?

Many thanks for your very interesting talk this morning.  It's left most of us feeling rather envious because we don't know an enormous amount about our grandfather's.

Hon Sec Woolwich & District FHS

In this talk Simon Keable-Elliott explains how he uncovered the true story of Robert Keable and his scandalous WW1 novel, Simon Called Peter. He discusses the sources he used – including photographs, books, letters, census findings, passenger lists, government documents, diaries, interviews and a visit to Tahiti – to discover the truth. He details some of the research successes and failures he faced along the way. In doing so tells the story of Robert Keable’s life and the impact and reception to his novel.

Robert Keable was a chaplain in the First World War who, after the war, wrote Simon Called Peter, which shone a light on life behind the front lines during the war. The central story centred on an affair between a chaplain and a nurse. The book was slated by the critics and considered so ‘utterly immoral’ by F Scott Fitzgerald that he mocked it in The Great Gatsby. It became a huge international bestseller and despite being banned in parts of America went on to spawn a Broadway play and the sequel became a Hollywood Movie.

The author’s life was truly extraordinary. As a child he was an evangelical preacher. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, became a priest, worked in Zanzibar and Basutoland as a missionary and gained a reputation as a writer of devotional books. He recruited black labourers to help with the war effort and in 1917 travelled to France as chaplain to the SANLC. Witnessing the appalling racism the men faced ‘changed him’, as well as an affair with a 19 year-old lorry driver called Jolie. He left the church and after a year as a teacher back in England he fled the country to go and live in Paul Gauguin’s house in Tahiti. He continued to write and later ‘married’ a Tahitian princess.

Simon Keable-Elliott is Robert Keable and Jolie’s’s grandson and he has been researching Robert Keable’s life and work for the last thirty years. He has been in touch with many academics about different aspects of Robert Keable’s life. In July 2021 he took early retirement following 25 years as a secondary school politics teacher and now works as a full-time writer and lecturer. His first book Utterly Immoral, Robert Keable and his scandalous novel was published in November 2022. He has written an article for Your Genealogy on his trip to Tahiti.

Simon Keable-Elliott has spoken at the following FHS meetings:

  • West Surrey Family History Society - 16th Nov 2022 - 7.30pm
  • Woolwich & District Family History Society - 12th July 2023 - 11.00am
  • Hillingdon Family Hisorty Society - 13th July 2023 - 7.30pm  

If you require any further information, please do email Simon on [email protected] or use the contact page to send a message.