November 23, 2023
Robert Keable claimed in the introduction to the American edition of Simon Called Peter that his intention was to ‘lift the veil’ on the life behind the lines during the war. He argued that the horror of war made men and women less restrained, ‘reckless’ and willing to throw ‘conventions to the winds’. And he suggested life in France was like the pages of La Vie Parisienne:
A man arrived, weary and dirty and craving for excitement, in some unknown town; in half an hour he had stepped into the gay glitter of wine and women's smiles; in half a dozen he had been whirled away. The days lingered and yet flew; the pages were twirled ever more dazzlingly; only at the end men saw in a blinding flash whither they had been led.
Many of the scenes in Simon Called Peter capture this way of life, with men gambling, womanising and drinking to excess. For the most part we see this activity through the eyes of the protagonist, Chaplain Peter Graham, a very innocent young man newly arrived in France.
Although Simon Called Peter is a novel, much of the detail of the book is accurate. In particular, the descriptions of streets and buildings in Le Havre which Keable remembered from his time serving there as chaplain to the SANLC.
For this article I am going to consider the references in the novel to pinups. It is not surprising to learn that the soldiers had posters and postcards of women on the walls where they slept and in the officers’ mess, but I was intrigued by the number of references in the novel and the specific images that are referenced.
Robert Keable wrote Simon Called Peter in three weeks while staying in a remote house on the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains in 1919. That first draft was barely changed before the book was published two years later. So had he remembered the name of particular post card series or had he bought some of the cards home to Basutoland with him so he could refer to them?
Kirschner or Kirchner
The first reference to pinups in Simon Called Peter comes when Peter Graham is initially sent to Rouen to work in the No.5 Rest Camp. He meets his fellow chaplain Harold, a Presbyterian minister, who shows him around and then takes him to the officer’s mess.
Peter glanced curiously round. The place was very cheerful – a fire burning and gay pictures on the wall. ‘Rather neat, isn't it, padre?’ queried Harold. ‘By the way, you've got to dub up a picture. Everyone in the mess gives one. There's a blank space over there that'll do nicely for a Kirschner (sic), if you're sport enough for that, Jenko'll show you where to get a topper.’
Intriguingly Kirchner’s name is misspelt throughout Simon Called Peter. Raphael Kirchner was perhaps the most famous pinup artist of the era. He was born in Austria but moved to Paris in 1900, aged 24, and worked there for fourteen years as an illustrator for such magazines as La Vie Parisienne. He produced over a thousand paintings and drawings in his lifetime many of which came in the form of picture postcards. The majority of his postcards were mildly erotic images of women which were popular with British and American soldiers during the war.
Kirchner gets a second mention in Simon Called Peter. Peter Graham goes on a wild goose hunt trying to get someone to authorise a change to his movement order and ends up in a large room outside the office of the Deputy Assistant Officer controlling Transport at 153 Rue de la Republique in Rouen. Leaning on the counter he studies ‘the Kirschner (sic) girls on the walls’ and goes on to comment:
These added a certain air to the otherwise forlorn place, but when, a little later, W.A.A.C.'s were installed, a paternal Government ordered their removal.
The third and final mention of Kirchner cards comes later in the novel when Peter and the young nurse Julie go shopping for name place cards for a New Year’s Eve dinner party they are organising. They meet at the main department store in le Havre – Nouvelles Galeries.
At the stationery department [Julie] made eyes at a couple of officers, and insisted on examining Kirschner [sic] picture-postcards, some of which she would not show him. ‘You can't possibly be seen looking at them with those badges up,’ she whispered. ‘Dear me, … I don't know which packet I like best. These have got very little on, Peter, very little, but I'm not sure that they are not more decent than those. It's much worse than a camisole, you know....’
La Vie Parisienne
Kirchner postcards are not the only source of pinups mentioned in the novel. Peter is shown to his room – at the rest camp – by Pennell, a lieutenant in the Royal engineers.
The little room was bare, except for a table under the window... Pennell switched on the light and found it working correctly, and then sauntered across the couple of yards or so of the cubicle's width to look at the remains of some coloured pictures pasted on the wooden partition.
‘Last man's made a little collection from La Vie Parisienne for you, padre,’ he said, ‘Not a very bright selection, either. You'll have to cover them up, or it'll never do to bring your A.C.G. or A.P.C., or whatever he is, in here. What a life!’ he added, regarding them. ‘They are a queer people, the French....’
La Vie Parisienne was a popular French magazine which ran for over one hundred years from 1863 to 1970. Originally it covered sport, theatre, music, arts and new novels but when a new editor took over in 1905 it evolved into a more risqué erotic publication, still covering culture and politics but introducing articles on sexuality. Julie was clearly a fan as Peter buys her a copy in London when buying her treats for the weekend.
Browsing a French bookshop
It is only when Peter goes out with his friend Langton in Le Havre that we see how much more liberal the French public were than the English.
The big bookshop at the corner detained them for a little, and they regarded its variegated contents through the glass. It contained a few good prints, and many more poorly executed coloured pictures of ruined places in France and Belgium, of which a few, however, were not bad. Cheek by jowl with some religious works, a statue of Notre Dame d'Albert, and some more of Jeanne d'Arc, were a line of pornographic novels and beyond packets of picture post-cards entitled Théâtreuses, Le Bain de la Parisienne, Les Seins des Marbre, and so on. Then Langton drew Graham's attention to one or two other books, one of which had a gaudy cover representing a mistress with a birch-rod in her hands and a number of canes hung up beside her, while a girl of fifteen or so, with very red cheeks, was apparently about to be whipped. ‘Good Lord,’ said Langton, the French are beyond me’.
There are a couple of things to unpack from this passage. Who would have known, but it turns out that flagellation fiction flourished in France in the early 20th century. Authors such as Dom Brennus Alera, Aime Van Rod, Miss Sadie Blackeyes, Jean de Virgans and Jacques d’Icy – presumably all working under pseudonyms – each wrote many such books. So, seeing one or two books of that type in the shop window is not that surprising.
Nor was it surprising to find packets of picture postcards. What I do find interesting is that a quick google search produces images of the three titles Keable mentions. All three of them were painted by Maurice Millière a French painter who was actually born in Le Havre although he moved to work in Paris. He also worked as an illustrator for La Vie Pariesienne as well as producing many postcards of 'petites femmes'. Below are the three titles mentioned in Simon Called Peter.
I am not sure whether Robert Keable would have been shocked by what he saw or whether he took any of the postcards back to Basutoland after he returned to France. Years later when he was in Australia he bought a couple of etchings by the famous Australian artist Norman Lindsay. Sadly there is no record of the subject of the etchings but Lindsay was famous for his sensual book illustrations.