Utterly Immoral

Utterly Immoral

Robert Keable and his scandalous novel

28 Nov 2022

Slated by critics, dubbed ‘utterly immoral’ by F Scott Fitzgerald and mocked in The Great Gatsby, Robert Keable’s novel Simon Called Peter became a worldwide bestseller. It was turned into a Broadway play, its sequel made into a Hollywood movie, and it transformed its author, a Cambridge-educated priest, into an international celebrity.
Utterly Immoral traces Robert Keable’s experiences from Croydon to Basutoland and on to France as a WW1 chaplain to mistreated black labourers. It examines the novel’s success, Keable’s loss of faith, his escape to Tahiti with his secret lover, and his final relationship with an island princess.

Fascinating Book of fascinating man


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.

My Interesting grandfather

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.


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

Louise G, book reviewer for NetGalley

Even if you know nothing of the subject's work, this is a fascinating book which spans many fascinating contexts. The author explores in detail all aspects of the subject's life and does not shy away from difficult or challenging topics.


Why we should be interested in Robert Keable

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.

Why novelist Robert Keable deserves a reappraisal

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.

An Important Book

Professor Ronald Hyam, Emeritus Fellow and former President of Magdalene College, Cambridge

I have read this and found it very good, a welcome and comprehensive account of a Magdalene man, famous in his day. An important book.

A book for all true book lovers

Robin P Reviewer for NetGalley

Everyone who loves English literature should already know who Robert Keable was. For those who don't: he was a parish priest, missionary in Africa, chaplain during World War One, an inspiring teacher, and for many years a closet Catholic, but he is best remembered as the author of a saucy novel which caused a big stir in the 1920s.

Keable's grandson has written a thoroughly researched book with honesty and compassion and it is much more than just a biography with important reappraisals of Keable's novels and the context in which they were received. The details of life in Africa and Tahiti a century ago are particularly well written and fascinating. A book for all true book lovers.

Whole-heartedly recommended

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.

Hidden gems

Gail, C, book reviewer for NetGalley

I was drawn to read Utterly Immoral as I knew nothing about Robert Keable and I was curious about this unconventional person.

Overall, there are some hidden gems of information in this book.  Keable's first hand accounts of being in Africa as a young clergyman are refreshingly honest. His struggles with his convictions were real, and proved to be so overwhelming that he changed the course of his life.  The war experience is also very interesting, and remarkable that he made such remarks and was not banished into obscurity. He painted soldiers and war life without the brutal fighting.

Most of the book is a discussion of his books. The one that sets his career into a staggering direction is the controversial Simon Called Peter.  Without having read the book, the book seems to have caused a stir in the literary world and gotten Robert on the road to being a writer, and certainly a well paid one as time went on.

The book also discussed his personal life, his wife, the other women and his time in Tahiti where he seemed very happy until his early passing.

There is too much information on all the reviews of his books, and the back and forth with his editors on publishing rights, money and where the book would be a movie, a play etc. It got redundant for me, and I wish it concentrated more on his decisions about his children and his wives.

The story of a short and colourful life

Susan J, reviewer for NetGalley

Robert Keable, born into an Evangelical family, was fated to follow his father into the Anglican Church.  But he was, even as a youngster, someone with a mind of his own and by the time he was in University, he had already dismissed the evangelical bent and was questioning his faith and where he could best use it.  He went as a missionary to Africa and was a man ahead of his time in how he viewed the native people.  But it was when he convinced and then accompanied them to France during WWI, their treatment and the brutality of war made him question everything.

He’d been a writer already but the book he wrote- Simon Called Peter- not only created the final schism from his life as a minister but shocked the reading public.  Utterly immoral was what F Scott Fitzgerald called it.  And it was something very modern in its themes and storyline.  What would have shocked even more was the story was autobiographical.  Utterly Immoral is written by his grandson and tells the story of his short but colourful life.  It follows his journey all over the world, living common law with his mistresses and marching to his own drummer. 

He lived two lives, one traditional and public;  the other was unconventional but private.  He was an unusual man for his time and his story is quite compelling.  Four purrs and two paws up.  .

Fascinating! A book for people who love literary history!

Alice - verified purchase on Amazon

Utterly Immoral follows the life of Robert Keable, the author of an incredibly controversial book - Simon Called Peter - and the fallout after publication. The life of Keable is incredibly interesting, from his literary works to his work in Besotholand, and gives a real insight into his experiences and the autobiographical nature of his novels. I would highly recommend this book to anybody with a keen interest in literary history!

I heartily recommend this well-written and engaging book.

Mandy J, Reviewer for NetGalley

Written by his grandson, and meticulously researched, this biography of largely forgotten author Robert Keable is a wonderfully enlightening and absorbing account of an unconventional and unusual man and writer. His most notorious and controversial novel Simon Called Peter (also definitely worth reading) became a huge international best-seller and a real succès de scandale. Simon Keable-Elliot has done a stellar job in recounting his grandfather’s life and also provides intelligent and insightful analysis of his writings. Robert Keable is a real discovery for me, and I heartily recommend this well-written and engaging book.


Faith and Fame

Nigel Cave for Western Front Association

This is a biography of author Robert Keable (1887-1927), who lived a short but quite extraordinary life that carried him from suburban Croydon to Tahiti, via Cambridge, southern African and the Western Front. Ordained as an Anglican priest, Keable was a chaplain attached to the South African Native Labour Contingent for about a year from mid 1917 to August 1918. Keable ministered to the SANLC at the communication ports of Rouen and Le Havre. A book he wrote on the unit whilst on leave in England in February 1918 never made it to the booksellers as it was deemed to fall foul of censorship regulations and was destroyed. No copies remain but we know that he was critical of the treatment of the SANLC and perhaps felt guilty that he had urged his parishioners to join it in the first place.

His time near the front lines was limited to a short stint at a dressing station; it is likely to have had a considerable impact on him, but it was not sufficient for him to lose his faith. He felt that, apart from the Roman Catholic chaplains, those of other Christian denominations might best be used in close conjunction with the work of the YMCA and similar organizations.

This wartime period of his life takes up directly about twenty pages of the book, though of course its influence is a running thread for much of it. Certainly it provided the backdrop and inspiration for his most famous book, Simon Called Peter (1920). This was a semiautobiographical work about a chaplain who falls in love with a nurse and is a tale of the conflict between faith and love. It became an enormous best-seller, going through multiple editions in the 1920s and becoming so famous that it was cited in The Great Gatsby and later turned into a Broadway show. It was also hugely controversial, with many libraries, especially in the USA, banning it and a Boston judge deeming it obscene. Its sequel, Recompense, was turned into a successful Hollywood film, though no prints of it remain.

Keable had returned to Africa in late 1919, left the priesthood then came back to England. The subsequent years were taken up with complex relationships with three women and several lengthy tours to promote his books of which he wrote several, though nothing competed with the sensation that was Simon Called Peter. He also went through agonies of belief, flirting with Roman Catholicism. This indecision of the nature of Jesus remained, perhaps, unresolved at the end, when he died a wealthy man in his Tahitian retreat.

This is a well written, easily readable book, though its structure is unusual. The standard chronological narrative of his life is not followed, rather it is intertwined with Simon Called Peter and its reception. Robert Keable was a most interesting man but understanding him and developing empathy is not necessarily easy. His experience of the war obviously affected him deeply but it was but one of several major influences in his life. If expecting a detailed account of a chaplain of the South African Native Labour Brigade in the Great War it will not be found here, but one will find a fascinating life and an informative commentary on the times and social mores of a very disturbed era in Western social and cultural history.

Review: Utterly Immoral

Dr Anne Samson - Historian

Review first appeared on Dr Anne samson's blog which can be found at https://thesamsonedhistorian.wordpress.com

As a result of my review of Simon Called Peter, Simon alerted me to the biography of his grandfather he’d recently had published: Utterly Immoral.

As many of my readers will know, I’m interested in what motivated a fiction author to write about the Great War in Africa, and what links they had. Rare has it been that a whole detailed biography examining the very book in question appears. This was one of those rare moments. 

What was striking, at least for me, was that Robert Keable was ostracised and criticised for his having a priest challenge his purpose and being tempted by a prostitute. In contrast to the thinking of the 1920s, I thought it very enlightened and honest – ahead of its time.

Reading Simon Called Peter, I had a suspicion it was fairly autobiographical but wasn’t sure where the common threads were. Simon made these connections and more. 

One of the things that really struck me reading Utterly Immoral is how our lives can be and are shaped by those around us irrespective of how much we might resist their influence. If you don’t fit the accepted mould, doors close. Robert, however, found or made opportunities to do things differently. He moved with the love of his life to a new country where they could live without the criticism and closed-minded attitudes of those who were supposedly their own. Intolerance is cruel, leading to discrimination and exclusion.

It’s interesting to see how Robert saw this in the black-white relationships within the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps), an issue he commented on but which then was glossed over.  Today, his observations hit a chord – that of ethnic discrimination based on skin colour. 

Robert’s outspokenness on issues of discrimination, his honest or open attitude to searching for answers and the meaning of life and work, challenging the norm and accepted mores and beliefs, is what got him into trouble 100 years ago. Today, Western society wouldn’t bat an eyelid at his personal life. But yet, we still judge and discriminate against those who think and behave differently. How much was Robert reflecting the society he lived in through his writing and how much did he influence the change in attitude as people clandestinely read his novels?

Simon goes as far as one can in trying to understand Robert’s motivations and reactions throughout his life. All credit to Simon for a balanced and informative insight into the life of a family member who was not seen as one of the heroes of the day.

In addition to the social and cultural insights the life of Robert Keable introduces us to, it opens a window on the world of publishing – what motivates a publisher to back a book or author, the risks they take and the role they play(ed) in an author’s life. In some ways, no different to today. Robert’s behaviour influenced the publishers, whose decisions in turn impacted Robert.

Utterly Immoral: Robert Keable and his scandalous novel is well worth a read for the light it shines on a past time,  challenging us today as we see the impact of the gatekeepers of communal attitudes on a single life.

Thoroughly researched book

Emi Y NetGalley Reviewer

My favorite thing about this thoroughly researched book was its title; I'd never heard of its subject before, author Simon Keable-Elliott's grandfather Robert Keable and his most famous book, Simon Called Peter. Simon Called Peter was about an English military chaplain's struggles with his religion, work, marriage, and maintaining loyalty to any of them. Its reputation due to bits of unprecedented naughtiness earned it plenty of acclaim and attention, but serious reviewers pointed out that readers interested only in the prurient parts were generally disappointed, citing "too much religion and too little passion".  And I will admit I too found this book about that book a bit disappointing for their collective basis in religious faith, teachings and indoctrination. Keable's exotic travels (in Basutoland, France, Tahiti), romantic exploits, views on race and marriage, and publishing travails are fascinating, especially considering how short his lifespan and how much he managed to fit in. The Kindle version I read is missing several photos, but I enjoyed seeing the ones that were included.

It's none of my business but I'd so love to know how family members dealt with Robert Keable's eccentricities, fame and legacy.

Great biography of a forgotten author

Amanda Jenkinson

Written by his grandson, and meticulously researched, this biography of largely forgotten author Robert Keable is a wonderfully enlightening and absorbing account of an unconventional and unusual man and writer. His most notorious and controversial novel Simon Called Peter (also definitely worth reading) became a huge international best-seller and a real succès de scandale. Simon Keable-Elliot has done a stellar job in recounting his grandfather’s life and also provides intelligent and insightful analysis of his writings. Robert Keable is a real discovery for me, and I heartily recommend this well-written and engaging book.

Fascinating book - shedding light on the way in which war can change people

Dr Linda Parker (http://www.linda-parker.co.uk/)

Robert Keable in his 1919 book about the Great War, Standing By: Wartime Reflections in France
and Flanders
, wrote of his hopes for the chaplains after the war. ”It is inconceivable that they will not
make an upheaval; if they do not it will be one of the central disappointments of my life.”
Many of the chaplains did make significant contributions to the post war church and society, but
perhaps one who was most famous, possibly notorious, was Keable himself, whose post war life was a
fascinating mixture of achievement, happiness, sadness and scandal, dominated by the scandal cause
by his book Simon called Peter called by The British Weekly “Utterly Immoral “
In this book on Robert Keable the author has researched thoroughly the contradictory aspects of
Keable’s life leading to a relatively early death. The chapters of biography are interspersed interestingly
with the story of the publishing of the book and later books.
After starting his clerical career as a missionary in South Africa, he served as a chaplain to the South
African Native Labour Corps in France, and was vocal in standing up against the way they were treated ,
unlike other chaplains. Having left his wife in South Africa, while serving as a chaplain, he had an affair
with a nurse. This affair was mirrored in his book Simon called Peter which was to cause so much
scandal not only because of the relationship between the main characters and its racy depiction, but the
descriptions of the hedonistic life style enjoyed by some on leave. One review said that the book
“Reeks of drink and lust.”
After the war Keable lived with his mistress and eventually lost his faith and resigned from his priest
orders. After the tragic death of Jolie he remained on Tahiti where they had settled and Keable lived with
a Tahitian princess, Ina Salmon until his death in in 1927 .
Although Simon called Peter was a best seller and propelled Keable to fame particularly in America, He
wrote many more books, both religious works and fiction. The author takes us through the works and
their publishing. They are a fascinating insight into Keable’s development as an author and his ideas on
human love and faith in God.
This is a fascinating book, which shed light on the way in which war can change people including their
faith in human nature and in God, the standards of the interwar publishers and their audiences and
some interesting insights into colonial South Africa and life on interwar Tahiti .
The author has researched his topic with the benefit of a wide variety of primary and secondary
sources. With such a fine variety of sources the book could have been longer! It will be of interest to
many readers.