Gertrude Trevelyan lived the Virginia Woolf dream: £500 a year and a room of one’s own in which to write experimental novels. Born in 1903 into a well-to-do West Country family, she was a student at Lady Margaret Hall, graduating in 1927. After Oxford, she moved to London, and in 1931 into a flat at 107 Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill. There’s a rare sighting of her, a diminutive figure flanked by solemn men in suits, in a photograph in the March 1933 issue of the Bystander, a gossipy society magazine. The occasion was the launch party for a volume with the unappealing title Red Rags: Essays of Hate from Oxford. The volume includes an essay by G.E. Trevelyan disparaging ‘garden cities’. The accompanying note declares that the author’s main achievements at Oxford had been to develop smoker’s throat and a taste for ‘misanthropic reflection’. She was, however, the first woman to be awarded the Newdigate Prize: 250 blank verse lines on the topic of ‘Julia, Daughter of Claudius’. ‘I did it for a joke,’ she told the Daily Mail. A few more poems followed, and then, as she hit her stride, a Stakhanovite eight works of fiction in eight years. In October 1940, a bomb demolished the room of her own, and Trevelyan died a few months later at her parents’ house in Bath. ‘Never Recovered from London Raid’, the headline in the local paper put it. And that was that.
The novels garnered respectful reviews which acknowledge their artistic daring. But Trevelyan seems not to have put herself about in metropolitan political and literary culture. The Bystander photograph – its caption describes Red Rags as a ‘counter-blast to Oxford communism’ – hints at membership of a grouping of some kind, though it’s hard to discern much by way of common cause in the hatred of things as various as Italy, cricket, the Cromwell cult, ‘morons in uniform’ and ‘desecrators of the family’. Trevelyan quickly grew out of this sort of thing. She was evidently enough of a contrarian to steer clear of the decade’s many left-leaning literary networks. Indeed, she seems entirely to have escaped the notice of her contemporaries: quite a feat, given how inquisitive some of them were. Scarcely a trace of her survives in the second-hand bookshops or in scholarly accounts of mid-20th century British fiction.
Still, there are now some faint stirrings of interest, due in large part to the efforts of the indefatigable Brad Bigelow, whose Neglected Books blog has become the primary source of information about her novels. The first two are back in print. In Appius and Virginia (1932), a forty-year-old woman buys an infant orangutan and retires to a remote village where for the next eight years she raises him as a human. This prolonged attempt at elevation diminishes her even and exactly as it diminishes him, in excruciating lockstep. Hot-House (1933), a variation on the university novel, explores the intricate web of relationships which form around Mina Cook, an undergraduate at a fictional Oxford college.
Two Thousand Million Man-Power (1937), the fifth novel Trevelyan published, is something else again. Robert Thomas, recently graduated from the School of Chemistry and Mathematics at London University, gets a job at Cupid Cosmetics Co. Limited, where they make up ‘great vats of face cream and powder’ from his formulas and pack them, with a lot of frilly paper, into shiny cardboard boxes tied with purple bows. He commutes to the factory in Acton from grim lodgings in Westbourne Park. A drawer in the table in his sitting room bulges with notes towards a treatise – as metaphysical as it is mathematical – on the ‘nature of Time’.
Buying a copy of the Morning Post at Paddington Station on 15 November 1922, Robert discovers that there’s a general election and – hang on a moment – today is polling day. Gripped by an ‘uneasy feeling’ that he ‘ought to do a bit more about things’, he duly casts his vote on the way home. He masters the uneasy feeling by faithful attendance at debates held by the League of Nations Union at Central Hall, Westminster, where he meets Katherine Bott, a teacher at a London County Council senior mixed school somewhere south of the river. Katherine, too, leads a bleak lodging-house existence punctuated by Sunday suppers of ‘brawn and beetroot’. A shared aim to continue to do a bit more about things encourages a flirtation with communism that is also a courtship ritual. They fall in love, have sex and, after a great deal of landlady-induced misery, decide to marry.
Trevelyan’s first four novels are notable for their aversion to standard plots. As It Was in the Beginning (1934), for example, happens entirely in the head of a care-home resident in the last few days of her life. So it’s quite a surprise that Two Thousand Million Man-Power should turn out to be, at first glance, a conventional enough tale of shabby-genteel courtship and marriage. The couple’s radicalism peters out. Robert endures a lengthy spell of unemployment and, when re-employed by the company that had given him the boot, something close to a nervous breakdown. Katherine, meanwhile, makes a seamless transition from doctrinaire communism to doctrinaire snobbery. Trevelyan had possibly been reading Arnold Bennett, the prolific Edwardian chronicler of lives in gradual but by no means uneventful decline: ‘declension’, Bennett called it, with a nod to the term’s grammatical sense, as though to indicate that steady failure can serve as well as spectacular reversals of fortune to bring out the variation in the forms a life might take. There are echoes in Two Thousand Million Man-Power of Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy, published between 1910 and 1915: not least in its pairing of a nebulous man with a woman of distinct – ‘harsh’ is his word for it – if volatile character.
Trevelyan, too, had no time for romance, or the harder-earned varieties of redemption. Her originality lies instead in the way she renders the fatefulness of the things the protagonists feel they ought to do a bit more about. The most striking feature of Two Thousand Million Man-Power is an intermittent news ticker or crawl which supplies up-to-date information about world events between January 1920 and January 1936, often taking up entire paragraphs at a time. While the emphasis remains for the most part on significant political, diplomatic and military developments, Trevelyan also cast her net widely in the areas of scientific and technological advance. It’s not the first novel, and won’t be the last, to employ the information dump as a literary technique. But this is some dump.
Trevelyan may well have conceived of Two Thousand Million Man-Power as the sort of novel of ideas Bennett would never have attempted. There’s a clue in the title. The phrase occurs in Ian Colvin’s ‘Social Survey of the World To-Day’, a chapter in the eighth and final volume of a Universal History of the World first published in 1927. ‘Thus, whereas in China there was an adult working male population of, say, 100 millions, in the United States there was added to the 25 million working males something like two thousand million man power in machinery.’ Contrasts between the modernising technological West and the ancient labour-intensive East had by this time been doing faithful service for more than a century. During the Great Exhibition of 1851, Charles Dickens and Richard Horne wrote a piece for Household Words that pits the scientific and technological wonders on show at the Crystal Palace against the quaintness of an accompanying display of artefacts from China. Dickens and Horne identified modernity with the circulation of goods and people. Colvin put the emphasis on the labour saved by machines. Trevelyan’s novel of ideas could be said to follow family tradition in taking as its subject the doctrine of progress as conceived in Western societies. There’s no knowing how much contact she had, if any, with her distant cousin, the eminent historian G.M. Trevelyan, a great-nephew of Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose belief in that doctrine gained a wide and mostly admiring audience in the 1920s and 1930s (Woolf quotes extensively from his History of England in A Room of One’s Own). Colvin, famous according to his obituarist for the ‘surly severity’ of the ‘extreme’ Tory views he expounded in his Morning Post leaders, wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about the progress made by machines.
Two Thousand Million Man-Power aligns Katherine with Dickens and Horne. Robert, by contrast, continues to seek out evidence of the damage done by an excessive investment in mechanisation.
‘We keep getting warnings all the time.’ Man and wife electrocuted by wireless aerial entangled in high-power transmission line; passenger blown out of plane, five fatal railway accidents in a month, gas explosions in West End, hippopotamus charges train on Natal North Coast Railway.
‘And it wasn’t even killed,’ she said, laughing.
‘No, but we’re doing our best.’ Oil pollution destroys sea birds, Exmoor ponies threatened with extinction, cow electrocuted on live rail.
Trevelyan had already begun to chafe at the limitations of the novel of ideas, which can’t quite capture the scope and intensity of the feelings that remain after conversation and debate have failed adequately to define – let alone resolve – the things we ought to do a bit more about. In this respect, Two Thousand Million Man-Power bears comparison with Woolf’s The Years (1937), which could be considered a novel of ideas in its incorporation of analysis and advocacy of the emancipation of women in a saga concerning the fortunes of members of the extended Pargiter family from 1880 to the ‘present day’ of the early 1930s. In her edition of The Years, Anna Snaith draws attention to the ‘dialectic’ that informs the novel’s account of the emergence of 20th-century feminisms at once within and against the class and gender constraints prevalent in 1880. Its final section, Woolf noted in her diary, would need to be as weighty as its first, and ‘must in fact give the other side, the submerged side of that’. Trevelyan, by contrast, remained a stranger to dialectic. Katherine’s thesis about the value of progress on the Western model gains little or no traction from contact with Robert’s antithetical scepticism. By the end of Two Thousand Million Man-Power, there’s not much left for Katherine to exercise her stubbornness and ingenuity on except interior decoration, bridge parties and the occasional new book or ‘interesting’ play. Reduced to an object of derision or pity, she is the novel’s main failure.
The Years, originally conceived as a hybrid novel-essay, channels what Woolf described as a ‘torrent of fact’. The scrapbooks she began to keep in the early 1930s – a mixture of clippings and transcriptions from memoirs, biographies, newspapers and magazines – could be said to constitute what Snaith calls a ‘database on the changing position of women’. The early drafts remained as much essay as novel. At one point, Woolf even planned to add an ‘appendix of dates’. In the end, she chose to embed the results of her researches in the narrative by means of intermittent compressed allusion. When Eleanor Pargiter exclaims in disgust at the sight of a ‘blurred picture of a fat man gesticulating’ in the evening paper, for example, we assume that the man is Mussolini. Woolf used these items to provoke a reaction in her characters. The items themselves have no independent existence.
The opposite is true of Two Thousand Million Man-Power. There, the novel is the database. Trevelyan’s aim was to create an information environment shared, to a degree, by protagonist and reader alike. She incorporated developments in the lives of her hero and heroine into the news crawl:
Rebellion breaks out in Bavaria, led by a builder’s labourer, Adolf Hitler; Lenin dies, Great Britain recognises the USSR; Buenos Aires receives an experimental transmission by Beam wireless from Poldhu, Wembley stages a scenic display of London destroyed by hostile aircraft, Robert and Katherine meet in Bloomsbury for a lecture on the Dawes Plan.
The key punctuation marks in this text are the comma and the semi-colon, which stack ostensibly unrelated news items into paragraphs. The thread Trevelyan consistently highlights by giving it an extra degree of specification (‘in Bloomsbury for a lecture on the Dawes Plan’) concerns, as in a novel it must, our hero and heroine. But there is nothing to prevent us from following other threads as they loop from one segment of crawl to the next. These threads, too, have a tale to tell.
Take that ‘scenic display’ at Wembley. The axiom that the bomber will always get through was a vital element in the expectation of a ‘coming war’ that generated widespread anxiety in Britain in the 1930s. It’s a thread we’re encouraged to follow. But Two Thousand Million Man-Power stops dead, for no apparent reason, shortly after George V’s funeral procession in London on 28 January 1936. It thus omits a key event in the story of the bomber’s increasing supremacy, the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in July (Guernica was hit on 26 April 1937). The focus, towards the end of the novel, is on Italian actions in Abyssinia. ‘League force for the Saar, Franco-Soviet commercial agreement, Italo-Abyssinian relations strained – Where’s Abyssinia? – Abyssinian losses at Wal-Wal, Italian government seizes securities, Mussolini on importance of fighting.’
The Abyssinian losses in question were incurred in November 1934 during a skirmish at the Walwal oasis in the disputed border zone between Abyssinia and what was then Italian Somaliland. Robert and Katherine cannot have been the only people in Britain who needed to ask where Abyssinia was. ‘Everybody talking about Abysinnia, wh. I cannot spell,’ Woolf noted in her diary on 31 August 1935. The following Wednesday she settled on The Years as the title of her work in progress. The newspapers, she added, were reporting desperate peace talks at the League of Nations in Geneva. On 3 October, Italian troops entered Abyssinia from Eritrea. Robert wonders whether the news of distant hostilities might rekindle what’s left of Katherine’s desire to do a bit more about things: ‘When the Italians won, as they obviously would, she’d take up Abyssinians instead of German Jews.’ To follow the Abyssinian pathway through the database is to begin to think about the radical 1930s outside the customary Orwell orbit. For Trevelyan, news of the war in East Africa consists of a series of facts of uncertain implication; for Evelyn Waugh, in Scoop (1938), it consists of wild surmise further embellished by Fleet Street hacks. The more apt comparison might be Claude McKay’s breezily satirical Amiable with Big Teeth, set in Harlem in the period after the invasion, an event of widespread concern among African Americans because it threatened to complete the European subjugation of Africa.
Katherine’s initial wholehearted commitment to the doctrine of scientific and technological progress crystallises as a vision of ‘great ships, greater and swifter ships, spanning the seas; and airmen alone over deserts; and wireless waves invisibly criss-cross in the ether.’ Sound whimsical? Fast forward to the 1960s, and the moment when the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, then teaching at the California Institute of Technology, asked his audience to try to imagine ‘what the electric and magnetic fields look like at present in the space in this lecture room’. There turned out to be quite a lot of them, from fields produced locally by currents in the wiring or friction as people moved about in their chairs to the ‘very tiny wiggles’ that are ‘waves which originated billions of light years away – from galaxies in the remotest corners of the universe’.
Trevelyan, like Feynman, wanted to examine what it feels like to inhabit, and increasingly to conduct your life by means of, that ‘criss-cross’ of invisible waves. Key pathways in her novel map the latest developments in the discovery and exploitation of an electromagnetic spectrum far exceeding human perception: the ‘Olympian frequency domain’, Friedrich Kittler was to call it. For example, one prominent thread in the news crawl concerns the global extension of short-wave radio, then known as the ‘Beam wireless’. There is much to wonder at, Katherine might have thought, in these advances. But their effective downgrading of human perception also set a limit to the sovereignty of consciousness. It is not we, Kittler noted, but ‘our computers and measuring devices’ which ‘drift’ god-like into the frequency domain in order to capture and reconfigure its energies. Robert concludes that by far the most powerful feeling experienced by the spectators at George V’s funeral procession is wonder at the ‘actual, fleshly being, or had-being, of something that had existed for them only in mechanical representations: on the screen, the wireless’. It’s a thought that could easily have been entertained by any number of commentators on modern mass media, from Walter Benjamin onwards.
This sharpened sense of limitation may account for the noisiness of 1930s fiction. The London flats occupied by the present-day Pargiters are enveloped in noise pollution: including, oddly enough, the old Victorian bugbear of the organ-grinder in the street below. Trevelyan lays on a yet more systematic cacophony identified almost exclusively as the product of machines rather than people. Indeed, there are passages in Two Thousand Million Man-Power which anticipate the new meanings the term ‘noise’ was soon to acquire: a disturbance or superfluity that interferes with the transmission of a signal or the transfer of data. Robert becomes afflicted by a sensitivity to noise: ‘He couldn’t stop worrying about things. The papers were full of riots and fighting and threats of war and they made noises round him as bad as the rattle of the tube and the grinding of bus gears.’ This is a novel about the encirclement of human consciousness (‘noises round him’) by a non-stop demonstration of what machines of all kinds are capable of accomplishing – of what they have learned to accomplish, we might now want to say. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I can’t easily think of another novel which so uncompromisingly obliges you to experience encirclement as you read.
At one point, Katherine suggests to Robert that since he’s just been promoted they ought to find themselves a more spacious flat. Robert, however, has few objections to the one they already occupy. ‘He had got used to it. He had got used to sitting inside himself in the evenings, in the crampy room. The crampiness of it had got on his nerves at first but lately he’d got used to it, he’d found a way of sitting inside himself.’ It’s hard to imagine that Trevelyan didn’t know what this felt like. We can only speculate. Two Thousand Million Man-Power, at any rate, is a real discovery.