Sometimes I read a book that reminds me sharply why I’m doing this project.
On the advice of a colleague, I took a very plain and unassuming book out of the library by literary scholar Paul Fussell. Written in 1980, Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars is, in part, an explanation for why so many well-known British authors wrote from warm and exotic places in the 1920s and 30s – think Lawrence Durrell in Corfu, or DH Lawrence in Australia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh in Brazil.
Beyond writers, Fussell describes the British discovery of the Mediterranean and of holidays in ‘the south’ for those who could afford them. He details the transformation from 19th century ideals of ‘quiet inland waters, wildflowers, sheep-filled meadows…’ to noisier, sunnier idylls involving beaches, outdoor dining, and ‘colorful street markets’, all providing ‘a reassurance of life and gaiety’. Even though a great many of this British sun-seeking party generation were too young to have fought in the Great War, its freezing mud, bitter winters, deprivations and fear had nonetheless re-oriented their gaze.
One of the striking aspects of Fussell’s arguments and descriptions is that from the first page of Abroad the differences between Australasia and Britain are plain. He begins:
“In 1916 oranges, like other exotic things that had to travel by sea, were excessively rare in England.”
In 1917, from the western front, a British officer wrote that two oranges had frozen “hard as cricket balls”, and Fussell continues:
“Those frozen oranges stick in the memory as an emblem not just of the terrible winter of 1917 but of the compensatory appeal of the sun-warmed, free, lively world elsewhere, mockingly out of reach of those entrenched and immobile, apparently forever, in the smelly mud of Picardy and Flanders.”
British soldiers dreamed of hot locations: they read books on Central Asia, planned their post-war travel across the Sahara, to Persia, Guatemala and, tellingly, Australia and New Zealand.
And this is why Fussell’s book is about British writers: Australians and New Zealanders simply wanted to go home where the sun was a part of life, beaches plentiful and oranges grew in backyards.