Last year, I read a couple of marvellous books published by Boiler House Press under their Recovered Books imprint – Herbert Clyde Lewis’s Gentleman Overboard and Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present – and therefore was very much looking forward to Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan, a novel and an author completely new to me. Trevelyan published eight novels in her lifetime, tragedy struck when her house was bombed during the Blitz – she didn’t immediately die but succumbed to her injuries a year later. Anyway, I thought this was an absolutely terrific novel.
More than halfway into Two Thousand Million Man-Power, in a fit of abject despair and hopelessness, Robert Thomas stumbles towards the grim, gray docks of London. It has been many months since he was laid off, and Robert has lost all hopes of ever finding a job. To make matters worse, he is overcome with guilt and shame for the stress his unemployed status has imposed on his wife Katherine, feelings that refuse to go away. After another fruitless search and afraid of heading home during the middle of the day, Robert ambles along to the desolate, grimy vista of water. Is this just aimless wandering? Or is there a darker purpose in store? The reader begins to wonder until Robert reaches the edge of the water; a piercingly sad moment when Robert’s true intentions suddenly become clear.
Robert does not go through with suicide, but it is one of the many moments of creeping dread that punctuate Two Thousand Million Man-Power, a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.
When we first meet Robert Thomas, he is in his early twenties employed as a chemist at a cosmetics firm. Robert spends his days in the laboratory deriving formulae and brewing mixtures to be converted into creams and lotions, while evenings are spent in a dingy rented room working on his thesis of Time. We are talking of a period somewhere in the early 1920s when the world has just emerged from the brutality of World War One. Robert is an aspiring intellectual often attending political lectures and debates after work and it is during one of these gatherings that he meets and falls in love with Katherine Bott.
Katherine is also an idealist, working as a teacher in a council school. Katherine immediately comes across as a tad cold; she is contemptuous of her colleagues and their rigid outlook and not very sympathetic when a married teacher faces the possibility of losing her teaching job (in keeping with a newly introduced law that prohibits married women from working). Despite her intellectual leanings that involve evenings spent attending lectures and meetings, Katherine’s existence is otherwise dry, residing in a dismal bedsit in what is probably a slum-infested area.
Katherine’s biggest fear is treading the path of the bourgeoisie with all the mundaneness that it entails. She yearns for an intellectual life, somewhere on the higher plane, and one of the reasons why she is drawn to Robert is his scientific profession, a calling that fits in with her ideals of progress and prosperity (“She was thinking that knowing somebody who was doing research and making exciting discoveries was the next best thing to doing it oneself”). Katherine is impressed with the idea that Robert is writing a thesis, which she thinks could translate into something momentous, although Robert is vague about what he hopes to achieve.
She thought about progress and about Robert: about what she and Robert were going to do for progress – what she was going to help Robert to do for progress – and what progress was going to do for them.
The two begin to see each other regularly and the first half of the book focuses more on their tentative courtship – evenings that Katherine spends in Robert’s room that creates a problem with Robert’s landlady later on, going for long walks around the city just so that they can continue having a conversation, a situation that almost leaves them miserable and frustrated. Despite Robert’s proposal of marriage, Katherine remains hesitant because she frets over being a burden on Robert and his ambitions.
Robert often contemplates ditching his job at the cosmetics firm for the prospect of something better, but on Katherine’s insistence hangs on. That strategy pays off and Robert is finally awarded a salary raise which coupled with royalties on one of his inventions signals a significant improvement in fortune. Finally, the two marry, their series of furtive meetings come to an end, and the couple soon transitions into a phase of comfortable living and a marked improvement in lifestyle. A bigger house and a car befitting their status, modern furniture, the wireless, and all other paraphernalia associated with a modern suburban existence – all bought on an installment basis – give the impression that the Thomases are finally achieving their dreams of being upwardly mobile after being hampered by limited means for so long.
Sadly though, that brief period of prosperity comes to an end when Robert is fired from his job. Suddenly hurled into depths of poverty, the couple is forced to scale down and shift to dingy lodgings that scream squalor; Robert trudges every day to the city desperately seeking any work that is to be found (even those unrelated to his skills), while Katherine is compelled to hunt for a teaching post again because they are barely making ends meet.
Kath was earning, Kath was keeping them; Complexion Solvent wasn’t bringing in much now, not more than a few shillings a week. Kath was out at eight and back at six, doing the work of the flat. The thought of it drove him out early – out when she was out – and sent him tramping the streets farther and more at random. He took to applying for labourers’ jobs, though he knew they went to men from the labour exchanges. He stood in queues for hours for jobs he knew he wouldn’t get and tramped along streets of small shops with his eyes dragging the windows for Wanted cards, Apply Within.
He knew he had to get a job, because of Kath. Kath couldn’t go on, he couldn’t go on letting Kath. He plodded along with his eyes on the windows, hair-cut and small tailors, Apprentice wanted, Smart Lad to learn. He knew there was a job somewhere, and he had to find it. He turned a corner and came face to face across the street with a slab of house-high hoardings, Bovo for Bonny Bairns, and a grinning crane-top in a gap between roofs. He knew suddenly with certainty that he would never get a job.
Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War, Robert and Katherine’s earlier relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments. These were a tumultuous couple of decades where transatlantic flights, rising production, manufacturing marvels and rapid industrialization heralded an era of “progress, prosperity and peace” although this march of capitalism often displayed its darker side which Katherine rationalized as “the price of progress”, only to be followed by the Great Depression and the ominous rumblings of war.
Sensation flight R.101. Conquest of peace is imminent. Wall Street. Soviet plane completes first flight, Moscow – New York twelve thousand miles. In Italy, successful trial, six thousand horse-power bombing plane. Giant submarine is launched by France. Panic strikes New York stock market. Prosperity; no danger here. Bank rate is down by half cent. Huge figures in road fund report, increase in driving licences. Gas suicides; air suicide. First. Air crash, train crash, bus crash, planes crash. New race to come through gland control. Progress, prosperity and peace.
At the height of their poverty, Robert is often struck by the symbol of this endlessly grinding machine, a heartless system that just chugs along indifferent to the plight of individual lives; sometimes the system can pick you up, sometimes it will discard you and these dramatic changes in fate are as arbitrary as the random throw of the dice.
Two Thousand Million Man-Power reverberates with myriad themes – the extent to which individuals are governed by economic developments and political upheavals, the hard reality of capitalism with its benefits and pitfalls, the damaging consequences of poverty and the narrowness in perspective that comes along with it, the crippling shame of unemployment, the quest for finding purpose in life, class differences and so on. Often during their marriage, Robert wonders about his purpose – on one hand he is glad that things with Katherine seem to be on the mend, and yet there is a part of him that feels progressively empty. He is plagued by a nagging thought that his abandoned thesis might have given him a sense of self if not fame or money.
There wasn’t much the machine hadn’t had from him. He’d thought once it was the want of money that did it, but he had plenty of money now and it was just the same. There’d been a time when he used to believe in things, and in Kath, and in himself, and now he didn’t believe in anything. He’d dropped himself, somewhere, long ago.
The class differences come to the fore when Robert’s unemployment becomes an issue – he laments at not being entitled to a “dole” like the working class even if his plight is just as bad as theirs or even worse; a statement on the ruthlessness of a capitalist system.
“Because theoretically, theoretically mind you, we belong to the capitalist class. Although I’ve been out of a job for over a year. And the family that gets one of those flats may be earning four or five pounds a week between them. Now it’s a very remarkable thing,” he said, the hot food expansive in him, “that not only would the Council indignantly deny us any right to benefit from the rates, but the fellow in the council house earning his four pounds still feels that we are better off than he is. Still resents us. Now why do you think that is?”
But at the novel’s very core is a story of a marriage – a relationship that is strong when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, but whose mettle is severely tested when the going gets tough. It’s a searing depiction of a young couple’s dreams and ideals fading away in the relentless harshness of everyday life; an intense, unflinching gaze at how a debilitating experience can scar two people and subtly drive them apart at least when it comes to what they expect from life.
As far as the two main protagonists go, Robert comes across as more sympathetic than Katherine at least to this reader. During their long courtship and earlier days of marriage, both Robert and Katherine’s goals and aspirations seem similarly aligned and differences in their personalities do not matter much when they both wish for the same things. When they are plunged into poverty, however, this gulf only widens; Robert grapples with guilt and shame, longing for some sympathy from Katherine, while Katherine turns increasingly bitter, the sediment of resentment settled well within her as she openly and internally curses Robert. With Robert sinking into despondency, one can’t help but acknowledge that it is Katherine’s practical approach and single-mindedness that ultimately pulls them out of their hole, although the two are dramatically altered by that traumatic experience. Katherine is a complex woman and it is perhaps ironic that a woman who looked down upon the bourgeoisie and was also a tad condescending towards those who she perceived to be lower than her in status, finds herself pushed into even lower depths when the tide turns for the worse.
The placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape is what makes the novel so unique and remarkable; two realms that move in parallel, not always converging. It imparts a real-time quality to the story and accentuates how contemporary Trevelyan was, sharply aware of world events unfolding around her. Her hard-edged often gritty prose, her powers of perception, and her keen insights into human nature particularly in the way she captures the interiority of her characters, lend the narrative a psychological edge that is riveting and compelling.
In a nutshell, Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a dark but magnificent and powerful piece of writing that has only whetted my appetite for more of Trevelyan’s work. Highly recommended!