A largely forgotten novel now, Hugo Charteris’ A Share of the World was selected by Evelyn Waugh in the Sunday Times as ‘the best first novel of 1953’. The blurb immediately intrigued me, as a fan of both historical fiction and books which have been lost to the annals of time. It describes A Share of the World as a ‘harrowing story of a man lost in his times, bewildered and anguished by both war and love’, and as ‘a masterful portrayal of the human psyche at odds with itself’. The Times Literary Supplement wrote of the novel: ‘Mr Charteris brings off many arresting descriptions of things seen and felt’, and the Evening Standard said: ‘Hugo Charteris has the temperament of the born writer… He sees vividly, feels acutely, has a nervous dislike of the commonplace’.
A Share of the World has been introduced by the author’s daughter, Jane Charteris. She believes that John Grant is ‘a devastatingly critical, uncompromising self-portrait, even from a first-time novelist’. The novel’s protagonist, John Grant, is very briefly an Officer in active service during the war. He has to step down ‘after a disastrous sortie in the Italian campaign’, in which one of his men is ‘let down terribly’. His war is a short one, and he is soon sent home, where he seeks ‘solace, absolution, a future, and most importantly, love’.
When Grant returns to England, he takes up a place at University, cloistering himself away into the hushed world of lectures and Dons. After some time, he meets Jane Matlock, a figure whom he was familiar with, in part, in childhood, due to attending Eton with her brother. Of Jane, Charteris writes: ‘By her brother’s label she didn’t “really exist.” She “loved” Christmas, sunsets, flowers with an exclamation of adoration, kittens, parents and her laughter he thought was nerves not mirth’. He swiftly falls head over heels for her.
The novel is immediately both vivid and chilling in its descriptions and character portraits: ‘This valley where every hour a drained face got separated from its boots by a supine lump of blanket, was a corner of a foreign field which was not forever England, but forever – and as ever – John Grant… John Grant was a connoisseur of fear’. Charteris’ real strength throughout A Share of the World is the way in which he introduces levels of bleakness to the world which at first seems familiar to the general reader. The starkness which he generates has been rendered masterfully; for instance, in such passages as ‘from here the landscape looked wrecked and soiled more by gale and rain than war. The effect was of untidiness – as though a grimy infantile hand had splurged across it’. Charteris also recognises the worries and anxieties of his characters, particularly his protagonist. Grant is constantly preoccupied with his own physical body; he thinks about when the next shipment of magnesium tablets will arrive in order to help his stomach, for instance.
Charteris’ comparisons are often quite unusual, and he beautifully demonstrates the overwhelming reality of war: ‘Men in grey, krauts, Jerries, Huns, Germans, the Bosch, Fritz – what are they? John had met one, a woman on holiday, in Wales – an Anglophile from Dresden. He tried to imagine her, out there somewhere, with a Schmeiser dressed in grey’. The portrait of Grant which Charteris builds so wonderfully has such a realism to it that one can imagine his hopes and dreams, as well as his fears, are reflective of a lot of those who were involved in similar conflicts.
A Share of the World is a beautiful novel, which heavily demonstrates the effects, and aftereffects, of war. It deserves to be treasured by a slew of new readers.