All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

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The fact that it took me about two months to read this book should be no marker of its quality. I tire of biographies quickly, which is why I rarely read them; I get to the half way point, normally where the photographs are inserted, and start hankering for an actual story. This need for something fictional coincided with the pressing necessity of reading the books I was required to teach over the summer term, and so All Roads Lead to France got abandoned to the dusty outpost of my beside table until the half term holiday gave me the time and patience to pick it back up again. I’m glad I did, because it was worth persevering. Interestingly, as the biography progressed, my disliking for its central characters grew, but the fact that I remained compelled by the events is testament to Hollis’ tremendous ability both as a writer and storyteller.

Having seen the play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, which could really have been an adaptation of this biography, I knew a fair bit about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost’s relationship already. Reading Edward’s wife Helen Thomas’ own version of events in her autobiography, As it Was, provided an interesting contrast to the view I had seen on stage. Edward Thomas was, on the surface of things, a man to be much admired. A remarkable writer, a lover of nature, a family man, a profound and thoughtful soul whose life ended prematurely fighting for the country he adored on the battlefields of France, he is prime fodder for the rhetoric of sentimentality and heroism that surrounds many of the poets who went to the Great War and never returned. However, in reality, he was a complex and conflicted man, frustrated by his lack of recognition in wider literary circles and suffocated by the demands of family life. Hollis is frank in his exploration of Thomas’ life, and his often infuriatingly self centred outlook. This is a powerful, moving and honest portrayal of a man, not a myth.

Edward Thomas grew up in London, one of several sons of traditional parents who believed in the values of the middle class. He always considered himself to be different; introspective and introverted, he hated city life and the prospect of the career in the civil service that his father had planned for him. He spent his free time tramping in the countryside and reading; this fanciful behaviour did not go down well with his father, and their relationship was fraught. When still in his teens, Thomas met Helen, who would become his wife, and they had a passionate relationship that culminated in a pregnancy when Thomas was still an undergraduate. Forced into the roles of husband and father with no particular desire to be either, Thomas’ dreams of being a writer had to be put on hold as he  accepted whatever commissions came his way in order to put food on the table. Years of frustration followed, with the Thomas’ falling further into penury as their family expanded and Thomas scrabbled around for writing work. Despite becoming a well respected and much sought after literary critic, the majority of Thomas’ writing assignments were on topics that did not interest him, and the dream of living by his pen soon became a nightmare of tedious research and ever looming deadlines.

When Thomas met the American poet Robert Frost in 1913, a friendship developed that would change both of their lives profoundly. They inspired and motivated one another, buoying themselves up with dreams of a new life that they would share in Frost’s native New England, where they would farm and write and commune with the nature they both loved so much. It was Frost who encouraged Thomas to write poetry; he had never written any verse before. With Frost as his greatest advocate, Thomas had the courage to try this new form of writing, and to his surprise, they poured from his pen effortlessly. The war, and indecision, got in the way of their American dream, however; Frost escaped to the safety of his then neutral homeland, and Thomas, for various reasons, decided to enlist. The rest is history; Thomas was killed at the Front, leaving a now legendary archive of poems behind him, and since his death he has been eulogised by many, in varying degrees of hyperbole and sentiment. Getting past that to the real person is not an easy task, especially if you read Helen Thomas’ outpourings in her beautifully written but perhaps not strictly accurate accounts of their life together.

Thomas’ poetry is interesting and arresting, as is his life story. I couldn’t like him; his callous treatment of his wife and children irritated me beyond belief, but I still felt for him enormously. He wasn’t made for marriage and fatherhood; he was a loner, a free spirit who couldn’t cope with the demands of family life and should never have attempted it. He was a writer, but not of the material he longed to produce; his frustration at never quite achieving what he felt he was capable of throbs through every word he wrote. A deeply unhappy person who was also frequently capable of experiencing intense joy, Thomas always seemed to be trying to escape from something, always seemed to be striving to attain an ideal that he couldn’t quite reach. I couldn’t work out a real sense of who he was from this biography, and I liked that; I respected Hollis for not trying to put him into a neat and tidy box.

Like all of us, Thomas was a man of many facets, not all of them pleasant, and this thoroughly three dimensional and inconclusive exploration of his life does him credit even though it does not cover him in glory. I admire Thomas because he was an ordinary person who aspired to the extraordinary, and his ability to write beautiful poetry didn’t necessarily make him a beautiful person. In our age of celebrity sycophancy, I think it’s doubly important for us to remember that. I am grateful to Hollis for resisting the urge to rose tint and instead do Thomas the justice of a realistic portrait at long last. This is a remarkable book, and one that requires no prior knowledge of any of its subjects to enjoy. I haven’t read a more interesting and involving account of a person’s life since I read E B White’s biography a couple of years ago, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

ps. looking for some summer reading material? I’ve had another clearout of my shelves and there are some special books available for sale here.

10 comments

  1. Robert Macfarlane’s book of walking and nature, The Old Ways, was partly inspired by Thomas and comes highly recommended to those who enjoy fine prose about the great outdoors.

    Your comment about not generally appreciating biography reminded me of a very amusing excerpt from the latest volume of ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’ which I heard on the radio earlier in the week. A customer said he or she did not like biographies because the central character nearly always dies at the end.

    1. Thanks David – I do have that on my shelf (have had it on there for quite some time, actually!) and will get to it asap!

      Hahaha that’s so funny! I don’t know where people come from sometimes…

  2. An admirable. intelligent book – and I was especially pleased to discover Matthew Hollis’s lovely poetry in his book Ground Water.

    My overriding feeling was of sorrow for Thomas and the frustration he felt. There can hardly be many truly likeable or loveable great writers and artists. Their flaws and failings seem to set them too far apart but I am willing to forgive them (not my place, I know!) for the beauty of their work.

    I like the way your reviews are so deeply felt. Thanks for your good writing and guidance!

    1. I’m glad you’ve read and enjoyed i, Chrissy. I didn’t know Hollis had written poetry – I’ll have to look that up.

      Yes – he was obviously a very disappointed person, and I did feel for him – but I also felt so bad for Helen and all she had to endure. People are not black and white though, of course. This is why I enjoyed this so much – so many complexities of character to explore.

      Thanks Chrissy!🙂

  3. Read this book during Easter holiday and really loved it. It’s as a homage to Thomas, but its warts and all, and for me that made I even better.

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