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  • Sapper, Hodder & Stoughton, and the Popular Literature of the Great War
  • Lise Jaillant (bio)

The late 1920s saw a boom in so-called disillusioned narratives that focused on the most horrific aspects of the First World War.1 This publishing trend, sparked by the international success of Eric Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, provoked a mixed reaction. Many reviewers saw the antiwar narratives as pacifist propaganda, untruthful to the war they had fought and won.2 Herman Cyril McNeile shared this distrust of the debunking war books. In the preface of the 1930 reprint of his war stories, he wrote: "It is the fashion now . . . to speak of the horrors of war; to form societies for the abolition of soldiers; generally, in fact, to say 'Never again.'"3 Written during the conflict, the stories were first published in the Daily Mail under the penname of Sapper—a reference to McNeile's battalion, the Royal Engineers. Like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, McNeile was a former public schoolboy and a subaltern officer. Unlike Sassoon and Graves, McNeile had been trained as a professional soldier (he joined the army in 1907 and retired in 1919).4 Whereas his account of the war is realistic, to the point of being shocking to some contemporary readers, he never came to share the disenchanted framework so common in the late 1920s. Fighting was a duty, and it was better to laugh at it than to dwell on its sinister aspects. Or to be more precise, the horrific descriptions, if part of a truthful testimony on the war, had to go hand in hand with more cheerful aspects. The comradeship and the excitement of an upcoming battle made war bearable, even enjoyable. After Hodder & Stoughton published five collections entitled Sergeant Michael Cassidy (1915), The Lieutenant and Others (1915), Men, Women and Guns (1916), No Man's Land (1917), and The Human Touch (1918), Sapper went on to write detective stories and thrillers. His most famous character, Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, was first introduced as a demobilized officer, "finding peace incredibly tedious" [End Page 137] and longing for adventure.5 His protagonist can be seen as a brutalized ex-officer whose thirst for excitement is also an attempt to reenact the war. Following the success of the novel in 1920, Sapper created a whole series of Bulldog Drummond stories, which became best sellers in the popular Yellow Jacket series. Although these thrillers are still in print today, Sapper has been largely forgotten.

The few critics who studied Sapper after 1945 often dismissed him as a fascist, a propagandist, and a second-rate writer of improbable fiction. More recently, as "nondisillusioned" war writings started to attract some critical attention,6 Sapper has been perceived as a writer who is worth studying not for the aesthetic merit of his fiction but because his popularity reflected contemporary attitudes toward the war. This unflattering reputation is at odds with the way Sapper was seen at the start of his career. Why has Sapper, a writer hailed as a literary genius by some his contemporaries, disappeared from the canon of war writings? This article argues that the way Hodder & Stoughton marketed Sapper's best-selling short stories and novels from 1915 to 1930 later contributed to his disappearance from the canon. My study of dust jackets and advertising strategy suggests that Hodder & Stoughton sold Sapper's stories as part of what I call a "war writing brand." Like Ian Hay and John Buchan, Sapper combined horror and laughter in a heroic and justified narrative. Furthermore, Hodder & Stoughton presented the Bulldog Drummond series as exciting thrillers rather than as stories informed by the war, and thus dissociated Sapper from the conflict. Not only did this marketing strategy shape the way Sapper was perceived in the interwar period, it has also influenced critics to this day. This article aims to reposition Sapper in the literary field of his time, rather than judging his fiction from our own standards of "good" war writings. It also hopes to illuminate our understanding of canon making by examining the largely ignored role that publishers play in shaping the short- and long-term reputation of a...