BORN: 1899, Ealing, England
DIED: 1960, Melbourne, Australia
NATIONALITY: British and Australian
What Happened to the Corbetts (1939)
A Town Like Alice (1950)
In the Wet (1953)
On the Beach (1957)
Nevil Shute. Central Press / Getty Images
Nevil Shute lived, in some ways, as two very different people: Nevil Shute Norway, the successful airplane engineer and business entrepreneur, and Nevil Shute, the author of escapist adventure novels and science fiction. He was careful to keep the two separate, writing under a shortened version of his full name, fearing that his reputation as a best-selling novelist would undermine his credibility as an engineer whom people would trust with their lives in his airplanes. By the end of his unusual and successful career, however, he had made significant and enduring contributions to both aeronautical design and popular fiction—a claim that few others, if any, can make.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Taste for Adventure. Nevil Shute Norway was born on January 17, 1899, in Ealing, west of London.
He spoke with a stutter, a problem he never completely overcame. His father became the head of the postal service in Ireland, and in 1912 the family moved to Dublin. Shute served in the medical corps during the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, during which Irish rebels supporting independence from England occupied some key government offices; in the ensuing conflict, Shute’s father’s post office was burned. He enlisted in the infantry just before World War I ended.
Shute began work as an engineer at the de Havilland Aircraft Company in 1922, where he learned to fly. While at de Havilland, Shute bought a typewriter, perhaps encouraged by the writing activities of his family: His grandmother had been a writer of children’s books, his father had published travel books, and his mother edited a volume of correspondence about the family’s experiences in the Irish rebellion. All of these genres influenced his later novels—the simple adventure narratives owe a debt to adolescent fiction, travel and life abroad is represented throughout Shute’s novels, and the experiences of determined individuals confronting violence and the threat of death appear in many of Shute’s stories.
An Amusing Pastime. In 1923 and 1924 Shute’s first two novels were rejected by publishers, but he had learned that he enjoyed writing and could do it quickly, and he was determined to keep at it. He later spoke of his early work as not being particularly good, but Shute’s novels come from the perspective of someone who found writing to be mostly a relaxing and amusing pastime to do after work. The many novels Shute wrote between 1924 and 1930 are often easy-to-read adventure stories about pilots, as Shute often flew a small plane himself during this time. Some of them did address serious issues, however, such as So Disdained (1928), which expressed his concern for pilots who, after serving in World War I, were now poorly paid. The American edition was published as The Mysterious Aviator.
Wartime Efforts and Inspiration. After 1938, Shute’s novels began to show the political tensions of the period. When the war began, Shute was highly critical of America’s refusal to come to the aid of Great Britain and its European allies. Pied Piper, about an elderly British lawyer who rescues refugee children from France just before the German invasion, was one of the books Shute aimed at American readers, hoping that the United States would end its isolation.
After the war, Shute traveled to Burma to briefly work for the ministry of information, and he returned to England and his full-time writing career in 1945. The Chequer Board (1947) grew out of his time in Burma. In 1947 Shute traveled by car around the United States, seeking a firsthand glimpse into the real America so he could better describe it in several of his novels (written with an eye toward the American movie industry).
Futuristic Visions. In 1950 Shute and his family moved permanently to Australia. During this period, in spite of his stammer, Shute began to lecture on professional writing. Among the topics he discussed were the elements he believed fiction readers want: information, romance, heroism, and a happy ending—even if it involves death. As Julian Smith points out, Shute’s next novel, In the Wet (1953), supplied those four things, plus a fifth element—relevance to current events, in particular the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Moreover, In the Wet includes a vision of the 1980s, in which Australia is the center of a thriving British Empire free of socialism.
The 1950s saw the rise of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and with it the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. In his best-known work, On the Beach, Shute takes up his most ambitious subject yet: the destruction of the world in a nuclear holocaust. The novel tells how in 1962 a nuclear war begins with the bombing of Tel Aviv and ends thirty- seven days later, presumably in total devastation. Southern Australia is the last part of the world to be affected by the spreading deadly radioactivity. The novel depicts the things people focus on in their final weeks and days— alcohol, auto racing, church attendance, vegetable gardens, and suicide drugs. On the Beach was not the first novel to address this topic, but Shute’s treatment of the subject was noteworthy, both for the vividness of his depiction of the war’s human consequences and for the remarkable popularity of the book. It was made into a star-studded movie in 1959, although Shute was unhappy with certain changes made to the story and characters.
Shute finished only two novels in his last four years, returning to subjects that had sustained him throughout his long career: The Rainbow and the Rose (1958), about a pilot reviewing the life of his mentor, and Trustee from the Toolroom (1960), which opens in Shute’s birthplace of West Ealing, and is about an accomplished engineer. His work on the latter was impaired somewhat by a stroke he suffered in December of 1958. He began a new novel that was to metaphorically depict the Second Coming of Christ in the southern Australian wilderness, and he was working on it when he died on January 12, 1960.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Shute's famous contemporaries include:
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937): Famed pilot and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. During an attempt to fly around the world in 1937, her plane disappeared over the Pacific near Hawaii. It has never been found.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950): Author of over seventy novels, most of them fantasy adventures or science fiction. His best known work, Tarzan of the Apes, has been adapted in countless sequels, films, and television shows.
Harry S. Truman (1884-1972): The thirty-third president of the United States. Just four months into his administration, he ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which effectively ended World War II.
Howard Hughes (1905-1976): An eccentric, brilliant, and enormously innovative multimillionaire who designed and built several experimental aircraft and broke many speed records, later moving to commercial aircraft and founding Trans-American Airlines.
Glenn Miller (1904-1944): One of the best-selling musicians of the World War II era. He joined the army in 1942 so he could lead a band to entertain the troops and raise morale. His plane disappeared over France in 1944 and was never found.
Works in Literary Context
Shute did not write ‘‘literary’’ novels, so academic critics and Shute have largely ignored one another. According to Julian Smith, the leading authority on Shute and his works, ‘‘If Nevil Shute ever influenced another writer or the course of English literature, there is no evidence to that effect.’’ Still, Shute was very much a product of his times. Best sellers can often reveal aspects of popular culture that wider literary trends cannot—for example, while literary authors of the world-wars era such as Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene were exploring complex characters and lyrical prose styles, Shute was content to just tell good stories that let people escape from their troubled times for a few hours. ‘‘His prose was never exciting, nor was it ever dull,’’ writes Smith. ‘‘It was simply as functional as the aircraft he built in his engineering days.’’
Aviation. As a pilot and aeronautical engineer himself, it is not surprising that many of Shute’s characters are pilots, and the majority of his tales deal with flying in some respect. For example, his first several novels are all adventures centered on pilots. The main character of In the Wet is a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, while the narrator of No Highway is an aeronautics engineer. The main character of Round the Bend is an engineer and pilot who becomes something of a religious leader.
Pulp Fiction Conventions. The trends in popular fiction of the 1930s-1950s tended toward heroic adventure stories, westerns, mysteries, and (from the 1950s onward) science fiction. These novels, and the short stories that filled the sensationalistic magazines of the era, are often called ‘‘pulp fiction’’ after the cheap wood-pulp paper on which they were printed. While Shute did not write westerns, he did set some of his novels in the Australian outback and in the American Rockies. He did not write mysteries, but his novel Requiem for a Wren (1955) does tell the story of a young lawyer investigating the supposed suicide of a parlor maid. What Shute does share with the pulp fiction tradition is an attraction to stories of noble middle-class heroes winning success through hard work and commitment, grand adventures to exotic locations, and futuristic tales of impending disasters.
Human and Societal Ideals. The future, for Shute, was a setting that allowed him to consider how the world could be a better or worse place as a result of moral and political decisions that we make today. For example, while it is true that On the Beach is about a nuclear holocaust, it is mostly about the ways in which the best aspects of human nature—especially tolerance for other races and religious beliefs—are a key part of mankind’s redemption from our primitive instincts for violence and revenge. Similarly, In the Wet explores a unique idea for maintaining the spirit of democratic ideals: a government that allows its citizens to earn more than one vote by meeting certain conditions, such as achieving higher education or raising a family without divorcing.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The prospect of nuclear war, and the possible total annihilation of the human species that could very easily come with it, have cast a haunting shadow over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Here are some works that consider the aftermath of nuclear attacks, both fictional and nonfictional:
Hiroshima (1946), a nonfiction work by John Hersey. At 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945, nearly one hundred thousand people in this Japanese city died suddenly in an attack like no other. The book chronicles the lives of six ordinary survivors, tracing their will to survive, lifetime plights, illnesses, and fears.
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), a novel by Walter M. Miller Jr. This science fiction classic and Hugo Award winner is set in a monastery in the aftermath of an apocalyptic nuclear war.
The Day After (1983), a made-for-television movie directed by Nicholas Meyer. The broadcast of this movie was a huge television event at the time. It gives a smalltown perspective on the possible aftermath of a nuclear war.
The Great Fire (2003), a novel by Shirley Hazzard. The ''great fire'' of the title is the bombing of Hiroshima. The novel by National Book Award winner Hazzard centers on a British soldier in Japan after the Allied victory to study the effects of the bomb on the country.
If You Love this Planet (1982), a documentary directed by Terre Nash. This short film won an Academy Award for its illustration of the potential medical and social results of a nuclear war.
Works in Critical Context
Shute did not attract much literary attention while he was alive, but after he died, critics began to assess the role he had been playing in popular culture. There were relatively few serious book reviews of his works as they came out, but when he died in 1960, there was a flurry of respectful obituaries such as the one in Time magazine that concluded that ‘‘later years may find [his novels] a remarkably reliable portrait of mid-20th century man and his concerns.’’ Edmund Fuller wrote in the Saturday Review: ‘‘Nevil Shute will be missed. He was one of our most prolific and diversified storytellers. His twenty novels varied widely in tone and pace, as well as in scene, and time, ranging from his own Australia, where he lowered the curtain on the human race, to England and America, and from a little into the future back to the Vikings.’’ Shute did attract the attention of several important literary figures. George Orwell appreciated Landfall: A Channel Story (1940), saying that it brought out ‘‘the essential peculiarity of war, the mixture of heroism and meanness.’’ C. P. Snow wrote in 1970 that Shute was a rare bridge between two very different cultures, engineers and general readers.
In recent years more has been written about Shute, including a book-length study by Julian Smith in 1976. The most attention is given to On the Beach because of its treatment of nuclear war and role in the history of British science fiction. Other recent critics are more interested in Shute’s later novels and their portrayal of Australia and South Asian locales.
Responses to Literature
1. Is someone who is able to design a good airplane likely to be able to design a good novel, too? Are there basic thinking skills common to all construction, whether it be something mechanical or something literary? What assumptions are you making about engineers and novelists as you form your answer?
2. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was unusual for novels to emphasize how personal and political actions at home can have far-reaching influences all the way around the world. How does Shute deal with this theme in his novels? Is this theme more or less relevant today, in the age of the Internet and instant communications?
3. Research some of the government propaganda about nuclear war created during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s. (The film The Atomic Cafe is a good place to start.) Does Shute’s treatment of nuclear holocaust in On the Beach seem more or less extreme to you when seen in this wider cultural context?
4. Read one of the books by Shute that was adapted into a film, and then watch the film. How faithful is the movie to the book? What was added or left out, and to what effect? What did the critics, and Shute himself, have to say about the movie?
Bennett, Jack. ‘‘Beyond Britain: Nevil Shute’s Asian Outlook.’’ In Perceiving Other Worlds. Ed. by Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Times Academy, 1991.
________. ‘‘Nevil Shute: Exile by Choice.’’ In A Sense of Exile: Essays in the Literature of the Asia-Pacific Region. Edited by Bruce Bennett and Susan Miller. Nedlands, Western Australia: Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, 1988.
Higdon, David Leon. ‘‘‘Into the Vast Unknown’: Directions in the Post-Holocaust Novel.’’ In War and Peace: Perspectives in the Nuclear Age. Edited by Ulrich Goebel. Studies in Comparative Literature 18. Lubbock: Texas Technical University Press, 1988.
Smith, Julian. Nevil Shute. English Author Series, 190. Boston: Twayne, 1976.
________. Nevil Shute: A Biography. Kerhonkson, N.Y.: Paper Tiger, 2002.