The Woman of Knockaloe: A Parable (1923)

The Woman of Knockaloe, Hall Caine.

The Woman of Knockaloe (1923), the last novel of the famous Victorian novelist Hall Caine, builds on the success of previous Manx based works The Deemster (1887), The Bondman (1890) and The Manxman (1894). The novel set on the Isle of Man during the First World War, uses the Internment Camp at Knockaloe as the backdrop for a love story between a young Manx woman (Mona Craine) and a German internee (Oskar Heine) held there. Their relationship develops into a romance which is almost universally condemned by the local population, and when attempts to escape the island are thwarted (they have no money), the couple throw themselves from a cliff. The success of the book was galvanised with the release of a Hollywood film based on the book, Barbed Wire (1927), directed by Rowland Lee and starring Pola Negri and Clive Brook. Unlike the book, however, the setting was relocated from the Isle of Man to Normandy and given the standard ‘Hollywood ending’ where Mona’s blinded brother returning from the war makes a heartfelt plea in defence of the relationship which shames the local population into accepting it. The film was accompanied by the issue of popular edition of the book by The Readers Library Publishing Company Ltd. (London) under the film title, Barbed Wire (1927).

Prior to the publication of the work, Caine expressed concern over the response of the Manx population with whom he already had a difficult relationship. Worried about the reception of the work amongst the local population Caine needed to be convinced, but Flower convinced of the manuscripts worth alleviated these concerns with the promise of a disclaimer and the work was published later that year. As Allen observes:

This disclaimer, however, failed to avert the storm of abuse heaped on Caine by the Manx for daring to suggest, even in fiction, that a Manx girl could have fallen in love with a German prisoner of war (1997: 396).

In a novel whose prose exhaustively described and overtly named places in the Manx landscape and it was easy to see why any disassociation was ignored. As the narrative opens:

Knockaloe is a large farm on the west of the Isle of Man, a little to the south of the fishing town of Peel. From the farmstead I can see the harbour and the breakwater, with the fishing boats moored within the broad curve of the sea outside.

There is a ridge of hills that’s separates the farm from the coast, which is rocky and precipitous. On the crest of the hills there is a square tower that is commonly called ‘Corrin’s Folly’, and at the foot of the tower there is a small graveyard surrounded by a small wall (Caine 1923: ??).

Like much of Caine’s work the use of real places and individuals to give local colour to the narrative was for many Manx people ran too close to the bone, it was little wonder that the work was not well received by all. After publication one local paper was careful to note that “[t]he book is purely fictitious as to characters, and can not be taken as truly depicting life at the Camp." (Peel City Guardian, 29 September 1923: 3).

Caine’s politics are implicitly expressed throughout the novel, while his introductory section more candidly records his personal response to the war.

And now I publish it with many misgivings and only one expectation that in the present troubled condition of the world, in the midst of the jealousy and hatred, the suffering and misery of the nations, which leave them groaning and travailing in pain, and heading on to an apparently inevitable catastrophe, even so humble and so slight a thing as this may perhaps help the march of a moving Providence and the healing of the Almighty hand.

It was a dream. Ah, what is not a dream? (Caine 1923: ??).

Or as the editorial note by his publisher, Newman Fowler, wrote it is a “the simple yet poignant tale” intended

…to illustrate the effect of the late war on the heart of humanity, to describe at very close quarters the consequences of what we call The Peace on the condition of the world and the soul of mankind, and to point to what the author believes to be the only hope of saving both from the spiritual and material suicide to which they are hurrying on. It is neither pro-British nor pro-German in sympathy, but purely pro-human. War itself is the only enemy the parable is intended to attack (Caine 1923: ??, emphasis added).

Advert for Woman of Knockaloe (Daily Mirror 27 September 1923: 14).Indeed as one reviewer observed, “It is a rather obvious, sweet-toned and entirely unveiled bit of peace propaganda, a crude but affecting pleas for world-brotherhood and the preservation of a sense of justice during war” (The Observer, 7 October 1923: 4). More than this the novels focus on ‘a little backwater’ served to illustrate the impact of the war on ordinary communities not immediately involved in the fighting, a subject he had previously addressed in his journalistic work for the Daily Telegraph which was later published as The Drama of 365 Days: Scenes in the Great War (1915). The novel unambiguously addresses moral issues of racial intolerance and woman rights, themes he had tackled in his earlier work. The Scapegoat (1890), for example, is regarded as fictionalised treatise against anti-Semitism, while his non-fictional account of the roles women took during the war Our Girls: Their Work for the War Effort (1915) illustrated his concern for sexism.

Caine’s vision of the internment was sentimentalised one would expect with any work of fiction, something which can easily be contrasted with the everyday realities of the life within the camp from the viewpoint of the internees, see for example Time Stood Still (Cohn-Portheim 1932) and Round the World to Freedom (Stoffa 1933). Of course Caine attempts to present something of the barbarity of life in the camp, but his principal focus throughout is the ‘romance’ between the two protagonists a narrative which undermines these realities. What Caine’s actual experience of the realities of camp life is difficult to gauge, certainly the association must have been pretty limited being that he was only present in the Isle of Man for limited periods. This would probably suggest much of his information about the camp was gleaned from others, or from secondary sources such as the local newspaper.

Whatever the connection The Woman of Knockaloe was well received by the critics, The Financial Times commented “it might be a Saga and so inevitable in the march of its scenes, from its almost breathless beginning to its tremendous end, that it be a Greek tragedy (27 September 1923: 3). While the implicit message of the book, “that peace shall not be desecrated and made as ugly and as full of cruelty as war… [is said] with an earnestness and kindness that disarm criticism” (Observer, 7 October 1923: 4), was generally agreed. The local press was less gracious in its review, claiming this is "[n]ot a good novel”, but agreeing with the implicit message it represented (Ramsey Courier 16.11.1923: 5). In contrast another reviewer was more accepting recognising that “for a Manx girl to find her mate in an interned prisoner rather sets one’s teeth on edge”, but acknowledging that

As a work of art, ‘The Woman of Knockaloe’ will rank high. The purity of its prose, the passionate drama of its diction, the insight shown into the working of the human hear, insist that it is the effort of a great man of letters – and also of the great man whose own heart is attuned to the sorrows of the world and knows that ‘Love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave’ (Mona’s Herald, 26 September 1923: 5).

Yet as Skrine observes,

Critical assessments soon veered away from this initial praise. But the reception history of the work suggests this change of attitude took place largely in response to Barbed Wire, a film version… [where] a change of location… distorted its impact and indicative of a change of emphasis which gave room for more overt anti-German sentiments: the German Reich had been admitted to the League of Nations the year before (2000: 275).

Bibliography

Caine, THH (1923). The Woman of Knockaloe: A Parable. Cassell and Company Ltd.: London.

Cohn-Portheim, P (1932) Time Stood Still. E. F Dutton & Co.: New York.

Skrine, PN (2000). ‘Hall Caine’s The Woman of Knockale. An Anglo-German War Novel from the Isle of Man’. (pp. 263-276). IN The Novel in Anglo-German Context. Cultural Cross-Currents and Affinities. S Stark (ed.). Rodopi: Amsterdam.

Stoffa, P (1933) Round the World to Freedom. Bodley Head: London.