Regular Ramblings readers will have seen me praising a new indie imprint which began publishing recently; Recovered Books from Boiler House Press launched at the end of last year with the wonderful “Gentleman Overboard“, which I loved. The imprint was inspired by Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books blog, who provides afterwords for the books, and they’ve gone from strength to strength. I covered their release of Tess Slesinger’s “Time: The Present – Selected Stories” in July, which was an equally impressive title, and so I was really happy to receive a proof of a recent release by a most unjustly neglected author. The book is “Two Thousand Million Man-Power” by Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan and it’s a wonderfullly experimental and fascinating read.

Trevelyan was born in 1903, the child of parents of private means. After her education, a small allowance permitted her to take a ‘room of her own’ and write, which is what she did; details of her private and social life are scant, and although her books were well-regarded when published, she left behind little information about herself. Trevelyan published eight novels during her lifetime, and was tragically injured when her London flat was bombed on 8th October 1940; she died not long after, and her name slipped away into obscurity, only starting to reappear when her first novel “Appius and Virginia” was reissued by Scott Pack’s Abandoned Bookshop imprint (and yes, I *do* have a copy lurking in the stacks…) So what is her work like?

Well, Trevelyan was obviously keen to experiment with her writing techniques, and here she really achieved a memorable effect. Her book tells the the story of Robert and Katherine, from 1919 to the funeral of King George V in 1936, as they live through the often difficult inter-war years. It’s a period when the world was changing rapidly, with technological progress dominating, and political turmoil following in its wake. Robert has a scientific bent, and despite having vague ideas of working out the formula of Time, he ends up using his chemistry skills working in a lab for a cosmetics company, out in the sticks at the edge of London.

Katherine, who had never done any, believed passionately in research. She believed, with impartial fervour, in the value of arctic exploration and philological reconstruction and experiments with white mice and the conquest of the air.

Katherine is a teacher, working for an LCC school; she has strong left-wing tendencies, is a feminist and has a fierce belief in progress. They encounter each other at a League of Nations debate and are gradually drawn together; and Trevelyan follows them as they fumble towards a closer relationship, eventually scrape together enough to marry, enjoy a brief time of comfort and prosperity, and are then met with the horrors of the financial downturn and depression.

On Sunday he got out his notes and sat over them for a long time, dreaming vaguely about the source of world energy and whether it were inexhaustible: electricity used up and the world slowing down, dropping back into a torpid ice-age, life frozen out, a dead mass, like the moon.

A straightforward enough tale, then, you might think; however in Trevelyan’s capable hands, the story of Robert and Katherine turns into something very different. Their everday life is woven into a narrative which filters their experiences through the lens of world events; so as the pair struggle with meetings and marches and discussion of their beliefs, the narrative switches to conferences, conflicts, disasters and progress. This makes for a fascinating way to view the story of two individuals, because the issues they face are mirrored by, or often caused by, the wider world events.

He had read somewhere that the universe was slowing down. That life on the earth flared up, as it were, in belts of a few million years between the ice ages. Protozoa, like jelly-fishes, and swamps; and then the protozoa froze frozen out, only a few holding on, adapting to conditions: the world getting warm again and reptiles where the protozoa had been. A few thousand centuries of basking reptiles. Then ice again, and only a few intelligent reptiles compromising with the new conditions, lumbering out on legs from the freezing swamps. Mammoths.

However, Trevelyan is careful that we never lose sight of the humans involved in this bigger picture; Robert and Katherine are never swamped by the world story, and we watch them grow together, develop, change and fracture as the world becomes a difficult place in which to live. We are reminded that this was a time when married women could not teach in Local Authority schools (as is also a feature in a recent release from the British Library Women Writer’s series, “War Among Ladies”); there was little in the way of a welfare state; and a couple like the Thomases, who fell between the stools of lower and upper class, had nothing to fall back on, particularly as their families were impoverished or far away. They have no other resources to draw upon, and this ends up by turning them against each other.

Underlying this all, really, is Trevelyan’s contempt for the machine of progress which is rushing on and destroying people on its way. Robert in particular suffers a kind of breakdown during the phase of unemployment, and in many ways never recovers, though he does seem to see life more starkly afterwards, recognising the modern world for what it really is. Both characters start out with ideals and belief in the world to come but are simply ground down by the system, and many of Robert’s views are ones we would recognise as still relating to the human condition in 2022 – which is really rather alarming.

Because the resources of the Earth were being used up: coal, oil, and finally water: water being used for power. Power being gradually drained from the earth, used up for speed and armaments and an increasing number of trivial, unnecessary purposes. Every housewife putting on an electric iron in her kitchen using up a bit of power from the earth’s centre. Like a lunatic on a tree, sewing off the branch he sits on. The world living on its capital.

Reading “Two Thousand Million Man-Power” was a really powerful experience; whether Trevelyan was aware of the experiments of John Dos Passos in his “U.S.A” trilogy is, I think, irrelevant because he brought the real world into his work by interspersing chunks of newsreel and the like in the books. Trevelyan, however, with her narrative of world events woven together with personal events, in the same paragraph, creates a very different effect and it’s really memorable. This is a profound and important book (you’ll notice a theme running through some of the quotes I’ve pulled out), and why it’s been out of print for so long is quite beyond me…

So another winner from Recovered Books and a most marvellous find; they really are to be applauded for their series of reissues, and in particular for championing an author like Trevelyan. Brad’s afterword indicates that they hope to get more of her work back into print sooner rather than later, which is wonderful news! In the meantime, my copy of “Appius and Virginia” definitely needs to move closer to the top of Mount TBR… ;D