George Godwin was born in England in 1889 to a large, prosperous family. He was educated at Glenrock in Sussex then at Saint Lawrence College in Kent. He was so unhappy at Saint Lawrence’s that his family decided to send him to Dresden where he stayed for two years, sharing accommodation with his older sister who was studying to become an opera singer. Godwin adjusts well to his new surroundings, learning German, making close friends, and immersing himself in German culture, especially Wagner and Goethe.
The music of Wagner (…) took me to the verge of the unknown, quickened in me hitherto unknown emotions, and intensified a longing, hardly recognized in myself, to love something. In these moments of emotion I ached to pour out a love—how, or upon whom, I knew not, but this knowledge would come later. (from Godwin’s journal, located in the appendix to The Eternal Forest)
When he returns to England he works in a bank for a few years and studies law on his own via a correspondence course. In 1911 he emigrates to Canada and buys property in Whonnock, a small community on the north bank of the Fraser River about twenty miles upstream from Vancouver. He sends for his wife, Dorothy, and builds a house in the forest. They try to make a living by farming and doing odd jobs but their capital is soon depleted and in 1916 the Godwins decide to return to England. He disapproves of the war and considers it merely a struggle between Capitalistic nations but signing up to fight will at least enable him to provide for his family.
Later, in the 1920’s Godwin will have time to reflect on his experiences in Canada and war-torn France and will produce two books about them, The Eternal Forest (1929) and its sequel, Why stay we here?
Godwin’s mixed feelings about Canada are revealed in The Eternal Forest. There is much he likes about it. He finds its beauty (especially the forest) enchanting and most of the people helpful (one neighbour helps him build a house, free of charge) and refreshingly lacking in social snobbery. Here’s how he sees the giant Douglas firs:
The giant Douglas firs were no such easy game [as the alders which he has just described as “soft, sappy, and easy game”]. Their corrugated trunks, fluted from base to summit, symmetrical as Corinthian columns, soared up into the sky and spread branches like great dark and velvety fans against the leaden sky. Against these, even the axe lost sense of power: it became a pigmy tool wielded by a pigmy hewer. For these are the mighty ones of the bush, the worker told himself, the aged fathers of the forest. They have looked down upon the Valley through the centuries. (E.F., p.34}
Godwin also sees negative things about Canada: the Canadian Pacific Railway, he alleges, has acquired huge tracts of land which it sells for inflated prices; many fraudulent companies (e.g. in the oil industry) get away with selling stocks of non-existent oil fields, and so on. He also thinks that their children would get a much better education if he and his family were to return to England.
Why stay we here? chronicles the Godwins’ return to England and George’s enrollment as a lieutenant in the Canadian Infantry. (He signs on with the Canadians because they pay much better than their English equivalent.) Soon (September 1916) Godwin finds himself at the front in France where he will get a crash-course in soldiering and leading men.
The only good things he finds during his days in France are the close friendships with his fellow officers and the (for him) mysterious pride and sense of loyalty that he finds in his battalion.
On the negative side he finds it impossible to really hate the Germans; he had formed some good friendships with some of them in Dresden and considered them fine people. He is resentful of the Army’s attempt to mislead its officers by forcing them to read a journal called Land and Water which apparently is full of optimistic falsehoods about what is really happening in the war. Added to that Godwin has some scathing remarks about the arrogance and power-tripping of some of Allied officers.
In the following passage Craig (i.e. Godwin) is discussing their Major with his brother officers. The question is: how can the Major (who considers himself a Christian) be part of an organization whose business is killing? Here is how Craig/Godwin explains it to his friends:
He’s got one of those watertight compartment minds. War is war. God is God and religion is religion. He has ‘em all locked up in separate departments; he’d never let them out to mix and get all muddled up. That’s why he’s so calm. If he gets his packet [i.e. gets killed Ed.] he’ll go straight to his reward. And his God will look after his widow and chlldren. No, it would never occur to MacDonald that God might say: “Look here, my fine fellow, what were you up to, when you got killed? Killing your enemies? But don’t you know that your enemies are My children? Haven’t I told you to do no murder?” (p. 76)
In the following passage Craig and his brother officers discuss why they signed up to fight. O’Reilly seeks escape from his wife, Piers is a pessimistic drifter:
Poor old O’Reilly: warm-hearted, affectionate, demonstrative, all bottled up those long years with that dried-up woman, bossed about by a wife half his size. And then suddenly this chance of escape. Freedom, Companionship, comradeship, change, excitement, and a chance to be his own unregenerate self. That was why O’Reilly was enjoying the war.
And Piers: one fitted together the facts of his life too, bit by bit, though Piers was reticent. But Stephen got the main outline. Scotch University, no money. The itch to write. Journalism. Restlessness. Travel. Three years in Spain. What doing? He shrugs. “Not much of anything. The Spanish tempo isn’t fast. Poverty and sunshine don’t make a bad mixture.” (p. 78)
After writing The Eternal Forest and Why Stay we Here? Godwin goes on to write about fifteen more books, including a biography of Captain Vancouver and an excellent study of the Japanese national character (Japan’s New Order, 1942).
[Note from Robert Thomson, publisher and editor of the 1994/2002 reprints]: I added several things to the 1929/1930 original versions: a preface, an introduction.