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Review of Robert Graves' The Sergeant Lamb Novels - Neil Powell, The TLS

Excerpt from 'Sergeant Lamb to the rescue again' by Neil Powell in the Times Literary Supplement 24 December 1999

In the autumn of 1939, Robert Graves, who had just returned from America after the catastrophic end of his relationship with Laura Riding, was temporarily living at Great Bardfield in Essex with Beryl Hodge, his future (and by now pregnant) second wife. Short of money, he hit on the idea of writing a big popular novel about the American War of Independence, taking as his narrator the historical figure of Sergeant Roger (Gerry) Lamb of the Ninth - who, pleasingly, had ended up with Graves's own regiment, the 23rd or Royal Welch Fusiliers. This project would enable him to combine some disparate purposes: he could exorcize his own painful experience of America, while at the same time making use of his military knowledge and settling a few old scores (for instance, he turned his former friend Geoffrey Taylor into a satanic clergyman). Exactly a decade after the Roman Emperor Claudius had first engrossed Graves' attention to such profitable effect, the Dublin-born Sergeant Lamb came to his creative and, above all, financial rescue.

He researched and wrote feverishly. In November 1939, though he had already read some 8,000 pages of "American War of Independency literature", he still lacked Lamb's 'Memoir' of his early life, which he hoped his son David might find in Cambridge: "I must have it or I can't write the book and we will starve." By the following April, however, he had completed his vast novel "at leisurely length", and decided that, "with a little doctoring at the join", it would split into two more manageable volumes of around 90,000 words each. These were duly published by Methuen as Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth in November 1940 and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb in February 1941.

The Sergeant Lamb novels did well on their first appearance but have not been much regarded since then; they look too much like pot-boilers, and in a sense that is just what they are. Yet, beneath his ramshackle exterior, Graves was a proper literary professional who could write well under pressure. [...]
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