His life and books
From the publication of his first novel Nat Gould attracted enthusiastic admirers, and soon established a faithful public who eagerly awaited the next book.
Despite the sneers of the literati such as D.H. Lawrence, Michael Joseph was right to comment in 1925 that “For every reader of ... D.H. Lawrence there are a hundred readers of Nat Gould” (1). Andrew Lang admired his work (2). “All that glisters is Nat Gould!” exclaimed Flann O’Brien (3). Samuel Beckett “developed a passion for Nat Gould's novels and went around telling everyone that Gould was the greatest writer in English of all time” (4).
The Obituary that appeared in The Times said of him that "He must have written some millions of words, but few of them were wasted, if a rattling good story makes a reader happier and more contented for having read it (5)." The literary critic E. Laton Blacklands wrote "Such praise is praise indeed, for literature that is involved and appeals to a select few obviously cannot have the influence of literature that embraces so large a section of the population. To have added to the enjoyment of so vast a number of young and old, rich and poor, were a monument worthy of any man (6)."
A.A. Milne noted in his essay The Largest Circulation that “There died recently a gentleman named Nat Gould, twenty million copies of whose books had been sold. They were hardly ever reviewed in the literary papers; advertisements of them rarely appeared; no puffs nor photographs of the author were thrust upon one. Unostentatiously he wrote them - five in a year - and his million public was assured to him - Every third man in the Army carried one about with him” (7).
Nat Gould’s novels were immensely popular during the First World War. The writer and suffragette Beatrice Harraden 1864-1936 recalled that, during her time in charge of a library at a military hospital, Nat Gould was the favourite novelist of the troops (8).
“The supreme favourite was Nat Gould. They bought him in dozens, and the minute a parcel of his books entered a ward they disappeared, seldom to be seen again. The books were passed from hand to hand in a sacred, secret, underground way, and if any appeared again they looked centuries old. Even if a man were too ill to read he loved to have a Nat Gould by his bedside to gloat over (9).”
Nat Gould became a household name with the public in general, and sales of his books were estimated in tens of millions. The Double Event: A Tale of the Melbourne Cup sold over 100,000 copies in its first ten years. But, preferring the security of regular payment, he sold the copyright of each novel outright. So he was never a very rich man, and when he died he left only a little over £6,000.
Nat Gould never had any pretensions to high literary merit. He made that clear in his autobiographical writings, and notably in an interview reported in his local newspaper in 1913: “A sporting writer’s position is unique; he has to pay more attention to his story than his style. After all, what is style? Something forced, cultivated, hothouse grown. It is very beautiful, like exotic flowers, but it lacks the beauty of all beauties which nature alone gives”. And of his public he said “That is a theme one might easily wax enthusiastic about. You would be surprised what a varied public I have. There are sportsmen, including women and children, all over the world, and they are staunch and true – they read all my novels - I have readers among all classes, high and lowly, rich and poor, and the novels are bought and passed on from hand to hand. They have been given as school prizes; I have had letters from headmasters to that effect, also from clergymen. Hunting men read them. So do men who do not hunt - ” and added a heartfelt tribute to the importance of his publisher, his friend John Long (10).
But Nat was being too modest about the merits of his work. He was first and foremost an excellent story-teller. Though he aimed at the mass market, some of his work is truly first rate, almost approaching Wodehouse for comic turns of phrase and Thomas Hardy for evocations of past rural life.
If for nothing else, Nat Gould should be applauded for bringing pleasure and comfort to millions of readers, not least the infantrymen on the Western Front in World War I. His name became army slang for delayed reinforcements, from the title of his novel Landed at Last. Touching it is indeed to recall that thousands of his flimsy paperbacks rotted among shattered bones by the Somme and in the gory mud of Passchendaele.
(1) The Commercial Side of Literature Michael Joseph (1925) page 11.
(2) Andrew Lang proposed Nat Gould as president of a “Sixpenny Academy” because he “shines by a candid simplicity of style, and a direct and unaffected appeal to the primitive emotions, and our love for that noble animal the horse”. Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary life in Britain 1870–1918 Philip Waller (2006) page 841.
(3) “All that glisters is Nat Gould!” So ends an article by Flann O’Brien originally written for The Irish Times and re-published in Further Cuttings From Cruiskeen Lawn (2000) page 63. “The author stoutly denies that the entirety of the foregoing article --- was written for the purposes of the last sentence” he added. The allusion is to The Merchant of Venice Act 2 Scene 7 (the casket scene).
(4) “I was listening to RTE Irish radio as I often do and they were doing a series remembering Sam Beckett. Among the items from the radio archives were the memories of one who was at Trinity College, Dublin, with Beckett, in the early twenties. This chap said that, while there, Sam developed a passion for Nat Gould's novels and went around telling everyone that Gould was the greatest writer in English of all time.” Tony Glynn http://freepages.pavilion.net/tartarus/print1.html. In his biography of Samuel Beckett Damned to Fame (1996), James Knowlson confirms Beckett's adoration of Nat Gould.
(5) The Times 26 July 1919 page 15.
(6) The 1920 edition of the novel entitled The Runaways published by G.H. Robinson and J. Birch was prefaced with "Nat Gould : An Appreciation" written by E. Laton Blacklands.
(7) If I May A.A. Milne (1920) page 115.
(8) "Beatrice Harraden had more vitality than others, more scorn of convention, more ardour to initiate and to save. In the nineties in old Hanpstead her frail, distinguished figure came and went joyously among delightful people, and she revelled in the gifts of life ..... She was indefatiguable in the War, meeting Belgians at the station when tired out, finally joining her admired Dr. Garrett Anderson and Dr. Flora Murray at Endell Street Hospital as librarian. It was a sight not to forget seeing her sensitive face beaming as she found out just which Nat Gould the Tommy wanted to read!". The Times 7 May 1936.
(9) "Speaking yesterday as one of the librarians at the Endell Street Military Hospital, which houses 550 men, Miss Beatrice Harraden told the Home Reading Union what books her soldiers liked best. She explained that no attempt was made to influence their taste, but were given any book they they asked for, even when it was a book on high explosives costing eighteen shillings. The supreme favourite was Nat Gould. They bought him in dozens, and the minute a parcel of his books entered a ward they disappeared, seldom to be seen again. The books were passed from hand to hand in a sacred, secret, underground way, and if any appeared again they looked centuries old. Even if a man were too ill to read he loved to have a Nat Gould by his bedside to gloat over.” Manchester Guardian 5 January 1916.
(10) Middlesex Chronicle 22 March 1913.