Robert Keable and his scandalous novel
by Simon Keable-Elliott
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Pub Date 28 Nov 2022 | Archive Date 08 Dec 2022
When Robert Keable’s First World War novel Simon Called Peter was published, critics called it ‘offensive’, ‘a libel’ and reeking of ‘drink and lust’. Scott Fitzgerald suggested it was ‘utterly immoral’ and referenced it in The Great Gatsby. The novel became a huge international best-seller, a Broadway play and the sequel made into a Hollywood movie. And it made its author an international celebrity. What critics did not know was that the novel, about a military chaplain and a young woman having an affair during the war, was autobiographical.
Utterly Immoral tells the remarkable true story of Robert Keable. He was an up-and-coming star of his Church. Raised in Croydon by evangelical parents he became increasingly high church while studying at Cambridge and, once ordained, he travelled to Zanzibar as a missionary. Following the outbreak of the First World War, he moved to Basutoland to work as a parish priest. He travelled to France as chaplain to the black labourers of the SANLC. It was during the war that he began to lose his faith, dispirited by the appallingly treatment of his men, the horrors of the war and the implications of his secret affair with the nineteen-year-old lorry driver, Jolie Buck. Having written Simon Called Peter he left the church, and his wife, and fled to Tahiti to live in Paul Gauguin’s house. He lived the celebrity life in Tahiti, marrying a Tahitian princess, dubbed the ‘Helen of Troy of Tahiti’.
The author, Robert Keable‘s grandson, has used letters, books, articles, interviews and a trip to Tahiti to produce a fascinating account of Robert Keable’s life and the story of the success of Simon Called Peter.
A Note From the Publisher
Average rating from 6 members
Everyone who loves English literature should already know who Robert Keable was. For those who don't: he was a parish priest, missionary in Africa, chaplain during World War One, an inspiring teacher, and for many years a closet Catholic, but he is best remembered as the author of a saucy novel which caused a big stir in the 1920s.
Keable's grandson has written a thoroughly researched book with honesty and compassion and it is much more than just a biography with important reappraisals of Keable's novels and the context in which they were received. The details of life in Africa and Tahiti a century ago are particularly well written and fascinating. A book for all true book lovers.
Written by his grandson, and meticulously researched, this biography of largely forgotten author Robert Keable is a wonderfully enlightening and absorbing account of an unconventional and unusual man and writer. His most notorious and controversial novel Simon Called Peter (also definitely worth reading) became a huge international best-seller and a real succès de scandale. Simon Keable-Elliot has done a stellar job in recounting his grandfather’s life and also provides intelligent and insightful analysis of his writings. Robert Keable is a real discovery for me, and I heartily recommend this well-written and engaging book.
Even if you know nothing of the subject’s work, this is a fascinating book which spans many fascinating contexts. The author explores in detail all aspects of the subject’s life and does not shy away from difficult or challenging topics.
Princess Fuzzypants here: Robert Keable, born into an Evangelical family, was fated to follow his father into the Anglican Church. But he was, even as a youngster, someone with a mind of his own and by the time he was in University, he had already dismissed the evangelical bent and was questioning his faith and where he could best use it. He went as a missionary to Africa and was a man ahead of his time in how he viewed the native people. But it was when he convinced and then accompanied them to France during WWI, their treatment and the brutality of war made him question everything.
He’d been a writer already but the book he wrote- Simon Called Peter- not only created the final schism from his life as a minister but shocked the reading public. Utterly immoral was what F Scott Fitzgerald called it. And it was something very modern in its themes and storyline. What would have shocked even more was the story was autobiographical. Utterly Immoral is written by his grandson and tells the story of his short but colourful life. It follows his journey all over the world, living common law with his mistresses and marching to his own drummer.
He lived two lives, one traditional and public; the other was unconventional but private. He was an unusual man for his time and his story is quite compelling. Four purrs and two paws up. .
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