What Happened to the Corbetts

Nevil Shute's 1939 novel What Happened to the Corbetts is, as you might expect, one of the most well-written of the knock-out blow novels; it's certainly one of the few that is still read today (outside of H. G. Wells' three contributions to the genre).1 Shute takes a different approach to most of his predecessors, choosing not to chart the grand strategic and high political course of the war: instead he tells the story of an ordinary middle-class family from Southampton, the Corbetts.
Peter Corbett is a solicitor, and knows nothing of political or military matters. He doesn't even know why Britain is at war, or at first, with whom. (The enemy is never named, but is fairly obviously Germany.) Joan Shelton's resolutely Little Englander horizons are shown by her thoughts as they leave for France in their tiny yacht:

Now, that dim wedge-shaped bit of land was England, perhaps the last of England she would see for years. Gone was the pleasant, semi-detached house that she had married into, had her children in. Gone was their well-loved, battered Austin car. Gone were the happy summer week-ends, bathing at Seaview or Newtown. Gone was the cinema, two streets away from them, where they knew the manager and the cashier by their names. Gone were the occasional, economical trips to London. Gone were their friends, the Gordons and the Hutchinsons and the Littlejohns -- all gone. Gone were the shops she loved, the one that had the puppies in the window, the one that sold the radiograms that they could not afford, the piano that they would have had when they were very rich. All these were gone. That rocky point with the white lighthouse, unlit and hardly visible behind them in the mist, was the last of all these things. When that went, England would be gone.2

It's refreshing to read a next-war novel where the protagonists aren't dashing RAF flyboys, fearless secret agents, intrepid Fleet Street journalists or up-and-coming backbench MPs, with privileged insight into and influence upon the war!

Allied to this is Shute's understated style -- unlike many of the other next-war novels, there are no sensationalistic descriptions of people dying by their thousands, clutching at their throats as their gas-ridden lungs fill with blood ... etc. There are no scenes of mass panic, and Southampton only gradually becomes unliveable. Instead, the air raids cause most of their effect by disrupting key public services over the course of a few days, both directly (eg destroying water and gas mains) and indirectly (eg causing maintenance workers to first look after their loved ones, then to evacuate the city, so the damage is not repaired). Contrast this with Moray Dalton's The Black Death (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1934), which similarly tells the story of ordinary people (much more working-class than the Corbetts) trying to survive after the knock-out blow, but in completely over-the-top fashion, has them dealing with a murderer in their midst as well as a giant horde of man-eating rats. (Oh, and there are only 14 survivors in all of Great Britain.) There's nothing like that in What Happened to the Corbetts; it's serious-minded literature designed to warn, but not to make your flesh creep.

After a few nights of enduring terrifying aerial bombardments in the slit trench in their back yard, the Corbetts escape Southampton for the relative safety of Hamble, a small village on the coast where their yacht is moored. This part of the novel is very effective. Though they are no longer at risk of being killed by a bomb, the Corbetts need to continually scrounge for supplies -- food, water, and particularly milk for their baby girl. Though there are farms nearby, there are also many other refugees from Southampton who are exhausting local resources. Joan trudges from farm to farm each day and usually manages to come back with a pint, which will see them through another day. But it gets harder and harder to find, and so this respectable middle-class couple resort to crime: they break into a shop where the owners had previously refused to sell them any of their ample supply of condensed milk, and force a small girl (the only person present) to sell it to them. They generously pay well over the odds, instead of stealing the milk, and the girl is somewhat mollified by the end of the experience, it's all very genteel, but on the other hand Peter did did bring a gun along, so he was clearly planning at least a show of force, if necessary. So if respectable middle-class couples are having to resort to violence, things are looking rather desperate for British society.

Unfortunately, to my mind Shute then pulls his punches by taking his characters out of the action just when things are getting really dire. We don't get to see the continuing degradation of morality; instead the Corbetts set sail for somewhere safer due to the appearance of disease (diphtheria, typhoid or cholera) in the nearby refugee camp: first the Isle of Wight (where they cannot land due to quarantine restrictions) and then, after several adventures, Brest in France. The reason for this is that they've decided that Joan and the children will try to get a passage to Canada, where Peter's married sister lives. They'll be safe there, and Peter can stop worrying about having to look after them and instead go off and do his bit for King and country. Indeed, this extends the theme mentioned earlier -- just as people will abandon their jobs to make sure their families are safe from bombing, so too will men not enlist for the same reason.

Corbett said: "It's not that. But it's been the same with everything. Nobody's had time to do his job -- whether it's been printing a newspaper, or driving a milk lorry, or shunting coal-trucks. You see, for the first few days we were all digging trenches in our back garden. That had to come before one's job -- otherwise one would just have been killed. And after that, in the evacuation period, no one worried much about his daily job. Everybody had his wife and kids to look after."

The naval officer said quietly: "Excepting us."3

Peter is assured again and again by various acquaintances that he is doing the right thing by not joining up -- even the naval officer above. This is bad news for the war effort, as an admiral tells him:

He stood for a moment, eyeing Corbett seriously. "You must be quick," he said quietly. "You, and everybody like you. We reckoned on your help in time of war -- you temporary sailors, soldiers and airmen. We counted on you. We always have counted on you, and up till now you've never let us down."4

The only two men in the entire novel who do enlist are Peter (at the very end of the novel) and his neighbour, a veteran of the Great War. The latter only does so after his wife is killed in an air raid; and Peter himself reports his readiness for duty, after tender farewells to his wife and children, by saying 'I've got rid of my wife and family. I came to see if I could still have that commission, sir'.5 So families are impeding the war effort, indirectly responsible for the failure of essential services and the lack of recruitment. Given the logic of the scenario that Shute has sketched out, I can't see how Britain can win -- not every man can send his family to Canada, surely. Yet Shute clearly wants the reader to believe that it will. A Frenchman tells Peter that bombing destroys only houses, not factories, and that men and supplies are streaming in from outraged countries around the world. A war against great cities had to happen once, but in future such attacks will be banned. That's all fine, but meanwhile British cities have ceased to function and British families are crowding into disease-ridden refugee camps. Collapse is imminent -- or is it? Because Shute has removed his characters from Britain, we don't get to see what happens. It's a bit unsatisfying after the terrific set-up.

I'm a bit harsh on Shute (it's not like next-war novels as a whole are characterised by relentless logic), but I suppose I'm holding him to a higher standard, given his literary reputation and his aviation background. It's interesting to compare What Happened to the Corbetts to Shute's other post-apocalyptic novel, On the Beach (1957).6 Or at least it would be, if I'd read it -- I have seen the film version, though, which I love, despite its flaws. (How could I resist -- it shows my hometown as the last refuge of the human race after a nuclear war!) They seem to share some techniques, especially the most effective and affecting one of showing how a young family faces the end of all they know. Of course, On the Beach doesn't have a happy ending -- the clouds of nuclear fall-out finally close in on Melbourne -- and so it avoids the anti-climax of What Happened to the Corbetts. Still, I recommend the latter, particularly the first two thirds or so.


  1. In my LibraryThing catalog, I have tagged all my future-war books as wars-to-come. The far right column shows how many of LibraryThing's nearly 52000 users have a copy of the same work. Between them, there are 36 copies of Wells' knock-out blow-ish novels (The War in the Air, The World Set Free and The Shape of Things to Come). There are 6 copies of What Happened to the Corbetts; no other knock-out blow novel has more than one copy (ie mine). By comparison, Erskine Childers' classic The Riddle of the Sands has a monstrous 56 copies. 

  2. Nevil Shute, What Happened to the Corbetts (Melbourne, London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939), 212-3. 

  3. Ibid., 182. 

  4. Ibid., 206. 

  5. Ibid., 234. 

  6. It's much better-known, in fact his best-known work: 134 copies in LibraryThing. A Town Like Alice is second, with 88 copies. 

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2 thoughts on “What Happened to the Corbetts

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  2. abdellah ouhssini

    first thank you very much nevil shute .i really liked this novel very much and i read it more times and mre .thank you again because you offer to us a good novel ………………………

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