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Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute (January 17, 1899 - January 12, 1960) (real name Nevil Shute Norway) was one of the most popular novelists of the mid-20th century.

Shute's works are generally adventure novels told in a low-key but engrossing style, often with an emphasis on technical areas. No Highway (1948), for example, builds drama around structure failure in an airplane design. Several of his novels also have a supernatural element, notably Round the Bend (1951), which concerns a new religion growing up around an airplane mechanic. Shute's best-known book was one of his last: On the Beach (1957), set in a world slowly dying from the effects of an atomic war. Its popularity is due in part to its adaptation into a film, which Shute despised because of the liberties Hollywood took with his characters.

Born in London, Shute served in World War I and became an aviator. An engineer as well as a pilot, he worked for Vickers Ltd. and was involved with the development of airships. His most significant airship work for Vickers involved the R-100, a prototype for passenger-carrying airships that would serve the needs of Britain's global empire. R-100 was a modest success, but the fatal crash of its government-funded counterpart,R-101, in 1930 ended Britain's interest in airships and the R-100 was grounded and scrapped. He gives a detailed account of the episode in his 1950 autobiographical work, Slide Rule. Shute left Vickers shortly afterward, and in 1931 founded the aircraft construction company Airspeed Ltd.

In 1931 he married Francis Mary Heaton. They had two daughters.

By the outbreak of World War II Shute was already a rising novelist. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant in the Miscellaneous Weapons Department, where he experimented with secret weapons, a job that appealed to the engineer in him. His celebrity as a writer caused the Ministry of Information to send him to the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, and later to Burma as a correspondent.

After World War II, he went to live in Australia, decrying what he saw as a decline in his home country. Australia features in many of his later novels, the best-known being A Town Like Alice (1949).

Many of his books were filmed, including The Pied Piper (1942) and No Highway (filmed as "No Highway in the Sky" in 1951). A Town Like Alice was adapted for television in the 1970s, and shown in the United States on the Public Broadcasting System's Masterpiece Theater.

Table of contents
1 Nevil Shute's Style and Themes
2 Bibliography

Nevil Shute's Style and Themes

Nevil Shute is a storyteller whose novels have an intense narrative drive. They are far from being mere page-turners, however. The narrative backbone of a Nevil Shute novel usually involves the planning and execution of a complex and worthwhile mission, quest or enterprise. Shute's protagonists are, like J. R. R. Tolkien's Frodo, "ordinary" people on whom a responsibility has fallen. The story unfolds step by step, drawing the reader into the efforts of the protagonists to solve the problems they encounter. Like C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower, his protagonists feel a sense of responsibility and an obligation to complete their difficult task. Shute eschews gimmicks such as cliffhanger chapter endings. The reader turns pages because he cares about the characters and wants them to surmount each obstacle.

An Old Captivity involves a pilot who is hired by an archaeologist to take aerial photographs of a site in Greenland. Nevil Shute takes us through the practical details: how the trip is budgeted, how the cost of the plane can be offset by the resale value at the end of the trip, how the pilot must plan for lodging and refuelling at remote locations (including some where the plane must be refuelled laboriously from barrels with a hand pump), how he must learn to operate the aerial camera himself (as there is no room on the plane nor budget for a photographer).

The framing story of A Town Like Alice (U. S. title: The Legacy) is literally about business development. It opens in a solicitor's office, where a young woman who has just inherited money explains that she "wants to go back to Malaya and dig a well" (a quest). By the end of the book, she is operating a small shoe factory in an Australian outback town, then an ice cream parlor where the factory staff can spend their wages, then a cinema, and a few other things... and the economic development she has touched off is putting the previously dingy town of Willstown on track to become "a town like Alice."

The Trustee from the Toolroom concerns a machinist who makes a small but adequate income writing articles for model-making magazines. His wealthy relatives leave their daughter with him for a sailing trip around the world. Their boat is wrecked on a remote Polynesian atoll and no trace can be found of the legacy they should have left their daughter. He realizes that they must have converted their fortune to valuables and smuggled them out of England to avoid taxes. To discharge his obligation as trustee, he realizes that he must somehow personally travel to the wreckage site and recover the valuables, and do this secretly. In the world of the sixties air travel is expensive, and he is not close to being in the income category that can afford a commercial flight, much less charter planes or boats. The picaresque story unfolds in stages. He is frequently given unexpectedly aided in his endeavors by people who have read and appreciated his articles.

His last and most famous novel, On the Beach, is one of his least characteristic, dark in tone and devoid of Shute's usual optimism. It is set in Australia just after a nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere, with radioactive fallout killing those who escaped the actual explosions. It transpires that not only is everyone in the northern hemisphere dead, but that the air circulation patterns have only slowed the arrival of fallout to the southern hemisphere. Ostensibly about nuclear war, it is really an examination of how people live and what they do with their lives when they have certain foreknowledge of their imminent mortality. (A similar theme is touched on, but not explored in depth, in the framing story of The Chequer Board.) Nevil Shute's optimism is still present in a veiled form: he does not envision a violent breakdown in society, his characters do not riot, but try their best to cope with the inevitable and muddle with it—not "muddle through," as, in this case, that is impossible. In the end the government distributes suicide pills, and the last chapters describe how the characters, beset by advancing radiation sickness make their individual decisions about when and how to end their lives. The tone of the book is melancholic, not angry. Published in 1957, the book played a role in influencing public opinion in the U.S. toward support for the atmospheric test ban treaty.

Nevil Shute's novels are never preachy or overtly political, but they always have, as a subtext, a firm belief in money and private enterprise as sources of moral good. Unobstrusive and simply part of the background, this theme escapes notice as easily as the Christian underpinnings of Tolkien's work. A Town Like Alice contains a very characteristic example. A young woman who has has been working as a secretary in a pleasant but uninspirational job, has just received a substantial legacy. She pondering on what she should do, now that she no longer actually needs to work. The following exchange flashes by almost as an aside:

I know of several charitable appeals who would have found a first-rate shortand-typist, unpaid, a perfect godsend, and I told her so. She was inclined to be critical about those. "Surely, if a thing is really worth while, it'll pay," she said. She evidently had quite a strong business instinct latent in her. "It wouldn't need to have an unpaid secretary."

"Charitable organizations like to keep the overheads down," I remarked.

"I shouldn't have thought organizations that haven't got enough margin to pay a secretary can possibly do very much good," she said.

Besides A Town Like Alice, two other novels in which the theme plays an overt role are Round the Bend (1951) and Ruined City (1938; U.S. title: Kindling) These novels are not ludicrous at all, though a summary of their storyline may seem so.

Nevil Shute believed Round the Bend to be his best novel. It concerns a Western-educated Malayan aircraft mechanic, who develops a religious belief about the moral imperative of performing good maintenance on the machines upon which others' lives depend. He talks with other mechanics and gradually and unintentionally becomes the leader of a religious movement. His employers are inconvenienced by crowds of pilgrims coming to camp on their airfields, but appreciate the religion for making its disciples such dedicated and reliable workers. To a modern reader, Round the Bend brings to mind Robert Pirsig's 1951 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which some similar themes are refracted through very different lenses. (Interestingly, both books were originally published by the same publisher).

Ruined City concerns a wealthy and respected banker who lifts a shipbuilding town out of the depression. To do it, he not only needs to commit his personal wealth, but needs to bribe foreign officials and set up a dodgy corporation. He brings in investors on the strength of his impeccable reputation. The corporation collapses, his reputation is destroyed, and he goes to jail for fraud, but the shipyard is back in business and the town is saved. When he has served his term, he returns to the town and, in what must surely be every capitalist's fantasy, finds that they have put a bronze plaque on the shipyard gate with his head and shoulders embossed on it and the words


Nevil Shute's stories and characters have a genuine sweetness to them which does, however, occasionally becomes cloying. Although considered by some to be dated, his works still enjoy great popularity. Recently a paperback house has issued reprints and as of 2003 virtually all of them are in print.


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