Nevil Shute

From Academic Kids

Nevil Shute (January 17, 1899January 12, 1960) (full name Nevil Shute Norway) was one of the most popular novelists of the mid-20th century. His stories and characters have a genuine sweetness to them, which does occasionally becomes cloying, but which helps explain why a half-century after his death, virtually all his books remain in print.

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 taken with his characters.



Born in Ealing, London, he was educated at Shrewsbury and Balliol College, Oxford. Shute served in World War I as a ground-based soldier. An aeronautical engineer as well as a pilot, he began his engineering degree with deHavilands, but being dissatisfied with the opportunities, took a positon with Vickers Ltd. and was involved with the development of airships.

Shute was Chief Calculator (stress engineer) for the Airship Guarantee Company where he worked on construction of the R-100 Airship. He was deputy chief engineer under Barnes Wallis from 192430. His most significant airship work involved the R100, a prototype for passenger-carrying airships that would serve the needs of Britain's global empire. R100 was a modest success, but the fatal crash of its government-funded counterpart, R101, in 1930 ended Britain's interest in airships and the R100 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). He had a brief career as a racing car driver in Australia between 1956 and 1958, driving a white XK140 Jaguar . Some of this experience found its way into his book On The Beach.

Many of his books were filmed, including Pied Piper (1942), On the Beach 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.

He died in Melbourne in 1960.

Style and themes

The narrative backbone of a Nevil Shute novel usually involves the planning and execution of a complex and worthwhile mission or quest. Shute's protagonists are often ordinary people who feel a sense of responsibility and an obligation to complete their difficult task. For example:

  • 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 , how he must learn to operate the aerial camera himself.
  • The framing story of A Town Like Alice (U.S. title: The Legacy) is 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.

Belief in private enterprise

Nevil Shute's novels frequently present private enterprise as a source of moral good. In this respect, he is presenting an uncommon theme found, usually, only in American 1950's literature. Novels such as Ayn Rand's, 'Atlas Shrugged' or Cameron Hawley's 'Executive Suite' and 'Cash McCall' present the businessman as a value-creating hero who adds wealth to the human experience.

For Example, A Town Like Alice contains a very characteristic passage. A young woman, who has been working as a secretary in a pleasant, but uninspiring, job, has just received a substantial legacy. She ponders 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.

This belief also carries Ruined City (1938; U.S. title: Kindling), about a wealthy and respected banker who lifts a shipbuilding town out of the depression by bringing a ship-building concern back to life through money, bribery and questionable financial dealings. 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 finds a bronze plaque on the shipyard gate with his head and shoulders embossed on it and the words


On the Beach

Shute's most famous novel, On the Beach, is one of his least characteristic, dark in tone and devoid of his usual optimism. It is set in Australia just after a nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere, with air circulation patterns slowly bringing the 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.)

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. 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.

Round the Bend

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 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 1974 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).


External links

nl:Nevil Shute


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