In 1940, the Battle of Britain saved the United Kingdom from German occupation, and no Nazis set foot on British territory. There was, however, one small exception: the Channel Islands did fall prey to the invaders, enduring for five years the hardships and humiliations of Nazi rule. Guernsey, second largest of these Islands, is a tiny, remote locale; for a long time its sole claim to fame was Victor Hugo’s fifteen-year exile there in the nineteenth century. Yet one novel, written by an islander about his homeland, deserves to be recognized not only as a Guernsey classic but as an extraordinary work in its own right. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards, published posthumously in 1981 and written entirely in Guernsey English, is one of the great undiscovered works of the twentieth century. It offers a unique, powerful, and immersive exploration of both a particular way of life and the universal human experience.
Gerald Basil Edwards was born on the island in 1899. His father, a quarry-owner, had already lost one wife when he married the woman who would become Edwards’ mother. According to Edwards, “My boyhood, adolescence and young manhood was an increasingly intense fight to the death against my mother.” The death was hers: she passed away in 1924. Afterward Edwards’ father married yet again, this time to his housekeeper, and sold the house in which Edwards had grown up—with the purpose, so Edwards claimed, of disinheriting his son. The parallels between these events and the story of Raymond Martel, Ebenezer’s cousin in the novel, suggest similar parallels between Raymond and Edwards himself—and if that is the case, Edwards must have been both a deeply tormented and a deeply loving individual.
We need to rely on such guesses because Edwards destroyed almost all record of his life before he died. “The mere thought of having a public image appals me,” he wrote to Edward Chaney, a young art student who became his friend in the last decade of his life. Mrs. Snells, Edwards’ landlady in Weymouth, where he lived in his final decade, confirmed the destruction of nearly all his writings, including poetry, articles, and plays. Only The Book of Ebenezer Le Page survived.
After going to primary school on Guernsey, Edwards worked as a student-teacher, then joined the infantry in 1917. Fortunately he avoided the front lines, instead working as a gunnery instructor in Portsmouth. When the war ended, he enrolled in the University of Bristol, presumably to study literature in one form or another. All this happened while his mother was still alive; when she died and his father remarried, Edwards renounced Guernsey, leaving his native land forever at age twenty-five. He found work in London as a lecturer in English literature and drama, and through his connections in the theatrical world he met some of the cultural giants of the time: D. H. Lawrence, Annie Besant, Rabindranath Tagore. These new friends saw that Edwards had enormous talent and encouraged him to publish—but nothing Edwards did seemed to come to anything.
In 1930 he got married. The partnership soon foundered, though Edwards managed to father four children in its brief duration. He spent most of it in Holland and Switzerland, hoping to make a living from his essays and poetry, and by 1933 he had abandoned his new family altogether. There follows a six-year blank in his timeline. Records from the Second World War show him working in an employment exchange, and he remained in the civil service until 1960. Still his wandering instincts hadn’t evaporated: in retirement he lived in Wales, Penzance, Weymouth. Finally, in 1970, he came to roost with Mrs. Snells. His final years were enlivened only by his writing and by his friendship with Edward Chaney, a relationship closely resembling Ebenezer’s late-flowering friendship with the young painter Neville Falla. Just as Ebenezer bequeaths Neville his book, so Edwards gave Chaney his manuscript, trusting in his friend to find a publisher. The task proved difficult, however, and two years later, in 1978, Edwards died. He never saw his novel’s publication and acclaim.
The first thing readers will notice about The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is its language: Guernsey English, a dialect not as distant from English as Scots but still startling in its French-inflected syntax and loose connection between subjects and verbs. Equally disconcerting is the patois that the characters frequently use in dialogue—Guernsey French, which looks strange even to French-speakers and which is included without translation, though the book contains a brief glossary at the back. Nonetheless, despite the odd words and phrasing, the narrator himself—a grumpy old man writing his memoirs—grabs the reader immediately and insists on close attention.
Edwards’ novel is unconventional structurally as well as linguistically. It comprises the full record of Ebenezer’s memory, rambling and colorful, as he casts his mind back over a long, eventful life. At first his tangents and asides seem like distractions from a central plot-line, but the reader soon learns that they are as important as the more dramatic events of Ebenezer’s story—which certainly doesn’t suffer from lack of incident. The abundance of mishaps and grief in Ebenezer’s tale makes his resilience all the more impressive. He may be an opinionated, hidebound, suspicious old codger, but he knows himself well and yearns to understand other people. For that reason, despite his flaws, he serves as an admirable and trustworthy narrator.
Perhaps most admirable is the strong and lasting love that Ebenezer feels for the central people in his life. Few friendships in fiction can match the passionate, platonic bond between Ebenezer and Jim Mahy, his boyhood companion, lost early but never forgotten. Jim’s easygoing character suffuses the narrative, thanks to Ebenezer’s extraordinary devotion to his friend. Coming in the midst of dense narrative about the novel’s panoply of Guernsey characters, Ebenezer’s sudden declarations of feeling stand out like beacons, making not only Jim but Ebenezer himself come vibrantly alive.
While Jim and Ebenezer’s saintly sister, Tabitha, receive his most straightforward love, two other characters occupy more of the narrative, in part because their personalities—and their relationships with Ebenezer—are more complicated. The first is Raymond Martel, only child of Ebenezer’s aunt Hetty. Though the cousins feel close to each other from the beginning, Ebenezer often allows years to go by without seeing Raymond. His willingness to live in isolation, despite dwelling on such a small island, is one of the most striking elements in the novel, a reminder that, though he seems familiar in many ways, he belongs to a culture remote from our own. Still, in the end Ebenezer learns the details of Raymond’s story, and it becomes the focal point of much of the novel. As a young boy Raymond is quiet, mysterious, and effete, a dramatic contrast to his stolid father and a disappointment to his nagging, ambitious mother. In part because of his bleak childhood, Raymond feels throughout his life an overpowering need for love, both romantic and spiritual. Obsessed by religion, he joins the Anglican church, only to be kicked out for preaching unorthodoxy. Though skeptical of clerics himself, Ebenezer treats Raymond’s spiritual leanings with curiosity and respect. Indeed, his willingness to explore other points of view enriches the novel immeasurably by allowing the reader, if only obliquely, to understand every side in every conflict. Raymond is one of the book’s most sympathetic characters, but Edwards also ensures that Raymond’s parents aren’t caricatures; they seem as realistic, if not nearly as likable, as Raymond himself. Even Raymond’s selfish and manipulative wife doesn’t receive Ebenezer’s unmitigated wrath. He hates her for making Raymond miserable, but he pities her too—he knows how difficult the tormented Raymond can be.
The other person most prominent in the narrative is Liza Quéripel, Ebenezer’s elusive sweetheart, whom he longs for throughout the book and never marries. Liza is an alluring but enigmatic figure. Perhaps because Ebenezer himself never fully understands her, she seems more opaque than Raymond and the other central characters. But her appeal for Ebenezer is clear: she is the most independent, strong-minded, and willful woman on Guernsey, and, though Ebenezer claims not to trust powerful women, he loves Liza more than any of the numerous women he sleeps with. As with Jim and Raymond, Ebenezer sometimes lets years go without seeing Liza, but his agony is so plain when they do encounter each other that the reader never doubts his feelings, nor the fact that they remain pressing over decades. His misery during their repeated quarrels and his subsequent loneliness demonstrate vividly that even the crustiest old men possess deep wells of hope and desperation.
Engrossed in Ebenezer’s winding tale, readers may not realize that beneath the innumerable details, Edwards is building a powerful swell toward the climax of the book: the German occupation of Guernsey. While the novel’s first half sometimes seems meandering to the point of aimlessness—an effect compounded by Edwards’ omission of all dates—its second half becomes a tour de force, pulling the reader forward not only with Raymond’s and Liza’s tortured stories but with the looming approach of the Nazis. Hundreds of Guernsey natives fled the island before the Germans overcame its small band of defenders. Ebenezer, however, like many islanders in real life, insists on staying put, and his description of the occupation offers a riveting glimpse of war-time deprivation. Yet nothing reveals Ebenezer’s identity as a Guernseyman so clearly as the fact that his ire against Jersey, the neighboring Channel Island, far outstrips his resentment of the Nazis. In Ebenezer’s mind it makes more sense to love and hate his neighbors than to waste his emotions on distant powers, even if they do invade his island.
Nevertheless, the Nazis left an indelible mark on Guernsey, and Edwards includes many stories of cruelty and suffering. Ebenezer’s neighbor is sent to a concentration camp simply for listening to the radio. Gangs of emaciated war-prisoners build forts and watchtowers. Food supplies diminish precipitously, and a black market springs up. Many people, inevitably, collaborate with the Nazis. Ebenezer has nothing but scorn for the islanders who grow rich from German clients, but, as always, he is willing to look beyond his prejudices: he befriends a German soldier, with disastrous consequences, and smuggles food to the prisoners despite his own near-starvation. The war provides a setting for Ebenezer’s greatest acts of heroism and most heartrending moments of loss and betrayal. Yet, when it’s all over, the interlude seems almost dream-like. His life in those years is so different, and the enemies and hardships are so foreign, that the occupation stands out from Ebenezer’s narrative—and from Guernsey’s history—as a surreal and terrifying anomaly.
By the close of the book, the devastation of the two World Wars has paled, from Ebenezer’s perspective, beside the assault of tourism on Guernsey. In the two decades after the war, the tourist trade changes not only the island’s scenery, with countless bungalows, but its traditions, clothing, economy—even its language. Ebenezer sees this transformation with unspeakable grief. His heart, in the end, belongs to Guernsey, and so it is appropriate that the novel begins with a contemplation of its name:
Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say. Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Quéripel from Pleinmont say she is older but I reckon she is putting it on. When she was a young woman, she used to have a birthday once a year every two or three years; but for years now she have been having two or three a year. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how old I am. My mother put it down on the front page of the big Bible; but she put down the day and the month, and forgot to put down the year. I suppose I could find out if I went to the Greffe; but I am not going to bother about that now.My father was killed in the Boer War. He went off and joined the Irish Brigade and fought for the Boers. His name is with the others who died for their country on the monument was put up in St Julien’s Avenue and unveiled by the Duke of Connaught. I remember that day well, because me and Jim Mahy, my chum, went to Town to see it unveiled. It was drizzling in the morning and, by the evening, the rain was coming down in dollops. It put out the Chinese lanterns was all the way along Glatney and the fairy lights right to the end of the White Rock. There was an illuminated barge in the Pool, where the Band of the Militia was going to play; but it was a wreck. I thought it was going to be lovely to hear music coming over the water. They tried their best; but they had to give up. The Duke of Connaught was all right, him: he was indoors out of the rain, eating and drinking.I was a young man already when my father died; yet I can’t see his face now, what he looked like. I have seen his photo in the Family Album, of when he was a young man. He was wearing a braided jacket and trousers wide at the bottom; and he had a thick moustache and his hair done in a curl across his forehead. He looked as if he got a spice of the devil in him. I don’t know how he came to marry my mother. She was a good woman. She read the Bible day and night and, towards the end, when she got so big she couldn’t move, she did hardly anything else.She had been a handsome woman in her time, going by her photo of before she was married. She had straight black hair parted in the middle and done in a chignon at the back of her neck; and was in a black dress from under her chin to the tips of her toes, and wore a bustle. When she was a widow, she wore a black crêpe veil over her face for a year; and then went into half mourning and put a mauve flower in her bonnet. I never heard her speak of my father as ‘Alf’, or ‘Alfred’, or ‘my husband’; but only as ‘the father of Ebenezer and Tabitha’: me and my sister. When she said anything to me my father had said, it was always ‘according to your father’; and the way she said it made me think he was something I had done wrong. The only time I ever heard her speak of ‘my husband’ was once when she said to me, ‘Your father was my husband in the flesh: he was not of the Household of Faith.’The trouble was he was Church and she was Chapel. She didn’t mind being married Church. As she said, ‘After all, marriage is only for a few years’; but she made him promise that if she was the first to go, he would see to it she was buried Chapel. She didn’t want there to be any mistake later on.
So Ebenezer, writing with his usual skepticism and humor, launches into his tale, and four hundred pages of packed narrative unfold before he stops. He experiences so much misery on his beloved Guernsey, without ever yielding to bitterness, that though Edwards veers toward sentimentality at the conclusion, it comes as a welcome respite after the hard-hitting events that precede it. Readers will be relieved to discover that even Ebenezer, canniest and crankiest of Guernseymen, eventually gets a break.