Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

How refreshing after some lacklustre reading to find this novel, first published in 1937 and neglected until it was reprinted in the Recovered Books series by Boiler House Press. The novels of Gertrude Trevelyan have all but disappeared, and we have Brad Bigelow to thank for the recovery of this one. I came across Two Thousand Million Man-Power on Twitter, struck first by the cover and then by the many reviews praising this book. I am joining in the praise.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power

In this novel the narrative follows two ordinary, rather boring people from 1919 to 1936. Robert is a laboratory chemist in a cosmetics company on the edge of London. Katherine is a schoolteacher in a council school in south London. They come together at a political meeting. They claim to be communists and so avoid getting married, but eventually, after treading the streets of London together for several years, and avoiding landladies, they get married. This costs Katherine her job as there is a bar on married women teachers in council schools to help address male unemployment. 

Gertrude Trevelyan explores the effects of events in the world on ordinary people. These events are political, social and economic. Although they begin their married life in relative prosperity, Robert loses his job as the effects of the Great Crash affect his company. He has difficulty, for 18 months, in find another job. Katherine takes on teaching in a private school. They become less happy with each other and the world they live in.

This world is shown by the interpolation of lists of events spread throughout the novel. Such sections frequently refer to the new communist state of Russia, and the gradual disenchantment of the idealistic couple with communist ideology. The events are reported within a paragraph or fill a page. 

Now the World Economic Conference meets at Geneva, the Soviets take part by invitation, the Conference fails; the French Minister of the `interior speaks on the Communist Menace, Soviet headquarters are raided at Peking, British Government breaks off trade relations with Russia; ten Socialist MPs entertain members of the Russian Trade Delegation to luncheon at the House. “It’s all very well,” Robert says. ”You can’t get away from it, they’re enemies of law and order.” (88)

Such a technique, it has been claimed, originated with John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. which was published two years before Two Thousand Million Man-Power. As I understand it the earlier novel had separate sections while Gertrude Trevelyan integrates her references with the events in the wider world. I found this aspect of the novel, the integration of the lives of Robert and Katherine with the ‘real’ world of the 1920s and 1930s, both innovative and effective. 

This technique also served the big picture of this novel: it is hinted at in the rather esoteric title. Capitalism, the size of everything, the juggernaut of preparations for war, for progress, for economic growth (and decline) is represented by the idea of the machine. Towards the end of the novel, when we have reached 1936, Robert reflects on what lies before them, and how their lives had been taken over by the actual as well as the metaphorical machine. Their enthusiasm for progress has developed into an enthusiasm for consumerism.

In time Livingsby would retire and Robert might get his job, he’d be a little bit older and a bit more tired and he’d have a little less hair and he’d care a little bit less that he’d never done any of the things he’d wanted to, and they’d be able to have a bigger flat, and a newer and newer flat, and Kath would want a plane instead of a car. There’d be regular air services to New York and stratosphere races for aviators, and he’d be a bit older and pretty bald and Kath would have a transformation, and then there’d be regular stratosphere services and the record breakers would be higher up still, in rockets, and Kath would want a stratosphere cruise in the summer instead of a trip by air. (278-9)

There is a bit of a risk in taking two rather boring and unsympathetic characters to carry the novel over nearly twenty years. The narrative becomes less about what happens to Robert and Kath, more how international events profoundly affect ideals, ambitions and love. The hardest section of the novel concerns Robert’s daily search for work, with no prospects, until he is faced with the attraction of suicide in the London Docks, in sight of the City of London.

And although some of her (or Robert’s) prophesies do not manifest in the way she imagined, Gertrude Trevelyan also had some prescience about the way the machine uses the world’s resources.

Because the resources of the earth were being used up: coal, oil and finally water: water being used for power. Power being gradually drained from the earth, used up for speed and armaments and an increasing number of trivial, unnecessary purposes. Every housewife putting on an electric iron in her kitchen using up a bit of power from the earth’s centre. Like a lunatic on a tree, sawing off the branch he sits on. The world living on its capital. (266)

I loved discovering this innovative, creative and thoughtful writer. I look forward to reading more of her novels. Thanks to Brad Bigelow and Recovered Books for discovering this one.

Gertrude Trevelyan

Portrait of Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan July 1937 by Bassano Ltd. from the National Portrait Gallery Licensed under Creative Commons agreement

Born in Bath in 1903, Gertrude Trevelyan aspired to ‘a position of total obscurity’. She attended Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) after the First World War and claimed to enter the Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry as a joke in 1923. Julia, Daughter of Claudius won. She was fortunate enough to have a small private income that allowed her to live independently in a flat in London where she wrote seven novels between 1932 and her death (from injuries received in the Blitz) in 1941. Two Thousand Million Man-Power was her 5th novel. She was celebrated for her different experimental approaches in her novels, both the subject matter and her style. But she avoided the literary scene in London, took on no reviewing or teaching. This partly explains why she and her novels were so quickly forgotten.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. First published in 1937 and reissued by Recovered Books in 2022. 297pp.

Related posts and articles

Neglected Books Page by Brad Bigelow (December 2018)

HeavenAli (November 2022)

JacquiWine’sJournal (February 2023)

StuckInABook (November 2022)

Guardian article: If She was a Bloke, She’d still be in Print: the lost novels of Gertrude Trevelyan by Alison Flood (December 2022)

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

  1. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? She really is unjustly neglected!

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