No harm done: Racism and rape in Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board.

There’s a small subgenre of mid-20th-century fiction concerned with black or brown men being railroaded by white authorities on charges of sexually assaulting white girls. Or at any rate, there are two famous instances that came easily to my mind, besides the much obscurer novel I came here to discuss – which together should be enough to wring a couple thousand words out of.

Set yourself to guessing which two famous novels I’m thinking of, while I tell you about Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board, published in 1947. A lower-middle-class Englishman of no great brains or imagination learns that an old war injury will kill him inside of a year. He resolves to get in touch with three fellow soldiers who were kind to him in the hospital while he was recuperating from the wound. At the time all four had been at low points in their lives; the hero wants to see if the other three made it through all right, and if not, to attempt to repay their kindness during the time he has left.

It’s a pretty moving book, by the way. Among Shute’s several tales of stolid, decent, ordinary joes being dragged out of their routines into the wide romantic world, it’s the best I’ve read so far.

One of the men our hero tracks down, and the one whose story concerns us here, is a black ex-GI named Dave Lesurier.

Flashing back to the war years, we find Lesurier stationed near a village in Cornwall. He and his fellow black Americans, used to condescension and scorn from whites in their own country, are surprised to find that the English villagers treat them decently, and even tolerate them “walking out” with their white daughters. When a new white commanding officer arrives, he decides that these coloured boys are getting above themselves, and implements a more exacting regime to keep them in their place. The villagers side with the blacks, grumbling at the unfairness of the new rules.

Meanwhile, shy, tongue-tied Lesurier has developed a crush on a village girl, not quite seventeen, who works in the shop where he buys his cigarettes. Finding her friendly, but never having an opportunity to speak a private word to her, he approaches her on the street one night, intending to ask if she’d like to go for a walk. But when he tries to speak, things go awry…

Reading The Chequer Board, I wonder how the next generation, raised on current feminist orthodoxies, will interpret the scene where Lesurier “assaults” the girl. But before I get to that let’s consider the parallel cases in (did you guess?) Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India.

***

We never receive an objective account of what happened to the accuser, Mayella Ewell, in To Kill A Mockingbird. Our narrator, Scout Finch, can only report what she hears from the balcony overlooking the Maycomb County courtroom where Mayella, her father, and her supposed assailant give their testimony.

Nevertheless, no sane reader is going to come away believing that the accused is anything but perfectly innocent. In the Ewells’ version of events, Mayella hailed a random black man, Tom Robinson, as he passed their yard, offering him a nickel to “bust up this chiffarobe” – chop up an old wooden wardrobe for kindling. Tom entered the yard and, when Mayella stepped inside to retrieve the nickel, followed her in, jumped her, and viciously beat and raped her. Her father arrived home to find a man “ruttin’ on” his daughter, and chased him away.

In Tom’s much more detailed account, he’d been well known to Mayella already, having done various small chores free of charge out of pity for the dirt-poor, lonely white girl. Mayella invited him inside, threw her arms around him, and:

“She reached up an’ kissed me ‘side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back, nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”

What Mr. Ewell hollered, according to Tom, was “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya.” Tom ran off, leaving his supposed victim completely unharmed. What happened to her after she was left alone with her father, we can infer.

Mayella’s story seems to require her assailant to have been able to seize her by the neck while simultaneously beating her about the right side of her face, which Tom’s attorney Atticus Finch argues Tom, with his shriveled left arm, couldn’t have done. I doubt that a modern jury would disbelieve Mayella just because she was fuzzy on the details of her beating, or be moved by Atticus’s assertion that as a “strong girl” she should have been able to fend off her crippled but much larger attacker.

In fact, the reason we assume she and her father are lying, and that Tom Robinson is telling the truth, is simply that the narrator paints the Ewells as repellent racist cretins, and Tom as a noble victim. The same testimony presented minus the character portraits might lead to a different interpretation.

***

A Passage to India leaves more room for speculation, but not about the guilt of the accused: we’re told exactly what Dr. Aziz is doing at the time of Miss Quested’s ordeal in the Marabar Caves. Embarrassed over a moment of social awkwardness with his new acquaintance – Miss Quested has innocently asked whether Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, has one wife or several – Aziz ducks into the nearest cave to hide his confusion. Meanwhile the young Englishwoman wanders into a different cave, where…

“[T]here was this shadow, or sort of shadow, down the entrance tunnel, bottling me up. It seemed like an age but I suppose the whole thing can’t have lasted thirty seconds really. I hit at him with the glasses, he pulled me round the cave by the strap, it broke, I escaped, that’s all. He never actually touched me once. It all seems such nonsense.”

For all their blustering about this being the sort of thing that comes of mixing socially with the natives, the British authorities have every reason to assume Aziz’s guilt. He attempts to flee the arresting officers in a guilty-seeming way. The victim’s field-glasses, their strap broken, are discovered in his pocket. And he is found to have told his friends several small lies to smooth over the strangeness of Miss Quested abandoning the group without a word, scrambling down a hillside, and flagging down a passing car for a ride back to town.

Luckily for Aziz, the “queer, cautious” Miss Quested doesn’t share the prejudices of the local Anglo-Indians, and almost as soon as she recovers from her panic she begins to doubt her own memories.

I was reminded of Miss Quested while reading in the British press about three recent well-publicized rape cases that fell apart when exonerating evidence turned up. The barrister for one of the defendants commented:

I can’t talk about the psychology of those who make false accusations, but I do know that once a complaint is made and video evidence is recorded it is very difficult for a complainant to withdraw their allegations without facing prosecution. The whole thing snowballs. You can’t just go into a police station and say: “I was in a bit of an emotional mess at the time, I want to take it back.”

Despite her second thoughts, Miss Quested allows the prosecution to go forward: a skeptical observer comments that “[s]he has started the machinery; it will work to its end.” It takes great courage for her to dramatically recant her accusation mid-trial; she is shunned by the white community that had rallied to her so credulously, and exposes herself to the danger of a lawsuit from the outraged Dr. Aziz.

Still, something made the sensible young woman run in terror from the Marabar Caves that day. The question of whether she was in fact assaulted by a third person – perhaps the guide who disappeared immediately afterward, or “one of that gang of Pathans who have been drifting through the district” – or whether she hallucinated the whole thing, is left unanswered, and ultimately dismissed by Miss Quested as unimportant. She wasn’t harmed, after all.

***

One thing the accused have in common in A Passage to India and To Kill A Mockingbird is a complete lack of sexual interest in their supposed victims. Dr. Aziz feels it a disgrace “to have been mentioned in connexion with such a hag” as Miss Quested. Tom Robinson only feels sorry for Mayella Ewell, and is unwise enough to say so in his testimony; the comment doesn’t go over well with the white jurors.

The Chequer Board is a different case. Here’s what happens when Dave Lesurier, after standing around all evening waiting for her to pass by, finally spots the village girl he has a crush on:

He stood in front of her, and said, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped.

She said, “Oh, it’s you.” She smiled at him, a little nervously.

He said again, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped again, because it suddenly seemed silly to ask her to take a little walk with him one evening, at ten o’clock at night. And because he was uncertain what to do, and because he had to do something, he put his arms round her and kissed her.

For a moment she yielded, too surprised to do anything else. For a moment he thought that it was going to be all right. Then fear came to her, irrational, stark fear…

She started to struggly madly in Dave’s arms, to free herself. She cried, “Let me go, you beast, let me go.” And she cried quite loud.

Chagrined, and already ashamed, he released her. He said, “Say, I didn’t mean…Miss Grace, I guess I did wrong…” But she was gone, half running, sobbing with emotion and with fright.

When Dave hears the whistles of the American military policemen, he decides that the safest course is to scram – quite sensibly, as the MPs are prepared, in fact eager, to shoot the black rapist on sight. Eventually he’s cornered, and slashes his own throat in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which is how he ends up in hospital with the hero of The Chequer Board.

The American officers are none-too-secretly pleased to have a black soldier to make an example of, but the locals don’t think much of the ruckus. A village girl brushes off the incident:

“[A] girl what’s got her head screwed on right doesn’t have to get assaulted, not unless she wants to.”

Even Grace’s father thinks it’s a lot of fuss over nothing:

“Be all right if her mother’d stop putting a lot of fool notions in her head. After all, many a girl’s been kissed in a dark corner before now, and will be again.”

***

Maybe it’s tacky to conflate these fictional cases, streamlined for dramatic and moral effect, with ugly real world crimes; but reading these blithe dismissals of Grace’s complaint, I thought of a story told by British Columbia’s then-premier, Christy Clark, a few years back.

In 1974, fourteen-year-old Christy was walking to her job as a waitress when she was grabbed from the sidewalk by a stranger and pulled into the bushes. She resisted, the stranger lost his footing, and she wriggled free and ran off. Arriving at work she slipped into her apron and went on with her day, never mentioning the attack to anyone. She later wrote:

I suppose I felt that if I hadn’t been physically hurt, people would think I was self-absorbed, overly upset about something that was just part of life for my half of humanity.

I told myself: Get over it. Bad things happen. It was trivial.

If this is really what Christy Clark thought at the time, it’s consistent with the ethos communicated by the authors of A Passage to India and The Chequer Board, who deem it a sign of moral fortitude among women as well as men to suck it up and move on. A kiss and a squeeze from a stranger? A little tug-of-war in a dark cave? No harm done, dearie. Get over it.

Maybe this ethos really did discourage girls like young Christy Clark from reporting “bad things” when they happened, but I’m pretty sure no grown-up even then would have advised her to keep her mouth shut about the attack. No doubt 1970s police were more skeptical when women turned up with unsupported sexual assault allegations, but in no era have cops been okay with strangers dragging young girls off the street. They might have decided that Clark’s story was too vague to pursue (she remembered nothing about her attacker’s appearance), but they might also have received other reports of a pervert skulking in the bushes, and pieced together something about his habits and whereabouts.

I’m not convinced that our modern culture of therapy and oversharing is actually healthier than the old one of swallowed emotions. Maybe Clark would have benefited from the psychological support that a modern police force would have scurried to provide, but the worst consequence of her silence wasn’t her mental trauma; she obviously turned out fine. It’s that a potential rapist was left free to traumatize other girls.

As for Dave Lesurier – we know he meant no harm, but Grace had no way to know. Nor did the military policemen summoned by her screams.

***

After Dave’s suicide attempt, the local innkeeper, concerned about the growing tensions between the black and white soldiers who patronize his pub, is moved to write a letter to General Eisenhower, describing the attempted rape charge as “a bit of humbug”. This results in a level-headed officer from the US Army’s Staff Judge-Advocate’s office being dispatched to investigate the case. He questions Grace about the kiss:

“What happened when you started struggling? Did he let you go, or did he hang on?”

She said, “I was ever so frightened. I don’t really know.” She thought for a minute. “I ran round the corner and bumped right into another man, that fat policeman.”

“That’s not what the lieutenant put in his report. He said that the Negro didn’t let you go until the policeman came. It makes a big difference,” he explained, “whether he let you go at once or not until the policeman came.”

She said, “I think he must have let go. I think he must have done. He wasn’t all that bad.”

With a little bit of time to reflect – and away from the influence of her overbearing mother – Grace decides that it was only a harmless misunderstanding after all. The charge is withdrawn; Dave stays in the army and, when the war is over, remembering the kindness of the villagers, makes his way back to Cornwall. When the hero tracks him down at the end of the novel, he’s living near the scene of the fateful kiss – and married to Grace.

M.

I’ve previously written about Nevil Shute’s autobiography Slide Rule (and evolving linguistic taboos) and his novel In The Wet (and the strange electoral reform scheme described therein).

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