Thought Transference in Three Novels by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute’s Experiments with Thought Transference in Three Novels about Flight

David K. Vaughan


Every one of Nevil Shute’s novels could be considered as an experiment of some kind, because he tried something new in every new work, whether it had to do with subject matter, theme, geographical location, occupation of the main character, or religious or philosophical emphasis.  Three of his twenty-two novels stand out for their truly experimental nature: An Old Captivity (1940), In the Wet (1953), and The Rainbow and the Rose (1958).  In each of these novels Shute employs a thought transference process which enables a character who lives in one era to experience the thoughts and actions of a character who lives in another era.  In all three of the novels one character enters the mind of another character and lives (or re-lives) the experiences of that character.  In this presentation, I would like first to briefly summarize the basic plot details of each novel, and then compare similarities among the three stories.  Finally, I would like to suggest what Shute might have been attempting to do in writing these novels.  In support of my analysis, I will briefly describe some sources and ideas that he may have drawn upon as inspiration for his thought transference novels.

An Old Captivity 

An Old Captivity, the earliest of the three thought transference novels, was a product of one of the most productive periods of writing in Shute’s life, when he produced four novels within a period of three years after he resigned as head of Airspeed LTD.  The story line focuses on a scientific expedition to search for evidence of early Irish habitation in Greenland.  The book was published in 1940 but has generally been overshadowed by the books published before and after it appeared.  The work that preceded it by two years, Ruined City (1938), described the impact of the depression and bureaucratic processes on a community that was struggling to base a local economy on the production of ships.  Ruined City was followed by Shute’s even more contemporary and relevant novel, What Happened to the Corbetts, published in 1939, about the possible events associated with a hostile air attack on England.  It may be that the story of An Old Captivity was not seen as relevant to modern conditions in the same way that the previous two works were.  The book that followed it, Landfall (1940), was also more appealing to a British readership caught up in the early months of the war.  An Old Captivity seems escapist in mood compared to the more serious contemporary settings of the other three novels of the period.

The story begins in an intriguing manner, as the story’s initial narrator, a psychiatrist named Morgan, meets an Imperial Airways pilot from Scotland named Donald Ross on a French train en route to Italy.  The opening line in the novel is “This case came before me quite by chance in the spring of last year,” suggesting that the narrator is treating the story as if it were some kind of a case study.  As their train is temporarily shunted onto a siding due to an accident farther up the line, the two men talk over dinner.  Once he learns that Morgan is a psychiatrist, Ross hesitatingly brings up the subject of dreams: “Would you say that dreams—exceptionally vivid dreams—meant that a chap was mentally unstable?” (8).  Morgan assures Ross that as long as the person is able to distinguish between the dream and reality, there should be no problem.  At this point, nine pages into the novel, the narrative becomes that of Donald Ross, and Morgan, the original narrator of the story, disappears.  Ross tells the story of how he became involved in an aerial expedition and eventually experienced the thoughts of another being, living in an earlier time, through his “exceptionally vivid dreams.”  The motif of dream as avenue of thought transfer, which is established at the beginning of this novel, reappears in the two later novels.

Ross tells Morgan the story of how, after completing his RAF service, he became a civilian pilot and eventually was hired to pilot a seaplane to fly an Oxford don, Cyril Lockwood, to Greenland in an effort to discern evidence of the ruins of an old Irish camp called Brattalid on the southwest coast of Greenland.  Lockwood hopes to find evidence that the original camp in Brattalid was built by early Irish explorers before the Norwegians colonized the site.  Such evidence would lend support to the tentative theory that the Irish were the first to leave their mark on Greenland.  Because an Oxford don is not likely to have the resources to purchase a large seaplane and to equip the expedition, with the necessary equipment, Shute provides Lockwood with a wealthy industrialist brother from Coventry, Sir David, who not only has status and money but positively insists that his brother undertake the venture to advance scientific knowledge: “In twenty years’ time I shall be dead . . . .  In thirty years Coventry folks won’t know the name of Lockwood. . . . . .  But in thirty years people will still be talking of your work.  In a hundred and thirty years.  That’s what strikes me as wonderful” (60).

The don’s daughter, Alexis (Alix), convinces her father and her uncle that she should go along to assist her father.  Alix initially suspects that Ross is merely trying to milk her father and uncle for money and to lead her father on a trip which he really should not attempt due to his age.  Ross reluctantly agrees to carry her as part of the party.  We as readers soon suspect that such strong antagonism between the daughter and the pilot must eventually give way to a romantic relationship.

Shute provides a detailed description of the preparatory steps that Ross goes through as he prepares both the plane and the provisions for the extended flight.  It is almost as if Shute were planning in his imagination the kind of exploratory flights that had actually been undertaken by other well-known aviators in the early 1930s: the Lindberghs and their 1931 trip to Japan and their 1933 trip to Europe, Africa, and South America; Italo Balbo in his 1933 flight from Rome to the United States; Ross Smith and his 1933 flights to India and Africa.  Shute describes in great detail the radio equipment and the configurations of the aircraft.  He also describes accurately the flying conditions an aircraft would encounter in the far northern environments of Iceland and Greenland.  Because the expedition has to be completed quickly, Ross has little time to complete his preparations, which include not only planning the route of flight and sending out men with provisions for enroute stops, but also purchasing the aircraft and equipping it with necessary equipment for the flight.

As the flight progresses, Alix begins to change her attitude towards Ross; she discovers how hard the work of piloting the aircraft and supervising the expedition is, and she begins to assist him in several tasks.  The first instance in which she becomes useful is to help tie the floatplane to the water buoy whenever they land; she also talks to him about the aircraft instruments when he is tempted to doze off.  Most importantly, she takes over the tasks of aerial photographer when the man they have hired to do the job is incapacitated by a broken leg.  She also hurriedly studies the Danish language in the weeks before their departure, and her linguistic skills are useful once the expedition reaches Greenland.

As he completes his many tasks, Ross become increasingly fatigued.  As the flight progresses, Ross’ weariness increases until, when they are held up by bad weather at a coastal Eskimo village in Greenland, he attempts to rest.  There he has the first in a series of dreams in which he finds himself experiencing an alternative life; in this short first dream he is running “over a sort of moor” (192).  They move their camp to the Brattalid site, which shows evidence of earlier structures having been built there.  The two Greenland native men who are assisting them at this camp say that the site is haunted by bad spirits.  When Ross and Lockwood ask the men to set up camp in what appears to be a good location, the men object because the location “is not good at night,” as Alix translates their comments, “because of the old people” (226).  When Ross awakes after their first night at the Brattalid camp, Lockwood notices he is trembling, and Ross says he has had another dream, “the hell of a dream,” about a bear that fought him for possession of a dead seal: “All I had was one of those little short spears, for seals, and I fought it with that” (232).  After most of the aerial survey work is completed, Ross falls asleep and Lockwood and his daughter are unable to awaken him.  One of the Eskimo men tells them that they must move Ross to another location, away from the present camp, or he will never awaken.  Lockwood and Alix decide to follow the Eskimo’s advice and move Ross.

While Alix waits for Ross to awaken, she recognizes that the location gives her a specially intense sensation of personal satisfaction: “From time to time she stood outside the tent and looked around; in spite of everything she was happy.  The barren landscape seemed to be a friendly place to her.  There was nothing bad here, nothing to be afraid of” (254).  Ross sleeps for thirty-six hours before he awakens and when he does awaken, his first words (spoken to Alix) are: “This is a good country, better than Greenland.  I will ask Leif to let us stay here when the ship goes back, and you shall have your children here” (254).  Alix naturally is as surprised as she is relieved to hear Ross speak.  They suggest he return to the base camp at Julianehaab for further rest.  There Ross tells them that he dreamed he was a young man named Haki, a young Scot, who became a slave in the household of Leif, a leader of the Norwegian outpost on Greenland.  Ross says he lived this dream for a period of three weeks.

The story of the dream takes up one of the ten chapters in the book, in which Ross describes what he experienced in his dream.  He describes how he, as a young man named Haki living in a land later known as Scotland, is captured by a raiding band of Vikings.  Placed on board the Viking ship, Haki meets Hekja, a young woman whom the Vikings have also captured.  Led by Leif, the Vikings return to Norway for a period of time before Leif sets sail for Greenland; Leif brings Haki and Hekja along because their well-developed running skills will provide Leif with crucial reconnoitering abilities if they reach land.  They leave Greenland in search of more promising lands further west, eventually landing on the coast of modern day Massachusetts, where they deposit a stone bearing the names of Haki and Hekja.  It is evident that the young man and woman in the dream are similar counterparts to Ross and Alix Lockwood, who by this time in the story have formed a strong emotional attachment to one another.

Ross’s dream narrative of Haki and Hekja closely matches the journey of Ross and Alix;  both journeys share many characteristics, including the route of travel and appearance, nature, and relationship of the characters.  As Professor Lockwood summarizes Hekja’s description to his daughter Alix, who has overheard Ross’ account, “A girl with short, fair hair, wearing a white overall, who was his companion in his work.  You don’t have to dig far into his memories to find somebody like that” (304).  After Ross recovers his strength, the expedition continues to America, where Ross impulsively lands the airplane on the Massachusetts coastal shoreline at the exact location where the earlier Viking expedition had landed.  Ross goes directly to a rock containing markings he had described in his dream.  Lockwood identifies them as runic markings which translate as the names of the young man and woman.  Alix, who has gradually come to admire and love the dedicated, hard-driven Scot, acknowledges that she feels that she knows the location as well:  “I know these marks,” she said at last.  “I’ve done this before, some time . . .”  (332).  She asks what Hekja was like, and Ross answers, “She was like you. . . .  We were very much in love in those days,” he said softly.  “We could be again.  Leif said our names would be together, for as long as this stone should endure” (333).

It becomes clear that the dreamed experiences of the two young Scot man and woman parallel the experiences of the later generation Scot pilot and his girl friend.  Shute has carefully constructed two parallel stories of exploration, one in the days of the Vikings and one in the modern days of aerial exploration, involving parallel lives: however, Ross and Alix are not merely like Haki and Hekja; they were Haki and Hekja.  The story is not merely one of kindred spirits sharing similar adventures; it is a story of transcendence.

In the Wet 

Thirteen years and nine novels later, Shute once again incorporated the concept of thought transference in a novel.  In In the Wet (1953), Shute relies on the thought transference process to project forward into time, not backwards.  In this novel, set in Australia (Shute had moved to Australia by this time), the main character, Roger Hargreaves, a minister of the Church of England, tells the strange story of how he attended the sickbed of an Australian outback halfbreed named Stevie Figgins.  Figgins apparently had served in the Royal Air Force in WWI as a pilot, but by the time of the story, has become pretty much of an inebriated recluse who lives with Liang Shih, a Chinaman devoted to raising vegetables and poppies to support his opium habit.

When Hargreaves travels into the outback during the wet (rainy) season to attend to Stevie in his terminal illness, Stevie tells him his name is not Stevie, but David Anderson, or “Nigger” Anderson, the nickname traditionally given by British flyers to anyone whose skin is darker than normal.  To relieve the pain he is experiencing Stevie is partaking of Liang Shih’s opium pipe, and he drifts in and out of a dream-state as he drifts in and out of consciousness.  At the same time, Hargreaves is suffering from a recurrence of malaria, brought on by the heat and humidity, and he also drifts into a semi-lucid state as Stevie relates to him what seems at first to be a disconnected series of rambling tales involving strange names and places.  Eventually, as Hargreaves becomes weaker and weaker as the result of the onset of his malaria, his thoughts and the thoughts of his patient merge, and Hargreaves becomes Stevie, or more specifically, he becomes David Anderson, the man who will inherit Stevie’s spirit after Stevie dies as a result of the transmigration of his spirit.  The time period David Anderson is living in is around the year 1985, thirty years after the present-day time of the novel.

Through Hargreaves’ thought transference process, we learn that David Anderson has had a long and successful career as a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, distinguishing himself to such a degree that he has been rewarded by being assigned as one of the three commonwealth pilots whose job it is to fly the Queen and members of the Royal family around during their state visits.  Anderson develops a romantic interest in Rosemary Long, a private secretary to the Queen.  At the time of Anderson’s experiences, thirty years in the future, the citizens of the United Kingdom have become increasingly critical of the actions (and expenses) of the members of the royal family and through key members of parliament are restraining the activities of the royal family.  Thus, the members of the colonial air forces who are part of the royal flight find themselves increasingly relied on to carry the queen and members of her family efficiently and safely.  There is increasing concern about threats on the life of the queen from dissident citizens.  Eventually the royal family comes to believe that the Canadian royal flight and the Australian royal flight are the only flight crews that can be relied on to do their jobs promptly and professionally.

This situation marks the main thematic issue of this novel, which is to criticize the trends of British society to denigrate the real and symbolic achievement of the royal family.  This novel continues Shute’s critical assessment of political developments in England that began with the first of his novels set fully in Australia, The Far Country (1952).   This novel contains Shute’s description of the “seven vote” system that Australia has recently established.  Under this system every citizen has one electoral vote for being a citizen, earned at age 21; additional votes are added if the citizen has completed a university degree and works as a professional (doctor, lawyer, soldier), has lived outside the country for two years, and has raised two children to the age of 14 without getting a divorce (the “family” vote).  The fifth vote comes with sufficient earned income, and the sixth vote comes for being an official of the church.  The seventh vote can only be bestowed by the queen in recognition of exceptional service (86-87—Ch.3).

As in An Old Captivity, flight activity is important to the events of the story, as Anderson discovers that, in spite of his best security efforts, a bomb very likely has been planted on his aircraft which is carrying the queen to Australia.  In a deft bit of airmanship, Anderson manages to drop the bomb (hidden in a strange suitcase) over the Adriatic as they are flying over Italy; in reward, the Queen bestows the seventh vote on him.  Unlike An Old Captivity, the narrative describing the futuristic adventures of Anderson constitutes the majority of the narrative (approximately 200 pages of a 280-page book).  This is a risky narrative strategy, to split the narrative between a present-day story involving the approaching death of a washed-up old timer in the wet season and a futuristic story involving the precarious political status of the royal family and the role played by jet-powered aircraft of the British Royal Flight.

Shute carefully sets up the scene in the outback in which both Stevie and Hargreaves drift in and out of consciousness; the strategy is successful, primarily because Shute convincingly describes the exhausting nature of the experience: “I sat there, feverish and confused, listening to his fantasy while the rain drummed down upon the roof, drowning all sound” (60).  The strange shift in time and place works also because Shute heavily invests the onset of the thought transference episode with symbolic religious significance:

“A faint odour of burning incense drifted round me as I sat there in the darkness, and I thought that [Laing, the Chinaman] had probably lit another of his joss sticks before the Buddha.  The rain still drummed upon the roof but the clouds cannot have been very thick because to my night-accustomed eyes it was light enough to see a little way across the open clearing [surrounding the house], looking through the open door from where I sat.  The animals [cattle, wild dogs, dingos, wild pigs, wallabies] were still there; they had come closer in the darkness so that they could still watch the house, though now the lights had been extinguished.”  (57)

The religious significance of the animals gathering round before Stevie dies is not lost on Hargreaves, an ordained minister, and even though their presence is logically accounted for due to the flooding caused by the rain, the fact that they seem to be looking steadily towards the house denotes a supernatural situation.  As we discover at the end of the novel, David Anderson is in fact born at the exact moment that Stevie dies, thus demonstrating Shute’s belief in the transmigration of souls at least as a narrative device if not in fact as a personally-held religious belief.  The pattern of parallel experience seen in An Old Captivity is thus repeated in In the Wet, as the life of one Australian native with aboriginal blood who flies in the service of the United Kingdom is matched by the life of another who also does so.

Shute uses the dream mechanism in reverse fashion within the David Anderson narrative.  At one point, Anderson, tired from his intense flying schedule, retires to his bedroom to sleep, where he has a “horrible dream,” in which he “dreamed that he was dying.”  In his dream he sees a deserted shack with a “mad priest” sitting by his side, a sister from a hospital asleep, and a Chinaman who brings him a pipe to ease the pain in his abdomen.  He also sees animals coming closer: “All the animals in the world had come through the darkness and the floods, running and creeping and hopping and crawling to this small place in the wilderness.  They had come because death is a great mystery, and animals are curious about the mystery as well as men, so they had come to see him die (156).”  As the effects of Liang’s pipe begin to work, David is wakened from his dream and returns to his narrative.  David eventually returns to his disturbing dream once again as Stevie finally passes away, as Shute’s prose describes it:  “The wild dogs and the wild pigs, and the cattle, and the wallabies, stood in a circle round the house in the grey, rainy dawn, their heads all turned to us in adoration, watching the majesty of his passing” (262).

In the Wet is probably Shute’s most daringly imaginative and politically ambitious novel.  It is filled with religious symbols and significance, especially in the setting of Stevie Figgins’ death.  It certainly represents his harshest attack on the wavering political principles and beliefs he apparently thought were evidenced in the English national spirit at the time.  It also shows Shute’s ambivalent feelings towards his home country: profound respect for its traditions and goals mixed with scathing suspicion of its ability to deal adequately with the economic and social needs of its people.

The Rainbow and the Rose 

Shute waited only five years before incorporating thought transference into another novel, in The Rainbow and the Rose (1958).  The Rainbow and the Rose followed the success of On the Beach (1957) and demonstrated Shute’s pattern of varying the subjects and themes of his works.  In this novel, Shute uses the thought transference concept to describe the life of a contemporary character, not one living in the distant past or near future.  In this book, the primary narrator, an Australian airline pilot named Ronnie Clarke, experiences events in the life of another airline pilot named Johnnie Pascoe, whose life he is trying to save.  Clarke is flying the Sydney-Melbourne run for Australian Continental Airways when he hears that Johnnie Pascoe, recently retired from his airlines job, has crashed on the west coast of Tasmania while flying a small aircraft in an attempt to reach a young girl apparently suffering from appendicitis and bring her to a hospital.  The strip, on the top of a hill, is extremely short, about 200 yards long and 40 feet wide, and the only aircraft capable of landing on it are small aircraft possessing short-field landing and takeoff characteristics.  To make the situation worse, the weather has been especially bad, with a steady spell of low cloud, wind, and rain.  Pascoe is reported to have suffered a skull fracture in the accident, and Ronnie Clarke determines to bring help to Pascoe if he can.

Clarke decides to help Pascoe because Pascoe was his flight instructor in England during the years before WWII.  At the time, Pascoe was a veteran flier, having flown for the RAF in WWI, and Clarke was a novice.  Except for that time during training, Clarke had had no contact with Pascoe and knew about him only through reputation and word of mouth from stories told by other pilots.  Clarke decides that his best course of action is to travel to the small town of Buxton, in the west central section of Tasmania, where he hopes to obtain a suitable aircraft with which to fly the rescue attempt.  Buxton also happens to be the home of Johnnie Pascoe, in whose house Clarke resides temporarily because the town’s small hotel has no available rooms.

When Clarke attempts to fly to the Tasmanian coast with a doctor to assist Pascoe, bad weather prevents him from landing, and he is forced to return to Buxton.  He makes a second attempt immediately, but that effort fails as well.  Like Ross in An Old Captivity and Hargreaves in In the Wet, Clarke reaches a state of near exhaustion from his efforts.  When he eventually enters Pascoe’s house, he has been awake for many hours, traveling to the town of Buxton, finding an aircraft to fly, persuading a doctor to accompany him, and making two separate unsuccessful flights through bad weather.  Before he goes to sleep, he explores Pascoe’s house, observing the many aeronautical artifacts and photographs that Pascoe has hung on the walls of his living room and bedroom.  He sees several photographs of the young Johnnie Pascoe in a World War I aviator’s flying outfit standing next to a variety of WWI aircraft; many of these show an attractive young woman whose name appears to be Judy.  He also sees another, later photograph of another woman, Brenda Marshall, whom Clarke had known at Duffington, in England, where he first learned to fly, and where Johnnie Pascoe had been his flight instructor.

Before he can explore further, he is visited by a woman who identifies herself as Marian Forbes, the daughter of Pascoe and his first wife, a London actress named Judy Lester.  The daughter essentially tells Clarke that she doesn’t believe her father is worth the effort to save his life because he deserted her and her mother: “He’s and out-and-out rotter.  I don’t want to see anybody taking risks, real risks, that is, over a man like that.  You or anybody else” (68).  Clarke’s response is immediate and unambiguous: “I disliked this woman very much, her attitude, her cynicism, her whole way of looking at things.  I didn’t like any part of her, and she was keeping me out of bed” (71).  Angry, tired and frustrated, Clarke eventually asks the woman to leave so that he can get some sleep.

Before he goes to bed, he walks around Johnnie Pascoe’s living room, studying the many photos Pascoe has hung on his walls. Most of them are of Pascoe in his RFC flying uniform with other pilots from his World War I flying days.  As Clarke enters Johnnie Pascoe’s bedroom, he sees that the housekeeper has laid out Johnnie Pascoe’s pyjamas from him to wear to bed.  It is worth examining that section in detail to see how ably Shute creates an environment in which the two minds of Clarke and Pascoe become one in Clarke’s dreamlike reverie:

“Now Johnnie Pascoe was providing them [pyjamas] for me, as he was providing everything else in this room.

His razor, his hairbrushes, his washing things, his towel, were there for me to use if I wanted them.  His pictures were there for me to look at and to savor his early life, even in this room.  There was a very large framed photograph of the earliest Handley Page bomber, the 0.400, with a Camel flying beside it, perhaps to show the scale of the big aircraft; the Camel had the same chequered markings that I had seen on the photo in the other room.  There were two pictures of biplane fighters that I could not identify at all, and one of an S.E.5.  His bed was there for me to sleep in, his pyjamas for me to wear.

I threw off my clothes and got into his pyjamas, washed my teeth at his washbasin, and got into his bed.  I put out his bedside light and settled down to sleep, tired after thirty-six hours on the go.”

In his wearied state of mind, the narrator briefly thinks about the necessity to rescue Johnnie Pasco, and as he falls asleep his mind is filled with images linked to the photographs he has observed on the walls of Johnnie Pascoe’s house.  Three paragraphs later the narrator’s “I” now refers to Johnnie Pascoe, and the narrative slips back in time to Pascoe’s experiences in World War I.  At this point the narrative becomes that of Johnnie Pascoe and extends for over twenty pages (84-107).

In this first of three sequences in the book narrated (or experienced) by Johnnie Pascoe, the action occurs in 1918, during the final year of the war.  In this episode, while Johnnie Pascoe is preparing to participate in aerial combat in France, he meets and falls in love with a London dance hall star named Judy Lester.  Strongly attracted to each other, they hastily marry before Pascoe departs for France with his RFC squadron.  While he is in France, several men in his unit are killed or wounded while flying, and he is shot down and made a prisoner of war.  While he waits for the war to end in a German camp, Judy Lester gives birth to a daughter.  By the time he returns to England, their relationship is essentially at an end.  Judy travels to the United States where she eventually obtains a divorce.

When the Clarke narrator awakes from the dream in a state of extreme sadness, he wakes “in the darkness in the little windswept house beside the aerodrome in Tasmania,” and his face and “Johnnie Pascoe’s pillow were all wet with tears” (107).

The narration returns to the present time of the novel, as Clarke returns his attention to the preparations for another attempt to rescue Johnnie Pascoe.  As he waits for a nurse to arrive, he decides to return to Johnnie Pascoe’s bed, to try to continue his rest.  He immediately falls asleep and experiences the second of three episodes featuring Johnnie Pascoe.

In this episode, Johnnie Pascoe is a flight instructor at an airfield outside London.  It is now the late 1920s, and many people are interested in learning how to fly, especially in a recently developed bi-wing trainer, the De Havilland Moth, which is an excellent open cockpit training aircraft.  It is at this time that Johnnie meets Ronnie Clarke, whom Pascoe teaches to fly.  Pascoe also teachers a young woman named Brenda Marshall how to fly.  Brenda and Johnnie fall in love, a relationship that is hampered by the fact that Brenda is married to Derek, a London lawyer.  However, their relationship is an unhappy one, and Brenda becomes increasingly depressed because she is unable to obtain a divorce from Derek.  Brenda becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter, an event which Johnnie is delighted with.  However, the relationship between Brenda and Derek become ugly, and Brenda, depressed, leaves a farewell message for Johnnie, takes off in a training plane, puts the aircraft into a spin and dives into the ground near the Duffington flying club hangar, killing herself.

As the narrator says, with almost comic irony, “for the second time that night I woke from a bad dream” (189).  This second episode, however, is much more extended than the first, taking up some eighty pages in the narrative.  The relationship between Johnnie Pascoe and Brenda Marshall is described in much more detail and with more sensitivity than the WWI relationship.  It is no wonder then, that when Ronnie Clarke rouses himself from his second dream, he is astonished to see a woman asleep in a chair in front of the fire in Pascoe’s living room who looks like Brenda Marshall, but who identifies herself as Sister Peggy Dawson, the nurse who has come to assist Clarke in his efforts to help Pascoe.  In discussion Clarke learns that she had been an air hostess on Pascoe’s crew for a period of time when she had tired temporarily of her nursing life.  She fixes Clarke a cup of Ovaltine and tells him to return to bed for some more sleep before they depart.

Clarke dreams of Johnnie Pascoe’s life again, but this time the dream is of a portion of Pascoe’s career as an airline pilot flying the Pacific routes to Australia.  In this segment Peggy Dawson appears as a conscientious airline hostess who eventually is assigned to Pascoe’s crew.  She joins his crew during the last year before he retires, and the two of them develop an increasingly close relationship.  Although Pascoe realizes there is a great age disparity between them, he persists in the relationship due to the fact that he is strongly attracted to the woman and feels so comfortable with her.  He eventually proposes marriage but is surprised when she confesses that she actually is his daughter, the child of the relationship he had with Brenda Marshall.  He knew that a daughter had been born before Brenda Marshall had died, but had thought she had died young, which is what her grandmother had told him.  Peggy Dawson apologizes for leading him on, but says she wanted to get to know him on a personal basis before identifying herself to him, and the situation had developed.  Although he is somewhat embarrassed at having asked his daughter to marry him, that embarrassment is lost in the overwhelming good feeling he has knowing that he has a daughter from his relationship with Brenda Marshall, and he tells her that “everything’s come good at last”:

“Everything had come good at last, after so many years.  I had reached the happy ending of the story, and I was quietly, serenely happy.  In the soft, velvety darkness I lay utterly at peace for I had finished with all heartaches, with all pains and worries; nothing could touch me now.  I had finished the book but I could take it up and read it over and over again, and I would do so, secure in the knowledge of the happiness in the last chapter.  There would be no more misery ahead of me, for everything had come good.”  (252)

This paragraph serves as the transition between the thoughts of Johnnie Pascoe and Ronnie Clarke, so that the words could apply to both.  The final chapter of the story describes the flight to the Tasmanian airstrip, where Clarke, Peggy Dawson, and the doctor land to discover that Johnnie Pascoe has died.  But the tragedy of their failed attempt is tempered by the knowledge, at least for Ronnie Clarke, that Johnnie Pascoe died contented with his personal situation.  If Ronnie Clarke could not arrive in time to save Johnnie Pascoe’s life, he at least had the knowledge that he was able to make a successful landing on a nearly impossible landing strip and do so without injuring anyone.  And in a way Johnnie Pascoe’s happy ending is also Ronnie Clarke’s, for he has been able to share the life and achievements of Johnnie Pascoe in the relatively brief period of thirty-six hours (265).

As in In the Wet, Shute creates a story in which there are two complementary—one might almost say competing—narratives, for during the last half of the book, the primary narrative of the effort to rescue Pascoe and the little girl he had been trying to save nearly disappears from view as we learn the details of Pascoe’s life.  Once again Shute takes a great artistic risk in composing two stories in one framework.  In reflecting on the details of the narrative, we realize that Shute could have combined the two aspects of the story in a much more normal or traditional manner but chose not to.  He clearly wanted the dream mechanism to be centrally featured.  The question is why?  Once again, as in the first two books, the answer lies in considerations of symbolic patterns in his novels and the resultant meaning derived from them.


In all three novels, Shute returns to the concept of the wearied spirit as essential to conditions for establishing thought transference from one character to another.  In all three novels as well, the right kind of environment is crucial for thought transference to occur.  In the earliest novel the setting is an outdoor camp, in the second the setting is an old ramshackle habitation surrounded by water, and the third is a pilot’s rooms full of pictures and other mementos.  Shute’s detailed descriptions of these locations offer magical environments that facilitate the thought transference experience.  Through the experience of thought transference, all three novels offer the possibility of spiritual regeneration, as one life lost is able to empower another life to be successful in a continuous effort that spans, in two of the three cases, many years.

In all three novels as well there are carefully matched sets of characters; in An Old Captivity, there is a direct correspondence between Ross and Alix and Haki and Hekja.  In In the Wet, there is a correspondence between Stevie and David Anderson and between Hargreaves and Figgins, with the woman Rosemary (whose name, of course, is associated with “remembrance,” according to Shakespeare’s Ophelia) and whose image serves as the spiritual link between the two characters.  In The Rainbow and the Rose, there are three sets of balanced characters in the story: the two wives of Johnnie Pascoe and the two daughters, one the bad wife and daughter, and the other the good wife and daughter.  The third set of paired characters is Johnnie Pascoe and Ronnie Clarke, two pilots who share the same sensations and desires, although separated by a generation.  In this work, Shute modifies his approach to the transmigration of souls.  Unlike An Old Captivity and In the Wet, there is no transference of soul from a character in one era to a character living in another, as we see in the Haki/Ross and Figgins/Anderson relationships.  In this case the shared sensation passes between two pilots who are alive in the same era.  Ronnie Clarke’s last dream of Johnnie Pascoe ends, with the moment of personal fulfillment previously described, at the exact moment that Johnnie Pascoe dies.  The death of Johnnie Pascoe is a release for Ronnie Clarke as well, for through Pascoe’s death, both men realize that although they have failed in some degree in their lives, they have experienced greater success than failure.

In all three novels as well, there is an important, crucial flight: the flight of exploration and discovery in An Old Captivity; a flight of political importance and creative airmanship in In the Wet; and a flight to save a life (unsuccessful though it is) in Rainbow and the Rose.  All three novels demonstrate carefully crafted balanced patterns of relationships in combination with the idea of renewal.

Sources and Inspirations 

Finally, we should consider where Shute might have found the source for his thought transference concept.  It certainly is unique in literature; few novels employ the concept.  The basic idea of transferring thought forward can be credited to two unusual individuals: a theorist and a novelist, both of whom can be associated, at least in some way, with the idea of flight.

The idea of thought transference through dreams was generated by an aviation pioneer whose work (both technical and philosophical) Shute must certainly have known of, the English aviation pioneer J. W. Dunne, the inventor of an early successful flying machine that featured a forward-swept wing design.  Dunne flew this type of aircraft successfully in the early years of flight in England.  He eventually retired from the flying business and moved into another new and experimental activity: thought transference through time.

Dunne wrote five thin but complex philosophical books, quite influential in England, which developed this idea.  The first and most important, An Experiment with Time, was published in 1927 and has been reprinted frequently.  This work was an important book on the study of time, especially as it could be modified through the experience of dreams.  That Shute knew of this book and knew its contents is indicated in the fact that he refers to it by title in No Highway.

Dunne’s second book on the topic was The Serial Universe, published in 1934; it was subtitled “Using new rules to understand time and its meaning to us.”  The third volume, The New Immortality (1938), featured a preface by the English writer J. B. Priestley, who called Dunne “the boldest, most original yet most persuasive of Time theorists.”  Dunne’s fourth book, Nothing Dies, followed two years later.  His final book, Intrusions, was published in 1955, six years after his death.  Although Dunne explored human accessibility to time periods other than the present time, he was consistent in his reliance on the dream as a mode of thought conveyance, and it is probably no accident that Shute used the dream mechanism in the three novels he wrote involving thought transference through time.

However, Shute may have been introduced to the ideas of Dunne by an important English writer who used Dunne’s thought transference ideas as the basis of a novel.  The writer was H. G. Wells, and the novel was The Shape of Things to Come, which was published in 1933.  The Shape of Things to Come is quintessentially Wells: it is a combination of fantasy, wry humor, cultural commentary, a parody of history, and brief sketches of a variety of characters.  It is an imaginary account of a futuristic aviation-based technocracy as related by a present-day (1933) English diplomat and delegate to the League of Nations, Dr. Philip Raven.  His notes constitute a future history of the world as related in the year 2106.  Dr. Raven possesses the unnatural ability to dream extensively about future events; Wells serves as editor and transcriber of Raven’s notes, which have been left in Wells’ hands after the untimely death of Dr. Raven.  These notes describe in detail the basis for the possibility of dreaming into the future.

The novel opens with an Introduction, written by the author, who attempts to describe how it is possible that information about world events that extend nearly one hundred years into the future could possibly be known in the present day.  Posing as the “editor” of the notes left to him by Dr. Raven, Wells directly acknowledges the role that Dunne’s theory of thought projection plays in the book.  Saying that J. W. Dunne was one of “his gifted and original friends,” he praises the theory that Dunne had proposed:

Mr. J. W. Dunne, who years ago invented one of the earliest and most “different” of aeroplanes, . . . has since done a very considerable amount of subtle thinking upon the relationship of time and space to consciousness.  Dunne clings to the idea that in certain ways we may anticipate the future, and has adduced a series of very remarkable observations indeed to support that in his well-known Experiment with Time.  That book was published in 1927, and I found it so attractive and stimulating that I wrote about it in one or two articles that were syndicated very extensively throughout the world.  (7)

It is true that Dunne and Wells were friends, and it is true as well that Wells favorably reviewed Dunne’s book when it appeared.

Another English writer, Susan, Ertz, must also have been familiar with Dunne’s theory, for in her 1936 novel, Woman Alive, the central character falls into a dream and travels forward in time, through thought association with another character in the story, into an era when aircraft and other high technology devices have become widely used.  Shute might well have read this novel, especially in that it featured some discussion of flying, although of a more fantastic nature than that normally favored by Shute in his writing.  Shute’s An Old Captivity followed four years later.

Another aviator who was interested in thought projection was Hubert Wilkins, who began his professional career as a photographer before turning to aviation.  His best-known aviation work is the 1938 book Flying the Arctic.  Wilkins wrote a book on thought transference called Thoughts through Space, co-authored by Harold Sherman, which contains a description of a 1937 experiment in long-distance telepathy.  While he was in the arctic searching for a group of Russian fliers who had crashed on shelf ice on the Alaskan side of the North Pole, Wilkins attempted to communicate with Sherman by telepathic means, achieving, according to the accounts, some success.  While the experiment and the rescue attempt were publicized at the time in the press, Wilkins’ book did not appear until 1951.  Like Dunne’s works, the Wilkins-Sherman book was popular enough to warrant later reprintings, in 1973 and 1983.  However, what Wilkins described in his book was thought projection, not thought transference, and at least in the three novels discussed here, Shute never incorporates thought projection.

One strong underlying impulse behind the interest in thought transference and thought projection may well have been the appalling loss of life as a result of the fighting in the trenches during World War I.  There was a strong and understandable impulse to attempt to enter the minds or to recapture the thoughts of soldiers fighting in the trenches far from England.  A number of works included an aspect of thought transference in their efforts to recall the heroic lives of soldiers who died during the war; the best-known of these was entitled Raymond; or Life and Death—“with examples of the evidence for survival of memory and affection after death,” written by Sir Oliver Lodge, a celebrated scientist and physicist.  Lodge, whose son was killed in World War I, claimed he could communicate with his son after his death.  This book, first published in the United States in 1916, was published in London the following year.  It could well be that Dunne’s interest in thought transference through time was sparked at least partly by this book.

The appeal of the idea of the possibility of communicating with loved ones comes most strongly during times of personal stress, especially stress associated with the possibility of a loss of life during a hazardous enterprise (such as exploratory flying attempts) or during extended armed conflict.  In all of the works mentioned, the thought transference or thought projection processes are all associated with efforts to communicate with individuals believed to be dead or in danger of dying.  This is certainly true in the three Shute novels we have been discussing, as the thought transference process has invariably been used to suggest a kind of physical or spiritual renewal resulting from the death of a key individual in the story.  Although only one of Shute’s thought transference novels involves a wartime environment (one section of In the Wet), they all involve hazardous flights.

Certainly Hubert Wilkins knew of the horrors of the war, having photographed some of the gruesome sights of the trenches first hand.  Anyone living in England during the war, as Shute and Dunne did, would have felt the loss of many loved ones.  We know how deeply Shute was affected by the death of his older brother in the war.  So it is not inappropriate to believe that Shute developed this mode in these three novels to recognize the efforts of common individuals who died seemingly inconsequential deaths but who in fact were able through their actions and imaginative efforts, to make possible an improved life for others who shared their goals and dreams, and, in some cases, their spirit.

Works Cited  

Davis, Burke.  War Bird: The Life and Times of Elliott White Springs.  Charlotte NC:

University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Dunne, J. W.  An Experiment with Time.  London: A&C Black, 1927.

Dunne, J. W.  Intrusions.  London : Faber and Faber, 1955.

Dunne, J. W.  The New Immortality.  London: Faber and Faber, 1938.

Dunne, J. W.  Nothing Dies.  London: Faber and Faber, 1940.

Dunne, J. W.  The Serial Universe.  London: Faber and Faber, 1934.

Ertz, Susan.  Woman Alive.  New York: Appleton Century, 1936.

Lodge, Oliver.  Raymond; or Life and Death.  New York: Doran, 1916.

Norway, Nevil Shute.  An Old Captivity.  New York: Morrow, 1940.

Norway, Nevil Shute.  In the Wet.  New York: Morrow, 1953.

Norway, Nevil Shute.  The Rainbow and the Rose.  New York: Morrow, 1958.

Wells, H. G.  The Shape of Things to Come.  New York: Macmillan, 1933.

Wilkins, Hubert, and Harold Sherman.  Thoughts through Space.  New York: C&R

Anthony, 1951.