Before Alice Winn wrote her bestselling debut novel In Memoriam, she had a momentary wobble. “I thought: ‘God, do we really need another World War One story about public school boys?’” says the 30-year-old. The answer, it seems, is yes. In Memoriam – a heart-wrenching story of the forbidden love that blooms between two young men in the trenches – has been hailed the debut of the year and soared straight into fourth place in The Sunday Times books charts when it was published last month, topped only by literary megastars like Margaret Atwood and Jojo Moyes. Not bad for an unknown author who had almost ditched her dream of writing a book altogether after three unsuccessful previous novels.
Dubbed “Birdsong for a new generation”, In Memoriam is both a startlingly tender love story that brings to mind Madeline Miller’s powerhouse The Song of Achilles, and a vivid, fiercely intelligent account of the senseless butchery of war. I finished it with my heart thudding: Winn gives us arch, sparky dialogue, a white knuckle ride of a plot and the sort of characters you know will remain embedded in your psyche.
We begin a few months after war breaks out in 1914. Tough, principled Henry Gaunt is tucked away at boarding school in the English countryside, where he spends most of his time pretending he’s not desperately in love with his popular, poetry-mad best friend Sidney Ellwood, whom he has no idea is obsessed with him too. Unlike his fellow pupils, Henry is a pacifist, but when he turns 18 he immediately signs up – partly to please his German mother, who fears anti-German attacks, and partly to escape his feelings for Ellwood. But, of course, Ellwood soon follows him to the front, where they begin a furtive relationship that thrums with life-or-death intensity. After all, one of them could be killed at any minute.
“I’d always been interested in World War One,” Winn tells me from her study in Brooklyn, New York. She bubbles with knowledge about war literature to such an extent I assume she must have specialised in it during her English degree at Oxford. But she didn’t. Instead, the idea for the book came one day four years ago, when she was living in LA with her comedian husband, working as a teacher homeschooling children and trying to write screenplays in her spare time. She’d just read Robert Graves’ First World War memoir Good-bye To All That (“It’s really boring for the first 50 pages, and then it’s amazing”) so had the trenches on her mind when she opened her laptop one day. “I was actually trying not to write another novel, because I had decided that I had written three, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I had been given some notes on a screenplay and I was trying to do those, but I ended up procrastinating.”
For some reason, Siegfried Sassoon, Graves’s friend and fellow war writer, popped into her head. A century ago, he had gone to the same English boarding school, Marlborough College, that Winn was educated at. Had any of his poems, she wondered idly, been published in Marlborough’s school newspaper? They hadn’t, but she still found herself swept up by the old school newspapers Marlborough publishes in its online archive.
“I read all the newspapers from 1913 to 1919,” she remembers. “They were the most devastating reading, because they begin in 1913 and portray these smug, naive, charming, funny schoolboys who fully expect to inherit the world. Then the war breaks out and they start dying – and it’s the boys at school who have to write the ‘In Memoriams’ [obituaries] for their older brothers and their friends.
“Most war literature comes out about 10 years after the war ends, when the authors have had time to process. Whereas in these newspapers, someone just died and you have a 17-year-old boy writing his feelings about that death.”
She found herself mocking up a newspaper of her own, not knowing then that this would inspire the extracts from Gaunt and Ellwood’s school newspaper The Preshutian that are studded throughout her novel. (While fictional, Preshute, the school Gaunt and Ellwood attend, “is closely linked to Marlborough”, says Winn. “Anyone who went to Marlborough will be like, ‘I know what you’re doing here’”.)
After that, the novel “erupted quite feverishly”. She wrote most of the first draft in just two weeks – no doubt helped by the templates she had mapped out in her head for Gaunt and Ellwood. “Gaunt has his DNA in Robert Graves, and Ellwood has his DNA in Siegfried Sassoon,” she says. “They aren’t them, but they have similarities. Ellwood is Jewish but culturally Christian, and really likes poetry and cricket – those are the kind of things that I took from Sassoon. Gaunt is half German, he loves to box and he’s a bit dour and pessimistic and a bit of a pacifist. Those are all traits I lifted from Graves.”
“I’m not implying at all that there was anything going on between them,” she goes on. “But one of them later said it was always a friendship that had a kind of sexual tension in it. And they write these crazy letters to each other. You’re reading them, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, you guys should talk this out!’”
Alongside the horrors of war, In Memoriam portrays the inhumanity of a society that outlaws gay relationships. “Gaunt wished he could tell him he loved him,” Winn writes at one point when Gaunt is bidding Ellwood farewell, “but they were in public, and it was illegal”. Viewing the trenches through the lens of a schoolboy love affair seemed obvious, she says. “So much of the literature from World War One is written by gay or bisexual writers. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon: their relationship was pretty intense. You get the impression that Wilfred Owen at the very least had a crush on Sassoon, and then there was Sassoon’s relationship with Robert Graves.”
Then, she says, you have Rupert Brooke, whose letters suggest he was bisexual, and Edward Brittain, brother of Testament of Youth author Vera Brittain, who “basically killed himself in the war”. It is thought he put himself in harm’s way to avoid the shame of being court martialled after letters emerged indicating he’d been involved with men. “For whatever reason, queer artists were the main voices heard in this conflict.”
Winn had always wanted to be a novelist, and after graduating set herself a staggeringly single-minded goal. “I decided to write a novel a year until I wrote one that was good.” The daughter of American parents, she grew up in Paris, before being sent to British boarding schools from the age of eight.
Winn deftly evokes Preshute, from its idyllic Wiltshire setting to the “boarding school feeling that home was only a strange and self-indulgent dream”. Her own “truncated and busy” teenage years spent hopping between Britain, LA and France clearly fed into this. “The most stable environment I had were these boarding schools. I know this is embarrassing, but it did remind me a bit of Harry Potter – that feeling of it being much more home to me than wherever my parents happened to move to for that year.”
The experience, she says, was “lonely and great at once”, and In Memoriam certainly doesn’t shy away from the nastier elements of boarding school: the bullying, the violence, the casual antisemitism directed at Ellwood. Part of her research involved speaking to friends who attended boys’ boarding schools. “I have this friend who is bisexual, Jewish and went to Eton. He talked about how he dealt with antisemitism: he would kind of ward it off before it came. He named his nose Mount Sinai. That way, no one else could make fun of his nose.”
While she’s not sure where she’ll set her next book, she believes the First World War has rich resonances for modern readers. “World War One writers get across this feeling that is so relatable for our generation: they really felt like history was over,” she says. Then came the war, rupturing their sense of security, just as the pandemic did for us in 2020.
Even so, “I think we have been fortunate enough to be born in a time when there’s been 70 years of – I’m not going to say peace, but it’s not not been all out war”, she continues. “Writing the book has certainly made me feel extremely grateful for peace. I don’t take it for granted at all.”
In Memoriam is out now (Viking, £14.99)