Death of a Hero is a highly autobiographical work. Like the ironically styled “hero” George Winterbourne, whose life the book recounts, Richard Aldington (1892-1962) was born the son of a bookish provincial English lawyer and his domineering wife. (Aldington once confessed that the fictional Winterbournes represented a “satirical onslaught” on his own family.) The Aldingtons moved early-on from their child’s first home—near the southern naval city of Portsmouth, instead of the story’s Sheffield—eastward to Dover, which was replicated in the novel as the “middling-sized, dreary coast town” of Dullborough.
Rebelling against the constrictions of Victorian domesticity and schooling, Aldington frequently vanished, as George did, to delight in the “twenty-mile sweeps of undulating Down fringed by the grey-silver sea” which bordered his childhood town. In the process, Richard (he adopted this forename in preference to his original “Edward Godfrey”) became an enthusiastic naturalist and a proudly independent, romantic adversary of the Machine-Age blight already vanquishing what remained of Old England as the Twentieth Century dawned.
Although Childe Richard was always the budding writer rather than ever contemplating George’s course into painting, the lines taken by his later teens resembled those of his fictional creation and part of him did die in the 1914-18 war as surely as George’s universe “exploded darkly into oblivion”. Yet, whatever the Winterbourne-like oppressiveness of young Aldington’s home life, he did benefit from having highly literate parents, both becoming published authors and the redoubtable Mrs Aldington particularly cultivating book-world connections.
Thus, when “Rollicking Rick the Railer” (as he later dubbed himself) finally began circulating in London at age 17 after a family move to the capital, he showed the qualities of a literary prodigy. He quickly broke into newspaper print with poems and translations as well as plunging deeper into the Greek and Latin classics with studies at University College. But, again like George Winterbourne, Aldington suffered a truncation of his formal education through his father’s financial misadventures. This prompted a career-defining plunge into the cultural ferment then beginning to grip extramural London.
Aldington’s role in this revolutionary turbulence immediately preceding the Great War was much more central than the place he allowed Winterbourne, through whom the scene is fictionally satirized in Death of a Hero. The marginal George merely witnesses the verbal antics of emerging avant-garde stars in social mode (the characters lampooned as Shobbe, Bobbe and Tubbe, for instance, being inspired by Ford Madox Ford, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot respectively).
The real-life Aldington, by contrast, played a leading editorial role in one key journal of literary radicalism, The Egoist. Moreover, he was sufficiently formidable a poet to merit being dragooned into the much-vaunted Imagist movement by Ezra Pound, self-appointed impresario as well as archetypal practitioner of the new verse. And Aldington, already prolific as both critic and poet, was a signatory to that climactic 1914 declaration of cultural revolt, the Vorticist manifesto. He jibbed, however, at what he deemed to be the excessive partiality of the Vorticists for the Machine Age, formed as he’d been by rural Kent and the pastoral