Robert Thomas is an analytical chemist at the Cupid Cosmetics company outside London. He’s a very likeable character: smart, inquisitive, sensitive, and content, especially in his after-work hours when he researches a mathematical formula for the nature of time. His life changes one evening when he meets Katherine at a debate sponsored by the League of Nations. It’s the 1920s and a new post-war era promises peace and progress. Robert and Katherine continue to meet, taking long walks to discuss burgeoning new social concepts. They live meager lives in boarding houses but feel intellectually superior given Robert’s research and Katherine’s newfound communist ideals.
Two Thousand Million Man-Power follows the maturing of Robert and Katherine’s relationship, vividly portraying English life between New Year’s Eve 1919 and the funeral of King George V in 1936. What’s especially fascinating is how author Gertrude Trevelyan blends real-life news headlines into the narrative. The technique creates a backdrop of the rapidly changing world at hand, in light of which this highbrow London couple is a tiny existence. There’s a thematic purpose to it, which I’ll get to in a minute. Here’s an example:
In the presence of ambassadors and foreign representatives the First International Air Congress … is opened in London by the Prince of Wales. Rebellion breaks out in Bavaria, led by a builder’s labourer, Adolf Hitler; Lenin dies, Great Britain recognizes the U.S.S.R.; Buenos Aires receives an experimental transmission by Beam wireless from Poldhu, Wembley stages a scenic display of London destroyed by hostile aircraft, Robert and Katherine meet in Bloomsbury for a lecture on the Dawes Plan.
The couple delays marriage because Katherine wants to be a modern communist, not a bourgeois traditionalist. She’s more a dilettante than a card-carrying believer because they finally not only marry but settle into a suburban, middle-class life with royalties Robert receives from a cosmetic invention. Katherine now wants advanced new appliances, a car, and stylish furniture. And then something happens. Given we’re by now in the early 1930s you can probably guess what that is, but I’m not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say I wasn’t surprised, nevertheless I gasped when I read it. That’s a testament to the sympathetic qualities of Robert.
Eventually, the couple rises up out of their dark valley to live in London and consort with influential neighbors. Robert’s career flourishes, but the grinding factory noises nearly drive him mad, their chant of more bigger faster hounding his senses. Herein is the book’s wise message. As Robert and Katherine make their choices and the headlines publish and broadcast advancing world events, author Gertrude Trevelyan flawlessly dramatizes the universal truth that with progress comes a price. For Robert, a big part of that is “his own work, his real work,” the research about the nature of time that he abandoned long ago to make money.
In the end, he carries on. He lays out his clothes for the morning and sets his alarm. His armor is his awareness, unlike Katherine, who’s blindly “running to keep up, running after the tantalizing, flickering tail of modernity, in and out of beauty salons and smart highbrow lectures, panting and hard and bitter.”
Two Thousand Million Man-Power is published by Boiler House Press in their Recovered Books Series. A version of this review was aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM broadcasting throughout central Ohio.