Nevil Shute Norway (17 January 1899 — 12 January 1960) was a popular British novelist and a successful aeronautical engineer. He used Nevil Shute as his pen name, and his full name in his engineering career, in order to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels .
Born in Somerset Road, Ealing, London, he was educated at the Dragon School, Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford. Shute's father, Arthur Hamilton Norway, became head of the post office in Ireland before the First World War, and was based at the main post office in Dublin in 1916, at the time of the Easter Rising. Nevil was later commended for his role as a stretcher bearer during the rising. Shute attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich but because of his stammer was unable to take up a commission in the Royal Flying Corps, instead serving in World War I as a soldier in the Suffolk Regiment. An aeronautical engineer as well as a pilot, he began his engineering career with de Havilland Aircraft Company but, dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities for advancement, took a position in 1924 with Vickers Ltd., where he was involved with the development of airships. Shute worked as Chief Calculator (stress engineer) on the R100 airship project for the subsidiary Airship Guarantee Company. In 1929, he was promoted to Deputy Chief Engineer of the R100 project under Sir Barnes Wallis.
The R100 was a prototype for passenger-carrying airships that would serve the needs of Britain's empire. The government-funded but privately-developed R100 was a modest success but the fatal 1930 crash of its government-developed counterpart R101 ended Britain's interest in airships. The R100 was grounded and scrapped. Shute gives a detailed account of the episode in his 1954 autobiographical work, Slide Rule. He left Vickers shortly afterwards and in 1931 founded the aircraft construction company Airspeed Ltd.
Despite setbacks and tribulations, and the standard problem of the start-up business, liquidity, Airspeed Limited eventually gained significant recognition when its Envoy aircraft was chosen for the King's Flight. The innovation of fitting a retractable undercarriage to the Airspeed earned Shute a Fellowship of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the writing process of which he used as a plot device for No Highway
Shute identified how engineering, science and design could improve human life and more than once used the apparently anonymous epigram, "It has been said an engineer is a man who can do for ten shillings what any fool can do for a pound...." (quoted from Nevil Shute's autobiography "Slide Rule", 2nd ed., London : Pan, 1969, 63, lines 21-22).
It is said that Shute was a cousin of the red-headed Irish-American actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. However, this seems to be a confusion with the account in "Slide Rule" (1969, 19-20) of his older brother Fred's proposal in Dublin in 1913 to the "ravishingly beautiful... dark hair" Geraldine Fitzgerald who wanted to go on the stage and whom Shute himself wondered in "Slide Rule" might be Geraldine Fitzgerald the film actress (who, however, was born in 1913). In "Slide Rule" Shute mentions that he learnt details of the proposal from his Cornish cousin Patty (Shute), who was Fred's "great confidante" (1969, 19). Fred Shute died of wounds in France in 1915. Typical of his big heartedness, Nevil Shute wanted to pay tribute to someone who brought love and happiness to his brother.
On 23 November 1931 Nevil Shute married Frances Mary Heaton, a 28-year-old medical practitioner. They had two daughters, Heather and Shirley.
By the outbreak of World War II, Shute was already a rising novelist. Even as war seemed imminent he was working on military projects with his former Vickers boss Sir Dennistoun Burney. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant and quickly ended up in what would become the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. There he was a department head, working on secret weapons such as Panjandrum, a job that appealed to the engineer in him. His celebrity as a writer caused the Ministry of Information to send him to the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944 and later to Burma as a correspondent. He finished the war with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, R.N.V.R.
In 1948, after World War II, he flew his own Percival Proctor light airplane to Australia. On his return home, concerned about the general decline in his home country, he decided that he and his family would emigrate and so, in 1950, he settled with his wife and two daughters, on farmland at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne.
In the 1950s and '60s he was one of the world's best-selling popular novelists, although his popularity has declined. However, he retains a core of dedicated readers who share information through various web pages such as The Nevil Shute Foundation. .
He had a brief career as a racing driver in Australia between 1956 and 1958, driving a white XK140 Jaguar. Some of this experience found its way into his book On the Beach. Many of his books were filmed, including Lonely Road, Pied Piper, On the Beach (in 1959 and also in 2000), No Highway (in 1951) and A Town Like Alice (in 1956). The last was serialised for Australian television in 1981.
Shute lived a comfortable middle-class English life, during a period, from the turn of the nineteenth century to past the middle of the twentieth, when class was a predominant factor in life. His heroes tended to be middle class: solicitors, doctors, accountants, bank managers, engineers. Usually, like himself, they had enjoyed the privilege of university, not then within the purview of the lower classes. However (as in Trustee from the Toolroom), Shute valued the honest artisan, his social integrity and contributions to society, more than the contributions of the upper classes.
Aviation is a theme in many of Shute's novels, which are written in a simple, highly readable style, with clearly delineated plot lines. Where there is a romantic element, sex is referred to only obliquely. Many of the stories are introduced by a narrator who is not a character in the story. The most common theme in Shute's novels is the dignity of work, spanning all classes, whether an Eastern European bar "hostess" (Ruined City) or brilliant boffin (No Highway). Another recurrent theme is the bridging of social barriers such as class (Lonely Road), race (The Chequer Board) or religion (Round the Bend). The Australian novels are individual hymns to that country, with subtle disparagement of the mores of the USA (Beyond the Black Stump) and overt antipathy towards the post WW2 socialist government of Shute's native Britain (The Far Country and In the Wet).
Shute's works can be divided into three sequential thematic categories: Prewar; War; and Australia.
The Prewar category includes:
Stephen Morris (1923, published 1961): a young pilot takes on a daring and dangerous mission.
Pilotage (1924, published 1961): a continuation of "Stephen Morris."
Marazan (1926); a convict rescues a downed pilot who helps him break up a drug ring.
So Disdained (1928), written soon after the General Strike of 1926, reflected the debate in British Society about socialism and considered whether Italian fascism was an effective antidote.
Lonely Road (1932): This novel deals with conspiracies and counterconspiracies, in an experimental writing style.
Ruined City (1938; U.S. title: Kindling) a banker revives a shipbuilding company through questionable financial dealings. He goes to jail for fraud, but the shipyard revives. Ruined City was distilled from Shute's experiences in trying to set up his own aircraft company.
An Old Captivity (1940): the story of a pilot hired to take aerial photographs of a site in Greenland, who suffers a drug-induced flashback to Viking times.
The War novels include:
What Happened to the Corbetts (1938; U.S Title: Ordeal), forecasts the bombing of Southampton.
A Channel Story (1940): A young RAF pilot is accused of sinking a British sub.
Pied Piper (1942). An old man rescues seven children (one of them the niece of a Gestapo officer) from France during the Nazi invasion.
Pastoral (1944): Crew relations and love at an airbase in rural surroundings in wartime England.
Most Secret (1945): Unconventional attacks on German forces using a French fishing boat.
The Chequer Board (1947): A dying man looks up three wartime comrades. The novel contains an interesting discussion of racism in the American Army: British townsfolk prefer the company of black soldiers.
The Australia novels include:
No Highway (1948): An eccentric "boffin" at RAE Farnborough predicts metal fatigue in a new airliner. Interestingly, the Comet failed for just this reason several years later, in 1954. Set in Britain and Canada.
A Town Like Alice (1950; U.S. title: The Legacy): the hero and heroine meet while both are prisoners of the Japanese. After the war they seek each other out and reunite in a small Australian town that would have no future if not for her plans to turn it into "a town like Alice."
Round the Bend (1951), about a new religion developing around an aircraft mechanic. Shute considered this his best novel. It tackles racism, condemning the White Australia policy.
The Far Country (1952): A young woman travels to Australia. A condemnation of British socialism and the national health service.
In the Wet (1953); an Anglican priest tells the story of an Australian aviator. This embraces a drug-induced flash forward to Britain in the 1980s. The novel criticizes British socialism.
Requiem for a Wren (1955): The story of a young British woman who, plagued with guilt after shooting down a plane carrying Polish refugees in WW2, moves to Australia to work anonymously for the parents of her (now deceased) Australian lover, whilst the lover's brother searches for her in Britain.
Beyond the Black Stump (1956): The ethical standards of an unconventional family living in a remote part of Australia are compared with those of a conventional family living in Washington State.
On the Beach (1957), Shute's best-known novel, is set in Melbourne, whose population is awaiting death from the effects of an atomic war. It was serialized in more than 40 newspapers, and adapted into a 1959 film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In 2007, Gideon Haigh wrote an article in The Monthly arguing that On the Beach is Australia's most important novel: "Most novels of apocalypse posit at least a group of survivors and the semblance of hope. On The Beach allows nothing of the kind."
Trustee from the Toolroom (1960) about the recovery of a lost legacy of diamonds from a wrecked sailboat. Set in Britain, the Pacific Islands and the U.S. northwest.
The Rainbow and the Rose (1958): One man's three love stories; narration shifts from the narrator to the main character and back.
The Seafarers (2000): Novella recently published. The story of a dashing naval Lieutenant and a Wren who meet right at the end of the Second World War. Their romance is blighted by differences in social background and economic constraints; in unhappiness each turns to odd jobs in boating circles.
Shute also published his autobiography Autobiography of an Engineer in 1954.