A Debut Novel Creates a World From Pages Taken From the Past

The author Alice Winn was procrastinating, digging through the archives of the English boarding school she had attended, when she came across a historical treasure trove: copies of school’s newspaper from the early 20th century.

The paper, digitized and posted online, tracked the progression of World War I through the lives of alumni and students at the school, Marlborough College. At first, the students were eager to join the fight; they cheered on their classmates and wrote letters home from the front, romanticizing the valor and bravery of war. And then they started dying.

Along with regular features on cricket matches and debate societies, the paper, called The Marlburian, ran lists of alumni who were wounded, taken prisoner or killed, as well as obituaries and poems of remembrance. A retired teacher named John Bain wrote 105 poems in memory of students he had taught. Overall, 749 students, teachers and staff members from Marlborough died during the war.

“Usually, when you read war literature,” Winn said, “they’re trying to present what they went through to someone who wasn’t there.” But the student newspaper was something different, she explained, something inward-looking and raw.

She read every issue from 1913 to 1919, and her debut novel, “In Memoriam,” grew out of the world she discovered there. The book follows two young men, classmates at a fictional British boarding school called Preshute, who fall in love and go to war. As with students at Marlborough, the school newspaper — The Preshutian — charts their lives.

The novel opens at the end of the school year with a cheerful page in the newspaper, dated June 27, 1914. “O Jove! Save the editor from the editorial!” it begins. “But term has ended, and a marvellous one at that.”

A few months later, the war has begun, and a list of alumni names is printed under the banner headline “Killed in Action”: L.S.W. Beazley, age 22. M.E. Hickman, aged 20. C.C. Roseveare, age 22. H.A Straker, age 18.

“In Memoriam” is the story of a great tragedy, but it is also a moving portrait of young love, and there is often a lightness to the book, even humor. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that Winn, who is erudite, fast talking and very funny, pulls off. She met her husband, Chris Turner — a successful comedian best known for his freestyle rap — through an improv comedy group in Britain. Turner remembers thinking she was one of the funniest people he’d ever been on a stage with.

Born in Paris to American parents, then educated mainly in England, Winn said she switches back and forth between accents, speaking to her English husband in an English accent and to her American parents in an American accent. Today, Winn and Turner live in Brooklyn with their young daughter and a longhaired cat named Colonel Widdershins. (“Widdershins” is an old word for counterclockwise, she said, and it shocked her and her husband that no one in America seems to know this.)

Winn is dyslexic and didn’t learn to read until she was 9 years old. But once she began, she read widely, she said, and now has a particular affection for old books.

When she discovered the Marlburian archives about four years ago, she was researching Siegfried Sassoon, a World War I poet, after reading “Good-Bye to All That,” an autobiography by Robert Graves published in 1929. Sassoon, who is written about in the book, attended Marlborough, and she wondered if he had ever published poems in the student paper. In the process, she encountered the other students at Marlborough and immersed herself in their world, even as it was falling apart.

“You get to know them,” said Winn, 30, of the students in The Marlburian. “You feel like you’re watching this tiny little society just be completely destroyed and dismantled.”

Gráinne Lenehan, an archivist at Marlborough, said the editors of The Marlburian were always students, “very academic types,” she said, bound for Oxford or Cambridge, high ranking positions in academia or the military, or administrative roles in the colonies.

“Whilst all this coverage of Marlburian involvement in the war did indeed become a marked feature of the school magazine during those years, the regular features chronicling school life carried on,” she said, “much as school life did.”

Articles from the fictional student newspaper, The Preshutian, are woven into “In Memoriam,” giving texture and context to the world of the novel and the two young men at its center, Ellwood and Gaunt. In the book’s acknowledgments, Winn describes the newspapers as integral to the novel and “a logistical nightmare from start to finish.”

Some of the most heart-rending articles in “In Memoriam” are lifted directly from history found in The Marlburian, she said, like the story of three brothers, all head boys, who one by one died in the war.

“I was not with him when he got hit, but I heard he wanted to go on and refused to be bandaged, as he said there were men who were hit more badly than himself,” said a letter by a fellow soldier reprinted in The Marlburian in 1915 about a 17-year-old named Henry Gage Morris, who was shot and killed during battle in Belgium. “He always thought of others before himself.”

Winn and her husband were living in Los Angeles when she discovered the archives. She found them consuming, and remembered trying to describe to others what she was reading.

“I’d be talking about this at parties and people would be like, ‘Can you not?’” she recalled.

Writing the novel, she explained, felt like translation work. For many people, especially in the United States, she said, World War I feels like it belongs in a dusty textbook. But she’d grown up reading a lot of Edwardian literature — many of the same books these boys would have read. And her knowledge of the school gave her a visceral connection to the students who had fought in the war, she said.

“I was able to do a lot of work so that I could really understand why this was so sad,” she said. “And I wanted to make it so other people could understand why it was so sad without having to do all that work.”

She wrote most of the first draft of the novel in a sort of fever dream, she said, over the span of about two weeks, then spent the next year and a half editing it before sending it out to agents. Winn was 26 years old when she began it, but “In Memoriam” doesn’t read like its author was still finding her footing as a writer.

“The fact that she was close to her own school experience when she wrote it helped her get into these boys’ hearts and minds,” said one of her editors, Diana Tejerina Miller. “The grandeur of these loves and these passions and these friendships. Teenagers do feel big feelings and feel things really deeply. Not that she was a teenager herself, but she had access to that in her recent memory.”

Winn now works out of her Brooklyn apartment, in a sunny room that overlooks a patchwork of backyards. Near her desk, on a wooden bookshelf, are two large books, bound in faded blue cloth, containing the collected Marlburian from 1913-1919.

Within them is an editorial, published on Nov. 21, 1918, with which the newspaper closes out the war.

“When we try to think of all that peace means to us after four years of the bitterest fighting the world has ever seen, we are filled with wonder,” read the editorial. “Words fail us when we try to express its real significance.”

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