Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Norway, Nevil Shute (1899–1960)

by Julian Croft

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960), writer and aeronautical engineer, was born on 17 January 1899 at Ealing, London, second child of Arthur Hamilton Norway, a clerk in the General Post Office, and his wife Mary Louisa, née Gadsden. In 1912 Arthur became secretary of the Post Office in Ireland. Father and son had first-hand experience of the siege of its Dublin headquarters at Easter 1916. Educated in England at Lynam's (the Dragon) School, Oxford, and Shrewsbury School, Shropshire, Nevil suffered from a stammer which, though it lessened, was still noticeable late in life. It prevented him from being commissioned in the British Army in mid-1918 when he completed training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He served (from August) in England as a private in the 1st Reserve Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, then entered Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1923), where he read engineering.

From an early age Norway showed an intense interest in aeroplanes. While at Oxford he undertook unpaid work for the de Havilland Aircraft Co. in university vacations. He started regular employment with the firm in January 1923. During this time he learned to fly and began writing novels. His father had published several travel books with Macmillan & Co. Ltd at the turn of the century and his grandmother had written children's books. Norway completed his first novel in 1923, and another in the following year, but neither was published. In 1924 he joined Vickers Ltd as chief calculator for the famous inventor (Sir) Barnes Wallis who was in charge of the design and construction of the rigid airship, R100. Norway's account in his autobiography, Slide Rule, of the six-year trials and tribulations of the competitive construction of the airships R100 and R101 (built by the government), and the subsequent disastrous crash of R101 in France on its maiden flight to India, revealed his narrative gifts and some of his major preoccupations as a writer—the hubris of governments, bureaucratic paralysis, and the betrayal of individual common sense by large organizations.

As an antidote to the stress of the R100 project, Norway began writing regularly in his spare time. He completed his third novel, Marazan, which was published by Cassell & Co. Ltd in 1926. Sensing that his colleagues and Vickers might think that his writing compromised his commitment to his engineering work, he chose to publish as Nevil Shute (a truncated version of his full name), as he did for all his subsequent writing. Despite the pressures of his daily work, Norway continued to write, and So Disdained was published in 1928. On 7 March 1931 at St Peter's parish church, Bromley, Kent, he married Frances Mary Heaton, a 28-year-old medical practitioner. That year Norway established his own aircraft construction company, Airspeed Ltd, which became one of the major aircraft-makers in Britain by the outbreak of World War II. So intense was the effort he put into the engineering and business sides of the company that The Lonely Road, published in 1932, marked the beginning of a publishing hiatus of six years.

In 1938 Norway recognized that Airspeed was a different company from the one he had founded. The board asked him to resign with a generous settlement that enabled him to devote himself to full-time writing. Ruined City appeared in 1938, followed by What Happened to the Corbetts (1939), An Old Captivity (1940), Landfall: A Channel Story (1940), Pied Piper (1942), Pastoral (1944) and Most Secret (1945). The productivity and commercial success which marked Norway's writing career was evident in this period. His books, mostly published by Heinemann Ltd in London, also sold well in the Dominions and in the United States of America, and his early apprenticeship had equipped him to write regularly and easily. His published advice to aspiring novelists often referred to writing as a craft and a business—of learning both the structural formulas and the marketing ploys for publishing success. In many ways his professional life as an engineer and businessman informed much of his writing practice. Commissioned lieutenant and promoted acting lieutenant commander, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, in 1940, he worked in the Admiralty's Miscellaneous Weapon Development Department. After World War II his work became even more commercially successful. The Chequer Board (1947) preceded No Highway (1948), the subject of which—the problems of aircraft design and the effects of metal fatigue—was well-known to him.

In 1948 Norway flew his own plane to Australia. Back home, he felt oppressed by British taxation and decided that he and his family would emigrate. With his wife and two daughters, he settled in 1950 on farmland at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne. His greatest successes dated from this time, and most of them had Australian settings: A Town Like Alice (1950), Round the Bend (1951), which Norway considered his most important work, The Far Country (1952) and In the Wet (1953). The last caused some controversy. Released in the coronation year, the novel is partly set in a future where the monarch seeks refuge in Australia from an unsympathetic British government. In 1954 he published Slide Rule which gave an account of his life to 1938. Requiem for a Wren (1955), Beyond the Black Stump (1956) and his most famous book, On the Beach (1957), were followed by The Rainbow and the Rose (1958), Trustee from the Toolroom (1960) and Stephen Morris (1961), the last two published posthumously. Several of his novels were made into films, the most notable being A Town Like Alice (1956), starring Peter Finch, and On the Beach (1959), produced by Stanley Kramer.

Described as a 'friendly, nervous, tweedy man . . . with the strong hands of an engineer', Norway died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 12 January 1960 in East Melbourne and was cremated; his wife and daughters survived him. Norway had few literary pretensions, and publicly confessed that he could not finish reading Patrick White's Voss. He believed that the subject matter for novels came from direct observation of ordinary people in their own settings. An unambiguous morality of strong heroes and loyal heroines, combined with simple characterization, realistic settings alloyed with the fantastic, and exciting and well-told narratives were the basis of his success. His prose style was plain. If his novels seem ponderous to today's taste, they convey very well the last British imperialist vision of the Dominions, Australia in particular, as societies where English virtues might thrive, away from the decadence of postwar Britain.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Riddell, Flight of Fancy (Lond, 1950)
  • G. Pawle, The Secret War, 1939-45 (Lond, 1956)
  • J. Smith, Nevil Shute (Boston, 1976)
  • C. Giffuni, Nevil Shute (Adel, 1988)
  • Sun (Melbourne), 5 June 1954
  • Observer (London), 20 Dec 1959
  • Times (London) 13 Jan 1960
  • New York Times, 13 Jan 1960
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Nov 1960.

Citation details

Julian Croft, 'Norway, Nevil Shute (1899–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/norway-nevil-shute-11262/text20089, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Shute, Nevil
Birth

17 January 1899
London, England

Death

12 January 1960
East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation