pastoral, adj. 1. Having the simplicity, charm, serenity or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas. 2. Pertaining to the country or to life in the country.
Pastoral meets both the above definitions: it is a simple, charming tale whose rural scenes provide a tranquil counterpoint to the rigours of wartime. The novel was published in 1944 and it may be that Nevil Shute chose these settings as a respite not only for his characters but for his readers as well.
The main action of the story takes place on an Oxfordshire air base, from which Wellington bombers fly missions deep into Germany. The losses are substantial and ongoing, and of the 20 crews on the base only a handful have survived long enough to become experienced.
Peter Marshall is captain of one of these crews, a veteran of 22 with more than 40 missions under his belt. Marshall and his crew are keen fishermen, a shared interest that is one of the reasons for their success.
One afternoon he makes the acquaintance of Gervase Robertson, a recently arrived section officer. He quickly falls in love, it isn't reciprocated, and the rebuff plays havoc with his morale and flying skills. After his carelessness nearly costs him and his crew their lives, Gervase agrees to a month-long trial period during which she will make up her mind one way or another. Marshall has only five more missions on his tour of duty, and as they tick by, the tension mounts and the relationship ripens. Marshall is once again flying at the top of his form, while Gervase is a nervous wreck.
Written nearly 60 years ago, Pastoral holds up surprisingly well. The mission details seem as real today as they must have during wartime, and so does the love story, despite the fact that not once do the characters hop into bed. (This lack may render the novel hopelessly unrealistic to some.) Shute strikes all the right emotional notes in conveying the development of their relationship, and though manners may change, emotions and emotional reactions remain much more constant over time.
Pastoral has a quality of youthfulness that is often lacking in more significant war novels. The Wing Commander is a grand old man of 30; his crews are in their late teens or early 20's, and when they're not actually flying a mission (and sometimes even when they are), love is the universal preoccupation. Wars are made by the old, but fought by the young, and Pastoral reminds us that the worst of times is also, for some, the best of times.