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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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Nevil Shute | Biography


Nevil Shute arguably wrote one of the most disturbing cautionary tales of the nuclear age. The New York Times once described On the Beach as "the most haunting evocation ... of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war." However, writing was Shute's secondary vocation. His first was aeronautical engineering.

Early Years

On January 17, 1899, Nevil Shute Norway was born in Ealing, a borough of London, England, the second son of Mary Louisa and Arthur Hamilton Norway, a General Post Office senior clerk. After three years of prep school in nearby Hammersmith (1907–10), Shute continued his education at the renowned Dragon School at Oxford. He then studied at Shrewsbury School in Shropshire. Along the way he developed a stammer that lingered for much of his life. He also developed an avid interest in airplanes and, by 13, had built several models.

Shute attended Shrewsbury School in 1914, when World War I broke out. In June the following year, his beloved older brother, Fredrick Hamilton Norway, was wounded in Flanders, Belgium, and died soon after, on July 4. In late 1916 Shute began studying for the army entrance exams. However, when he applied to the Royal Air Force in 1918, his stammer caused him to fail the medical exam. Undaunted, Shute entered the Royal Military Academy and completed his training by mid-1918. But before he could see active duty, the war was over.

From Engineer to Writer

Between 1919 and 1922, Shute studied engineering science at Balliol College, Oxford. During college breaks, his unwavering passion for airplanes drew him to unpaid internships at Airco (later de Havilland Aircraft Company). He was assigned to the design office where he assisted in wind tunnel research, studying how solid objects move through the air. Following graduation from Oxford, Shute joined de Havilland as an engineer, learned to fly, and earned his Royal Aero Club certificate in 1924.

Shute had also begun to write in his spare time as a form of relaxation. After two unsuccessful literary attempts, his third novel, Marazan, was published in 1926. To uphold the prestige of his engineering career, he published under a truncated version of his name: Nevil Shute.

Shute continued writing even as demands for his skills as an aeronautical engineer grew. Beginning in 1924, he helped design the luxurious British rigid airship, or dirigible, R100. In 1931 he directed his talents toward private enterprise, setting up Airspeed Ltd.—his own aircraft construction company.

During these years Shute published two more novels before taking a hiatus to concentrate on his growing company. He also met and married a young medical practitioner, Frances Mary Heaton. Shute resigned from the company in 1938 to devote his time to writing.

His company, however, continued its rise in the British aeronautical industry. By 1939 and the beginning of World War II, Airspeed Ltd. was among the major aircraft manufacturers in Britain.

World War II and the Nuclear Age

In 1940 as World War II escalated, Shute enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He soon found himself assigned to the British Admiralty's Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. His engineering skills once more came into play as he worked with scientists and technicians to evaluate innovative defensive weapons to aid the war effort.

In 1945 Shute—and the rest of the world—witnessed America's deployment of the first nuclear weapons used in warfare. America's bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to World War II. However, the event also led to an international race to acquire nuclear technology. In 1954 a Time magazine article titled "The Cumulative Effects of Thermonuclear Explosions on the Surface of the Globe" came to Shute's attention. Its author, French physicist Charles-Noel Martin, described how repeated bomb tests had the potential to render the environment uninhabitable for humans. Pondering the implications of Martin's report, Shute began research for On the Beach in 1955.

Writing Influences and Inspiration

As an author, Shute was heavily influenced by his engineering work and passion for airplanes. These inspired storylines such as the intrigue of aerial drug smuggling (Marazan, published in 1926) and aerial spying (So Disdained, 1928). Those same interests influenced Shute's novel on the aerial bombing of Britain (What Happened to the Corbetts, 1939). He also used his knowledge of aeronautics and engineering to write about the effects of metal fatigue on an airplane in flight (No Highway, 1948).

Other works sprang from Shute's work in weapons development for the British War Office (Most Secret, 1945). Japan's wartime occupation of Malaya (states on the Malay Peninsula, including the island of Singapore) and the East Indies prompted one of Shute's best-known novels, the 1950 narrative A Town Like Alice.

No matter the subject, it is Shute's compelling characters—ordinary people struggling against extraordinary circumstances—that prove most memorable. Such is the case in his powerful 1957 novel On the Beach. This narrative portrays life in a postapocalyptic world where survivors of nuclear world war strive to meet their deaths with decency and dignity.

The main setting for On the Beach is Melbourne, Australia, Shute's hometown since 1950. Disillusioned by Britain's postwar political climate, Shute had relocated his family to a country he judged more prosperous and hospitable for the successful individual. The terrain Shute describes—the seaside, rural spots, railroads, and town pubs—is identifiable and, therefore, hauntingly real.

Last Years

In 1955, the year Shute began research for On the Beach, he also suffered a heart attack. It was not his first attack, but rather than slow his pace of living Shute seemed to step things up. Following publication of On the Beach in 1957, Shute saw the novel adapted into a critically acclaimed 1959 film starring actors Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.

Shute survived two strokes and went on to write his last novels: The Rainbow and the Rose (1958) and Trustee from the Toolroom. A final stroke claimed Shute's life on January 12, 1960, and Toolroom was published posthumously later that year.

In total Shute wrote 24 novels, several of which were adapted to film, and published an autobiography: Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer (1954). His works continue to be read today, while the themes of On the Beach appear ever more relevant as the proliferation of nuclear weapons continues.
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