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A scandalous novel that changed a cleric’s life

16 December 2022

Robert Keable’s book caused international scandal and even provoked the ire of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story is told by Simon Keable-Elliott

Simon Keable-Elliott

The cover of Simon Called Peter

The cover of Simon Called Peter

ONE hundred years ago, my grandfather, Robert Keable, a priest, and chaplain of the First World War, published a bestselling novel that caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic. It was, according to the Church Times, “a very disagreeable novel . . . the story of unattractive and sordid vice on the part of a clergyman”.

Other reviewers agreed: the novel was “offensive”, “reeked of drink and lust”, and “blacken[ed] unduly the soldier’s moral character”. A New York magistrate — who was hearing a petition to have the book banned — thought it “a nasty book and particularly objectionable because written by a clergyman”.

Simon Called Peter was Keable’s first novel. It was a war novel with no fighting, telling the story of an Anglican priest working behind the lines as a chaplain. He begins to question his faith as the men he is meant to serve turn away from religion and spend their free time visiting prostitutes. He breaks off his engagement, falls in love with a beautiful young nurse, and, on leave, they spend a weekend together in a London hotel. What reviewers did not know at the time was how autobiographical the book was.

Keable, born in 1887, had been an up-and-coming star of the Church. As a schoolboy in Croydon, the son of the local vicar, he had preached the gospel on street corners. After gaining a First in History at Cambridge, he trained as a priest and then travelled to Zanzibar as part of the Universities Mission to Central Africa.

Here he made quite an impact, helping to break down the barriers between different communities and setting up the island’s first troop of scouts, made up of both Christians and Muslims.

In 1915, Keable took over a low-church parish in Leribe, Basutoland (Lesotho), in which he quickly introduced high-church practices, upsetting many Europeans in the main town, but winning over his black parishioners.

When the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) was set up to recruit black labourers for the war effort, Keable first encouraged his parishioners to join up, and then enlisted himself. He travelled to France as one of only 12 white chaplains who cared for the 25,000 labourers who made the trip.


KEABLE was based in Le Havre, where his company was employed unloading ships. He was horrified by the treatment that the men received. The labourers lived in closed compounds, in appalling conditions, working 12-hour shifts, and suffered constant racist abuse from their officers. “The Basuto are growing too well educated and too numerous, and ought to be ‘thinned out,’” Keable witnessed one SANLC officer say in “an applauding [officer’s] mess”.

Simon Keable-ElliottRobert Keable

Powerless to change the system, he wrote a short history of the SANLC — The First Black Ten Thousand — which highlighted the men’s poor treatment. Still during the war, SPCK agreed to publish the book, but it was blocked by the British censor at the last minute, and never published.

Keable took his position as chaplain seriously, and his book of essays, Standing By, published after the war, described the work he did. He was, however, disheartened both by the treatment of his men, and by the decadent life in Le Havre.

It was here that Keable met Jolie Buck, a 19-year-old English woman who was driving lorries for the Canadian Forestry Corps. They began an affair that was clearly the inspiration for Simon Called Peter.

When the SANLC was recalled to South Africa in 1918, Keable parted from Jolie, and returned to his wife and his parish. Taking three weeks’ holiday the following year, he retreated to a remote hut, up in the mountainside, and feverishly wrote Simon Called Peter. By the time the novel was published, in April 1921, he had left his parish, resigned his calling, and was working as a teacher back in England.


SIMON Called Peter was an immediate hit, delighting and appalling readers in equal measure, and, in the United States, became one of the five bestselling novels of 1922. It made national headlines in October 1922, when it was mentioned in the notorious Hall-Mills double murder case, in New Jersey. The victims were an adulterous couple: a high-society Anglican priest, the Revd Edward Hall, and his choir leader and mistress, Eleanor Mills.

Newspapers, including the New York Times, wrote about the corrupting influence of Simon Called Peter, gleefully reporting that Hall had given Mills a copy of the novel, and quoted their love letters which discussed it. After the adverse publicity, a librarian in Arlington, Massachusetts, was successfully prosecuted for lending “obscene literature”, and the book was banned in Boston.

Simon Keable-ElliottA cinema advert for Recompense, the 1924 film based on Keable’s second novel

F. Scott Fitzgerald had closely followed the coverage of the Hall-Mills murders, and incorporated the themes of class warfare, forbidden passion, and murderous jealousy into The Great Gatsby. He disliked Simon Called Peter, calling it “a piece of trash” and “utterly immoral”, but he felt it necessary to include reference to it in The Great Gatsby because he expected that readers would make the link to the Hall-Mills case. It would also allow him to draw attention to the extramarital affair between two characters. He took the opportunity to mock Simon Called Peter by having the narrator say: “Either it was terrible stuff or the whisky distorted things, because it didn’t make any sense to me.”

Attempts to make Simon Called Peter into a film were thwarted by Willian H. Hays — later famous for the self-censoring Hays Code — who added it to a list of blocked titles. Two years later, Keable quickly sold the film rights (before it could be added to the Hays list), to the sequel to Simon Called Peter, Recompense, to Warner Brothers. The studio turned the story of a clergyman who enters the war to be near the nurse he loves into a major Hollywood film in 1925.

The year before, Simon Called Peter had been adapted as a play in the US, and it reached Broadway for a short run. The play was refused a licence in London, however, by Lord Cromer, the Lord Chamberlain. He explained to the Bishop of London that he had enforced the ban because “the dramatic conclusion of the play depends upon a public renunciation by a clergyman of the Church of England of one of the most fundamental doctrines upon which the teaching of the Church depends.”


PUBLICATION of Simon Called Peter and the success of other novels made Keable a rich man, and, after separating from his wife, Sybil — who refused him a divorce — he sailed to Tahiti, where he was joined by Jolie Buck, the young English woman with whom he had fallen in love in France.

Together, they renovated Paul Gauguin’s house, spending a happy year living in it before building a new house on the other side of the island. Keable was now a literary celebrity, mixing with the island’s artists and novelists including James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff, who later wrote the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy.

Simon Keable-ElliottA press report on the influence of Keable’s book on the victims of the Hall-Mills murders

Despite spending most of his time dressed in the traditional pareu, and living like a local, he remained the epitome of the English village vicar generously entertaining anyone who called with cups of tea — or potent cocktails, depending on the time of day. He continued to write, producing novels, books, and articles which reached a wide audience. He also campaigned against colonial practices in Africa, and for marriage law reform.

Keable spent only two years with Jolie, before she died in childbirth. By then, in declining health, he left his infant son, Tony, with friends in England, and returned to Tahiti. There he fell in love with a Tahitian princess, Ina Salmon.

They lived happily together for just over a year, but, two months after Ina gave birth to Keable’s second son, Henry, Keable died of kidney disease. He was only 40. His main legacy was the 19 books — including seven novels — that were published between 1912 and 1927. His obituary in the Church Times suggested that he “remained a boy to the end: a very jolly boy, a singularly generous boy, and at times an extremely naughty boy”.

Keable had a difficult relationship with his family. His father had become an Anglican priest late in life, and had bought his son up in a very low-church household. Keable had greatly upset his parents when he nearly converted to Catholicism while at Cambridge, under the influence of Mgr R. H. Benson, the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, and they were distressed when he published Simon Called Peter and left the priesthood.

Although they eventually forgave him, and welcomed his visits from Tahiti, his cousins and other family never did. Keable also lost all of his friends from his days at Westcott House, where he had trained as a priest.

My father, Tony, Keable’s eldest son, lived to the age of 96, dying in 2020. He never forgave his father for abandoning him, and for most of his life he had no real interest in finding out about him or his father’s other son, his half-brother. He was, however, pleased when the writers Hugh Cecil and Tim Couzens started to investigate Keable’s life, almost 30 years ago, and, after they both died, he encouraged me to write my grandfather’s story.

Utterly Immoral: Robert Keable and his scandalous novel by Simon Keable-Elliott is published by Matador at £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.49); 978-1803134-857.

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