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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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Nevil Shute Norway (who wrote using only his first two names as a pen name), like the character Mary Holmes in On the Beach , was born in England, but emigrated to Australia as an adult, and lived there until the end of his life. He was born in Ealing, Middlesex, England, and educated at Hammersmith, Shrewsbury, and the Balliol College of Oxford. At age eleven, Nevil ditched school at Hammersmith to spend days wandering through the model aircraft in the Science Museum, trying to understand the engineering subtleties of craft that interested him. This gave evidence of what was to be a lifelong love affair with aircraft and aeronautical engineering, and caused his parents to send him to the Dragon School in Oxford.

During World War I (in which Nevil’s brother was killed), Nevil passed into the Royal Military Academy, hoping to be commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps, but he failed the medical exam because of a severe stammer. (Later friends and associates in Australia would say that notwithstanding the stammer and a natural reticence, Nevil was charming, entertaining company, and an excellent storyteller.) He was able to gratify his passion for aviation during his college years at Oxford, when he worked unpaid for the Aircraft Manufacturing Company at Hendon. In 1922, after graduating third in his class at Oxford in engineering science, Nevil Shute Norway took a job as an aeronautical engineer specializing in Zeppelins, at the de Havilland Aircraft Company. He also realized his lifelong dream of learning to fly, and gained experience as a test observer.

In 1924 Norway went to work as Chief Calculator to the Airship Company, a subsidiary of Vickers Ltd., on the Rigid Airship R100 project, one of the last of the British airships. (Bear in mind that at that time in history, before electronic calculators or computers, engineering data was “calculated” by small armies of mathematically skilled engineers. Nevil Shute Norway’s 1954 autobiography, Slide Rule, is named for a manual calculating device used before the advent of electronic intelligence.) This was to prove a formative experience. The R100 was private enterprise’s answer to a British government developed airship, the R101. Norway took several voyages in the R100, including visits to the United States and Canada. He believed passionately in the future of airships, but his faith was shaken in 1930 by the crash of his company’s government competitor, the R101. In that disaster, the English Minister of Aviation and most of the passengers aboard the R101 perished. An extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951-1960, contributed by A. P. Ryan and excerpted on the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation’s web site,, reads, “He had watched with mounting horror what he regarded as the criminal inefficiency with which the R101 was being constructed. His experience in this phase of his career left a lasting bitterness; it bred in him almost pathological distrust of politicians and civil servants.” According to author Nevil Shute devotee Richard Michalak, who has created a detailed and carefully documented timeline of the writer’s life, the 1950 reelection of a Labour Government in the United Kingdom was the straw that broke the camel’s back with private citizen Nevil Shute Norway. He felt that England had become decadent, with exorbitant taxation replacing the spirit of independent enterprise. At that point he decided to emigrate with his family permanently to Australia.

The author’s contempt for politicians’ ineptitude is evident in the description of the “bewildering” nuclear war that precipitates the end of the world in On the Beach . Moira Davidson, particularly, gives voice to the rage provoked by stupid political moves in which Australia was not involved, but which put an end to the lives of all Australian citizens (and indeed all the citizens of the world) prematurely. The novelist’s admiration for Australia is also clear in On the Beach , when he describes the Australian director of the State Fisheries and Game Department drafting “ announcement to be broadcast on the radio that would constitute one of those swift changes of policy to meet the needs of the time, easy to make in a small, highly educated country and very characteristic of Australia.”

Recognizing that airships were not the future of aviation after all, Nevil Shute Norway founded his own airplane construction company, Airspeed Ltd., in 1931, building aircraft in an old garage. He remained joint managing director of the company until 1938, when he decided to make his living by writing. He had already had some success as a novelist by then, and had even sold the film rights for two of his books. While employed at Vickers, Norway had chosen to write under his pen name because he thought his employer “...would probably take a poor view of an employee who wrote novels on the side.” Rather than a writer who was also an engineer, Nevil Shute Norway thought of himself as an engineer who happened to write novels. Engineers who have read his autobiography say that it reveals detailed information about the development of aviation, but that it reads like a novel. See if you can see which way the pendulum tilts in this quote about aeronautical engineering from one of author Nevil Shute’s works of fiction, No Highway (1948): “A beautiful aircraft is the expression of the genius of a great engineer who is also a great artist.” No Highway concerns structural fatigue in aircraft, and its implications in the competitive aspect of commercial aviation. Machines, men, and women all shape the plot. No Highway is one of several Nevil Shute novels that were made into movies during his heyday as a popular novelist. The 1951 film starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. The “double life” of engineer/writer Nevil Shute Norway is typified by his service to England during World War II. At the outbreak of the war he worked on the development of secret weapons as a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. By the end of the war, his celebrity as a writer caused him to be sent as a correspondent to cover the Normandy landings on D Day, June 6, 1944, and to Burma in 1945.

Like most or all writers, Nevil Shute used incidents experienced or observed in his own life, and aspects of his own personality, in his fiction. He was an enthusiastic participant in yachting and fishing in Australia, like his characters the Holmeses, Dwight Towers and Moira Davidson in On the Beach . Similar to the character of John Osborne, the author placed in several Australian auto races, trying to preserve anonymity by entering as “Mr. N. S. Norway”, and driving a white Jaguar XK140. Shute considered his most important book to be Round the Bend (1951), in which an aircraft engineer teaches his men “... to worship God through work conscientiously and prayerfully performed...” (Extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951-1960, contributed by A. P. Ryan,

Nevil Shute’s most famous novel after On the Beach is A Town Like Alice/The Legacy, 1950, also known as The Rape of Malaya. It was a historical novel based on an episode during World War II. The author met a woman who was a survivor of the incident, which he described in the introduction to his novel: “After the conquest of Malaya in 1942 the Japanese invaded Sumatra and quickly took over the island. A party of about eighty Dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume the responsibility for these women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive.” The 1956 film starred Peter Finch, and the novel was also adapted into a TV miniseries in 1981. Another Nevil Shute novel that was made into a movie in 1942 was Pied Piper (1942), the story of an older man who leads a number of children to safety out of reach of the Nazis in World War II. This book was also adapted into a TV miniseries called Crossing to Freedom, which starred Peter O’Toole, in 1990.

On the Beach (1957) and its ensuing movie version in 1959, by esteemed American director Stanley Kramer, created by far the greatest stir of any of Nevil Shute’s writing, and is the work for which he is most famous. It was published during the Cold War, just preceding the height of global anxiety concerning the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The movie version was the first American film to have a premiere in the former Soviet Union. It starred Gregory Peck as Dwight Towers, Ava Gardner as Moira, Anthony Perkins as Peter Holmes, and Fred Astaire as John Osborne. Nevil Shute Norway’s daughter, Shirley Norway, wrote in a 1999 letter that “Stanley Kramer’s film crew and actors, with the exception of Fred Astaire, were persistently and uniformly ill mannered to Dad, and I don’t think he went anywhere near them [during the filming of the movie in Australia].”

He boycotted the movie, maintaining that changes in the screenplay were inconsistent with the spirit of his book. One change that he objected to involved the relationship between Dwight and Moira. In the book the two had a chaste dating relationship, becoming very close but always staying in separate bedrooms. This was because Dwight considered himself a married man, even knowing that his wife and children were dead, along with everyone else in the northern hemisphere, and Moira would not push him to betray his marriage vows. He thought of his family as still alive, and she spoke of them the same way. In the movie the implication was clearly made that Dwight and Moira had what Moira in the book calls “a smutty little affair”. On the Beach was also made into a TV miniseries in 2000, which starred Armand Assante and Rachel Ward.

Nevil Shute Norway married Frances Mary Heaton, a doctor, in 1931, and remained married to her until he died in Melbourne, Australia in 1960. He had two daughters, Shirley Norway and Heather Norway Mayfield. In the 1950s the family lived on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, southeast of Melbourne, and attended St. Thomas’s Church in Langwarrin. The writer raised money for St. Thomas’s current building, which has an inscription dedicated from Frances Norway on its baptismal font. Nevil Shute Norway was cremated and his ashes committed to the English Channel.

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Free Study Guide-On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Book Summary


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