Shute was a cousin of the Irish-American actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. In 1931, he married Frances Mary Heaton. They had two daughters.
By the outbreak of World War II, Shute was already a rising novelist. Even as war seemed imminent he was working on military projects with his former Vickers boss Sir Dennistoun Burney. He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant and soon ended up in what would become the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. There he was a department head, working on secret weapons such as Panjandrum, a job that appealed to the engineer in him. His celebrity as a writer caused the Ministry of Information to send him to the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944 and later to Burma as a correspondent.
In 1948, after World War II, he flew his own plane to Australia. On his return home, concerned about the general decline in his home country, he decided that he and his family would emigrate and so, in 1950, he settled with his wife and two daughters, on farmland at Langwarrin, south-east of Melbourne.
In the 50s and 60s he was one of the world's best-selling popular novelists, although his popularity has declined. However, he retains a core of dedicated readers who share information through various web pages such as The Nevil Shute Foundation. .
He had a brief career as a racing driver in Australia between 1956 and 1958, driving a white XK140 Jaguar. Some of this experience found its way into his book On the Beach. Many of his books were filmed, including Lonely Road, Pied Piper, On the Beach (in 1959 and also in 2000), No Highway (in 1951) and A Town Like Alice (in 1956). The latter was adapted as a miniseries for Australian television in 1981.
Shute lived a comfortable middle class English life, during a period, from the turn of the nineteenth century to past the middle of the twentieth, where class was a predominant factor in life. His heroes tended to be middle class: solicitors, doctors, accountants, bank managers. Invariably, like himself, they had enjoyed the privilege of university, not then the purview of the lower classes. However (as in Trustee from the Toolroom), Shute valued the honest artisan, his social integrity and contributions to society, more than the contributions of the upper classes.
Shute died in Melbourne in 1960.
Aviation is a theme in many of Shute's novels, which are written in a simple, highly readable style, with clearly delineated plot lines. Where there is a romantic element, sex is referred to only obliquely. Many of the stories are introduced by a narrator who is not a character in the story, a technique used by Conrad. The most common theme in Shute's novels is the dignity of work, spanning all classes, whether an Eastern European bar "hostess" (Ruined City) or brilliant boffin (No Highway). Another recurrent theme is the bridging of social barriers such as class (Lonely Road), race (The Chequer Board) or religion (Round the Bend). The Australian novels are individual hymns to that country, with subtle disparagement of the mores of the USA (Beyond the Black Stump) and overt antipathy towards the post WW2 socialist government of Shute's native UK (The Far Country and In the Wet).
Belief in private enterprise
Shute's novels frequently present private enterprise (along with self-reliance and individual responsibility) as a source of moral good. In this respect, he advocates a theme found in some examples of American 1950s literature, such as that of Ayn Rand or Cameron Hawley.
The roots of this belief can be clearly traced back to his involvement as a young engineer in the drama of the two competing airships R100 (private) and R101 (state). To him, the catastrophic failure of the R101 deeply symbolised the unsoundness of socialist teaching and planning.
A Town Like Alice is a characteristic example. Jean Paget, who has been working as a secretary in a pleasant but uninspiring job, has received a substantial legacy from her uncle. She ponders what she should do, now that she no longer needs to work. The following exchange, as described by her solicitor, Noel Strachan, flashes by almost as an aside, but is key to Jean's character and the story:
- I knew of several charitable appeals who would have found a first-class shorthand-typist, unpaid, a perfect godsend and I told her so. She was inclined to be critical about those; "Surely, if a thing is really worth while, it'll pay," she said. She evidently had quite a strong business instinct latent in her. "It wouldn't need to have an unpaid secretary."
- "Charitable organizations like to keep the overheads down," I remarked.
- "I shouldn't have thought organizations that haven't got enough margin to pay a secretary can possibly do very much good," she said. "If I'm going to work at anything, I want it to be something really worthwhile."
This philosophy also permeates Ruined City (1938; U.S. title: Kindling), which concerns a wealthy and respected banker who lifts a town out of the depression by bringing a shipbuilding concern back to life through money, bribery and questionable financial dealings. His reputation is destroyed and he goes to jail for fraud, but the shipyard is back in business and the town is saved. When he has served his sentence, he returns to the town and finds a bronze plaque on the shipyard gate with his head and shoulders embossed on it and the words:
- HENRY WARREN
- HE GAVE US WORK
Shute's ethos in Ruined City was inevitably distilled from his own experiences (captured in his part-autobiography, Slide Rule), in trying to set-up and raise capital for a British aircraft manufacturing concern in the depression years of the 1930s.
Indeed, the mythical Lord Cheriton, in Ruined City, was a parody of the real aristocratic equity investor and philanthropic backer of Shute's company, Airspeed Limited.
However, in Ruined City, he also captures some unsavoury aspects of British economic and social history, such as the way that many of the aristocrats and the wealthy exploited their advantages and opportunities in WWI. As soon as peace broke out, they immediately closed their plants, mines, shipyards and factories and took their capital abroad to a wonderful life of sun and relaxed hedonism in places such as Biarritz, Monaco and the Caribbean, throwing hundreds of thousands out of work and destroying their way of life.
Despite a government and capital turning against engineering and manufacturing - which necessitated an instant turnaround for WWII - and an early public fascination with "Flying Machines", waning after WWI was gradually forgotten, Shute and of course others, was aware of the future importance of aviation.
Despite setbacks and tribulations, and the standard problem of the start-up business, liquidity, Airspeed Limited eventually gained significant recognition when its Envoy aircraft was chosen for the King's Flight.
Shute identified how engineering, science and design could improve human life and more than once used the apparently anonymous epigram, "An engineer is a man who can make something for five bob that any bloody fool can make for a quid!" (historically, a quid was one pound sterling and five bob was one quarter of a pound) as a foreword to his books.
His belief that how British Socialism, after WWII, would tend to destroy what he conceived as the British way of life, and his own views on this, were espoused in works such as In the Wet and The Far Country.
However, Shute lived for and loved engineering, and had great respect for those who worked in this field. The last page of Trustee From The Toolroom expresses this exactly.
Shute lived a comfortable middle class English life, during a period, from the turn of the nineteenth century to past the middle of the twentieth, where class was a predominant factor in life. His heroes often tended to be middle class: solicitors, doctors, accountants, bank managers. Invariably, like himself, they had enjoyed the privilege of university, not then the purview of the lower classes.
However, as Toolroom demonstrates, Shute valued the honest artisan, his social integrity and contributions to society, more than the contributions of the upper classes.
The Novels - mini summaries
Shute's works can be divided into three sequential thematic categories: Prewar; War; and Australia.
The Prewar category includes:
- Stephen Morris (1923, published 1961): a young pilot takes on a daring and dangerous mission.
- Pilotage (1924, published 1961): a continuation of "Stephen Morris."
- Marazan (1926); a convict rescues a downed pilot who helps him break up a drug ring.
- So Disdained (1928), written soon after the General Strike of 1926, reflected the debate in British Society about socialism. Considered whether Italian fascism was an effective antidote.
- Lonely Road (1932): Conspiracies and counterconspiracies, along with an experimental writing style.
- Ruined City (1938; U.S. title: Kindling) a banker revives a shipbuilding company through questionable financial dealings. He goes to jail for fraud, but the shipyard revives. Ruined City was distilled from Shute's experiences in trying to set up his own aircraft company.
- An Old Captivity (1940): the story of a pilot hired to take aerial photographs of a site in Greenland.
The War novels include:
- What Happened to the Corbetts (1938; U.S Title: Ordeal), forecasts the bombing of Southampton.
- Landfall: A Channel Story (1940): A young RAF pilot is accused of sinking a British sub.
- Pied Piper (1942). An old man rescues seven children (one of them the niece of a Gestapo officer) from France during the Nazi invasion.
- Pastoral (1944): Crew relations and love at an airbase in rural surroundings in wartime England.
- The Chequer Board (1947): A dying man looks up three wartime comrades. The novel contains an interesting discussion of racism in the American Army: British townsfolk prefer the company of black soldiers.
The Australia novels include:
- No Highway (1948): An engineer predicts metal fatigue in a new aircraft. Interestingly, the Comet failed for just this reason soon after publication.
- A Town Like Alice (1950; U.S. title: The Legacy): the hero and heroine meet while both are prisoners of the Japanese. After the war they seek each other out and reunite in a small Australian town that would have no future if not for her plans to turn it into "a town like Alice."
- Round the Bend (1951), about a new religion developing around an aircraft mechanic. Shute considered this his best novel.
- The Far Country (1952): A young woman travels to Australia. A mild condemnation of British socialism.
- In the Wet (1953); an Anglican priest tells the story of a dying Australian aviator. The novel criticizes British socialism.
- Requiem for a Wren (1955): The story of a young British woman who fell in love with two brothers during the Normandy invasion.
- Beyond the Black Stump (1956): An unconventional family living in a remote part of Australia
- On the Beach (1957), Shute's best-known novel, is set in an Australian town awaiting death from the effects of an atomic war. It was serialized in more than 40 newspapers, and adapted into a film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in 1959. On the Beach was the first American-made film publicly shown in the Soviet Union (citation needed), and may have influenced American public opinion towards support of the atmospheric test ban treaty. In 2007, Gideon Haigh wrote an article in The Monthly arguing that On the Beach is Australia's most important novel: "Most novels of apocalypse posit at least a group of survivors and the semblance of hope. On The Beach allows nothing of the kind."
- Trustee from the Toolroom (1960) about the recovery of a lost legacy of diamonds from a wrecked sailboat.
- The Rainbow and the Rose (1958): One man's three love stories; narration shifts from the narrator to the main character and back.
Shute also published his autobiography Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer in 1954.
- Stephen Morris and Pilotage (1923, published posthumously in 1961) ISBN 1-84232-297-4
- Marazan (1926) ISBN 1-84232-265-6
- So Disdained (1928) ISBN 1-84232-294-X
- Lonely Road (1932) ISBN 1-84232-261-3
- Ruined City (1938) (also published under the title Kindling) ISBN 1-84232-290-7
- What Happened to the Corbetts (1939) (also published under the title Ordeal) ISBN 1-84232-302-4
- An Old Captivity (1940) ISBN 1-84232-275-3 also published as Vinland the Good (1946) ISBN 1-889439-11-8
- Landfall: A Channel Story (1940) ISBN 1-84232-258-3
- Pied Piper (1942) ISBN 1-84232-278-8
- Most Secret (1942) ISBN 1-84232-269-9
- Pastoral (1944) ISBN 1-84232-277-X
- The Chequer Board (1947) ISBN 1-84232-248-6
- No Highway (1948) ISBN 1-84232-273-7
- A Town Like Alice (1950) (also published under the title The Legacy) ISBN 1-84232-300-8
- Round the Bend (1951) ISBN 1-84232-289-3
- The Far Country (1952) ISBN 1-84232-251-6
- In the Wet (1953) ISBN 1-84232-254-0
- Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer (1954) ISBN 1-84232-291-5
- Requiem for a Wren (1955) (also published under the title The Breaking Wave) ISBN 1-84232-286-9
- Beyond the Black Stump (1956) ISBN 1-84232-246-X
- On the Beach (1957) ISBN 1-84232-276-1
- The Rainbow and the Rose (1958) ISBN 1-84232-283-4
- Trustee from the Toolroom (1960) ISBN 1-84232-301-6
- The Seafarers (published in 2000)