Prepare for high-stakes romantic melodrama, early 1920s style. This Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is about Dornford Yates’ first two novels. Anthony Lyveden was published in 1921 and its sequel, Valerie French, appeared in 1923: they were written after he had made his name with several collections of brilliant and witty short stories about London life among the aspirational gentry. Both novels are passionately intent on making the reader feel dreadful about the plight of the unemployed ex-officer. They are romantic love stories, with ghosts, and a possessed Gothic forest. Their plots depend on misunderstandings and how the workings of Fate might ruin the hero’s life.
They are also novels about a kind of metaphorical shell-shock, a form of amnesia brought on by supernatural influences, that represents the horrors endured on the Western Front, and how these experiences prevented soldiers from having a normal life, post-war. They’re intense novels, and very, very opinionated: you won’t miss the author’s own views about how class and social rules matter in society. They will exasperate you as the hero and heroine continually have near misses, fail to tell each other crucial pieces of information, fail to ask the right question, and don’t realise that a vital letter has got burned in a railway accident. They give the workings of Fate good value for money.
The eponymous hero of Anthony Lyveden is an former British Army officer who suffered no particular wounds or damage, but, one or two years after the First World War had ended, is desperately looking for work. How can this be possible? He’s a gentleman. Gentlemen don’t need to look for work. They have lands, and estates, and invisible income sources. Not this one: he was orphaned early in life, brought up by an uncle, and then his uncle’s will gave him all the uncle’s large fortune, with the prior condition that to receive the estate he had to have achieved a knighthood. Anthony has not been offered a knighthood, of course. Yates expects his readers to learn from this that if you are a gentleman you don’t angle for such an honour (are you listening, Nigel Farage?), and to wangle a knighthood to acquire a fortune is to demonstrate your own unworthiness. If Anthony wants a fortune, he will have to make it himself, just like the rest of us. Thus the novel instructs early 1920s society on how to behave in the matter of knighthoods and fortunes, with, Yates hoped, a trickledown effect on other matters of social usage.
The novel opens when Anthony is on his way to be interviewed for a post as a footman. He succeeds, and enters domestic service for the first time as footman to a couple of the grossly exaggerated lower-class war-rich. Mr Slumper is a financier and his wife is a really horrible woman with no education, looks, manners or saving graces whatsoever. The rest of the servants in the house are greedy and grasping, so Anthony is the only one to give the couple any kind of honest service at all. When Mr Slumper comes home in a state knowing that his business is about to fail spectacularly, Anthony does not abandon his employers, but gets them to the train station, and his reward for faithful service is some of his due wages. Lesson no. 2: always give good service, no matter who it’s for, and your example will rub off onto even the vilest of people.
Anthony’s next job is with a titled family, which means less agony for him in serving the unworthy, but more agony because these are people he would have avoided socially because they are cold, ungenerous and unpleasant. Yates is really keen for us to realise the horror of such things now being possible. The vile son of the family bullies Anthony in a shockingly lower-class, caddish way, until Anthony knocks him out after one insult too many. The father applauds this event, but has to let Anthony go. Some things just can’t be forgiven.
So you see, this novel is beginning to look like the Pilgrim’s Progress, with the perfect hero undergoing trials of temper, pride, and self-control, and coming out in the right every time. Anthony’s third post is a put-up job, since Anthony has met The Girl. He owns a dog (most Yates heroes own and worship their dogs), which he boards in kennels in the countryside while he’s in service, and goes to visit at weekends for long walks in decent gentlemanly solitude. His dog gets into a fight with another dog, which Anthony breaks up very efficiently (moral: a man who can separate two fighting dogs is admirable), but he accidentally offends the other dog’s owner, while falling head over heels in love with her at first sight. She secretly returns his feelings, but when they accidentally meet again, he is handing the visibly appalling Mrs Slumper into her carriage, while The Girl is awaiting her own servants and carriage.
But it’s OK: Yates does not intend Valerie French (for it is she) to knowingly fall in love with a footman. (He has already written a really vicious short story about the hell that awaits a girl of good family who marries beneath her, which is truly fiendish in its revenge on the erring victim. He did not approve of mésalliances.) Valerie can tell instinctively that Anthony is a man of her own class. Luckily she has friends who are also working in service, in a very cushy job indeed, so she arranges for Anthony to get a job there too, and he is at last in a safe haven. He has friends of his own class, the work is light, decent and honourable, and the employers are delightful, grateful lower-class darlings. They know their place, and the other servants are paid to make sure that these upper-class footmen and housemaids can eat separately, on a table they don’t need to lay or clear themselves. Some things really matter.
The inability of the ordinary demobbed soldier to get work after the end of the war is pretty much ignored in this novel, because Yates is very keen to draw out the agony of how awful it is for a gentleman to suffer this fate. He artificially twists the plot to increase the humiliation, suspense, tension and reversals of fortune that the perfect ex-officer without a job must undergo. But why? In both Anthony Lyveden and Valerie French Anthony undergoes starvation, is enslaved by an enchanted forest while working as a kind of deranged Forestry Commission worker, loses his sanity, loses a girl, is nearly seduced by another girl, has to perform increasingly demanding tests of noblesse oblige, and constantly displays extraordinary exhibitions of loyalty to his dog. These ordeals of chivalry increase our sympathy for the ex-officer hero, and present these injustices as evidence of the national disloyalty to those who fought in the War and are yet unrewarded. At the very least, we are expected to feel indignation at the state of the post-war nation which can’t look after its gentlemen.
Is Anthony worth it? His heroism and natural leadership is typical for 1920s popular fiction, as the British ex-officer working with demobbed Other Ranks. At the beginning of Valerie French, the reactions of the demobbed Other Ranks to Anthony the starving and desperate ex-officer in need are extraordinary: not only do they feed him, they take him in their lorry to a pub, where the landlord, on hearing Anthony’s accent, immediately offers him unlimited credit, and then the lorry drivers slip Anthony twenty shillings, pretending the notes had fallen out of his coat. Shortly after this, Anthony inadvertently helps a thief steal a spare wheel off a car, meets a stupendously shouty barrister called Sir Andrew Plague, is instantly trusted despite the evidence, and is rescued from court simply because he looks and sounds like a gentleman. All this demonstrates the importance of class loyalty.
With Sir Andrew, Yates really lets rip with his trademark lexical exuberance and repetitive allegorical word games. For some readers these can be wearing. But the constant cranking up of the tension through both novels (often over very trivial things) is more stressful. It has the effect of cliff-hangers wandering around the plot looking for the cliff: are we really expected to get worked up about Valerie’s hysterics about her rigid codes of honour in every chapter? Is it such a drama to choose between telling or not telling Anthony his past when he recovers from ‘brain fever’ without his memory? This illness is a metaphor for shell-shock. After Anthony has been rescued from the utterly bizarre psychotic wood called Gramarye, a malign enchanted ecosystem that can twist time and space, his mental condition is precarious, and he needs to be nursed, unable to be a whole man again without long and careful recovery. In contrast, Valerie’s histrionics of honour because Anthony cannot remember who she is are tedious.
But overall, both these novels are very satisfying. There are spectacular plot twists, there are large helpings of useful instruction on how to perform noblesse oblige, there are some excellent dramatic characters, who are practically eating the carpets while screaming at each other. Anthony himself is a curiously inactive and passive character, perpetually tossed by fortune. He is given things by everyone who meets him, and he has a ridiculous chivalric habit of sacrificing himself to extraordinary lengths so as to not to embarrass a lady or allow her name to be maligned.
Thankfully there are characters with good comic value, since Yates understood the purpose of sparring and invective, to relieve this stiff-upper-lip tension. There are constant misunderstandings of motives and reasons through upper-class inarticulacy. There’s a girl called André, who I think must be modelled on Theda Bara, who slinks and smoulders, but has to shout to get the attention of the astonished gentlemen about to murder each other for her honour (Yates concerns himself a lot with a lady’s honour). There is a spectacular three-way fist fight between Sir Andrew, Colonel Winchester and Anthony, resulting in a broken leg and a broken door. What with the whips, it’s like a medieval cat fight, with honour sticking it to everyone in sight. Thankfully, the story ends with a return to classic British values of the period: Anthony finally recovers his memory when Valerie is attacked by a less than human foreigner whom he has to strangle. These are epic novels of drama and nightmares, but they are also delightful, if you leave your sense of proportion at the door.
I write a great deal more about these novels and Yates’ other works in Novelists Against Social Change (2015).