I would normally avoid reading books described smugly as ‘a gem’ or ‘like Alain-Fournier’. I once tried Les Grand Meaulnes, universally worshipped as a perfect evocation of a boy’s coming of age in rural France, and could not get into it at all. I also don’t much care for ‘gems’ of books, since the word suggests hard, cold, sharp-edged objects of no warmth or use, uselessly decorative and desired by greedy people. Calvinists R Us. So thank goodness the title of Michael Jenkins’ A House in Flanders drew me in before my prejudices about its blurb got the better of me. I loved it, wanted to read it all over again when I’d finished, and (since it’s a fictionalised memoir) wish I could have known those French aunts and uncles too, in the house on the edge of the great plain of Flanders in northern France. I drive through that vast open space often, two hours of flatness between Calais and Brussels, and love its huge skies, its light and the sense of an intensively inhabited landscape.
Michael Jenkins was a British diplomat, an ambassador, president of Boeing USA, Chairman of the Marylebone Cricket Club and the nephew of the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins. He died in 2013. One year in the 1950s, when he was aged around fourteen, he was sent from his English school to France for the summer, to stay with a family of elderly ladies and gentlemen he had never met. His mother had French connections, and no doubt she wanted him to polish his French by immersion. So Michael travelled alone by train and boat and train to be met at the station by Joseph the gardener who drove the big black Citroën. He was brought to a large French country house on the edge of a village near the Belgian border, where he was welcomed and lovingly cared for by the family of elderly brothers and sisters, their equally aged servants and one or two children of the next generation. The charm of the novel is in meeting the aunts and uncles, one by one in each chapter, as if accidentally passing them in the corridor or finding them in the garden. The wartime history of the area has affected all their lives, and the village still has strong feelings for this family, not always positive.
Tante Yvonne runs the family, and rarely leaves the house, since she walks slowly and with difficulty. She turned down an offer of marriage from a handsome English officer who was billeted in the house during the First World War because as the eldest sister it was her duty to take care of the house and its land for her young brothers. And so she never left. Oncle Auguste returned from the war, but with some strange and distressing new habits that the village have adjusted to, though visiting German tourists do not. The youngest son, Antoine, did not return from that war, but Tante Yvonne made sure that his illegitimate son Christian, himself rather damaged, had a home on the estate. Tante Alice married, but lives in the family home with her siblings rather than with her husband in their apartment in Lyon. She is rich and spectacularly mean, and brutally demanding of her tenants. Tante Thérèse is widowed, courted by a pompous professor of law whose tedious prolixity is in the tremendous tradition of French verbosity. Tante Florence’s son François is persuaded by his mistress to install her in a cottage on the estate for the summer, but Tante Yvonne makes sure that his wife is also invited for a visit.
Michael’s presence at the family conferences and interesting encounters with the neighbours and tenants is explained by the family taking him to their hearts. He is practically one of the family, since his grandfather is the man whom Tante Yvonne might have married, and they accept him immediately as a very useful and helpful boy around the house, assisting with gettings into and out of cars, carrying of delicate messages, finding things out by observation. When he learns how Mayor Remy was persuaded to back down from his campaign of antagonism against the family, we uncover another layer of French social history and class. A House in Flanders is a lovely read, absorbing and full of light, with a suggestion (I was going to say soupçon but that would have been predictable) of hard-edged French stubbornness that is always apparent to the foreigner.
Michael Jenkins, A House in Flanders (1992), available in several editions, mine is the Minerva paperback, ISBN 0 7493 9886 8.
Last week I got grumpy about failures in historical writing, where we are asked to accept cringe-making historical howlers or listen to medieval characters speaking in awkward modern slang. Sybille Bedford’s novel A Favourite of the Gods from 1963, in contrast, was a total joy. It retrieved my faith that fiction set in the past can be written impeccably to the highest style, crossing historical periods without distracting the reader with annoying niggles about word use and periodicity. Bedford’s technique is to focus on the characters and their relationships, in a similar way to how G B Stern wrote her tremendous sagas about Anglo-Jewish matriarchies, so that the reader becomes enthralled with the characters and what they say, and does not care what king is on the throne.
A Favourite of the Gods begins in a railway carriage about to cross the border from Italy to France, and there is a delay. The travellers are Constanza and her daughter Flavia, on their way to Brussels to meet Lewis, whom Constanza is to marry. The delay causes them to miss the Calais train, and they find rooms for the night in an uncomfortable hotel in the south of France. In the morning, the cause of the delay is not resolved, and Constanza casually decides to wait. They are mistaken for a lady and her daughter who have made an appointment to view a house for rent, and, amused, and not displeased with the house, Constanza decides to take it. She puts Lewis off with a series of vague telegrams, and Flavia decides that she will remain with her mother and not, after all, take up her plan of studying in England. They stay in France for eleven years.
Now, after that beginning, who would not want to read on and find out why, what, and how things turn out? It is not clear what era we are in, though since the ladies are travelling independently and this is considered normal, it is probably in the twentieth century. Constanza clearly has plenty of money, and she has an imperious mother called Anna, referred to as the principessa, who hurtles from Florence to their French hotel to investigate why their delay – the loss of a ruby ring – has not been resolved.
The lives of these three women form the story: from Anna’s upbringing in New England, her marriage to a Roman nobleman, her blissful life in his family palazzo embraced by his mother and sisters, and her attempts to stave off boredom and find purpose in her life through travel and good works. Her judgement is faulty, and her instincts betray her. There is a terrible rupture in the marriage, and Anna sweeps off to London with the sixteen year-old Constanza, leaving her sulky son Giorgio – a spoiled and uninteresting little boy – with his father. It is the Edwardian era, a great age of salons and modern intellectual conversation.
After being taken away from her father and unwilling to probe too deeply into the reasons why, Constanza directs her own life in England, becoming as fashionable and desirable as her mother. Her marriage to the devastatingly witty dilettante Simon during the First World War, produces Flavia, and her subsequent divorce, arranged so that Simon can marry his mistress, introduces her to Lewis. The family money continues to supply Anna and Constanza with a decent and correct lifestyle that has no problem living in hotels and supplying Mena, Anna’s devoted Italian maid, with wine at every meal.
The story swoops back and forth between the lives of the three women, revealing the connections between things they did and said in the past, with how they affect their futures. Anna’s main interest is living correctly, upholding her position in life, and following decencies she was vaguely brought up to admire. On her return from India – a journey she was encouraged to take by her husband before she caused any more trouble by trying to reform Roman society – she brings him an inset ruby, a gift from a rajah who asked Anna to offer it to her husband since she would not accept it for herself. When Constanza meets Simon for the first time, he is amusing some people at a ball with the story of her mother’s rapid departure from Rome, since he has met her father and has heard all about it, far more than Constanza knew herself. He also brings her a present from her father: the ruby set in a ring. When Flavia and Constanza are waiting in the railway carriage for the Italian police to release the train across the border, Constanza’s brother Giorgio appears to pay a farewell visit, and it is at this point that the ring unaccountably goes missing. The secrets of these three generations of women, and of their plaintively uncomprehending Roman relations are the heart of this marvellous, absorbing novel. It has a sequel, A Compass Error (1968), now on my Must Find And Read list.
This podcast was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen, looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules.
This time, I was exploring a writer I hadn’t heard of until a friendly 1950s thriller fiend alerted me to his existence. John Welcome is a forgotten star of the gentlemanly thriller. He wrote several novels, and also seems to have been the editor of collections of thriller short stories; in the sporting mode, and from the card-playing scene. He was a lawyer, and hunted a lot (on horseback, for foxes), and so, in his first novel, Run for Cover (1958), the hero, Richard Graham, is also a horsey man, who rides in races and in hunting, and plays cards almost professionally. It’s a rather self-conscious first novel, with some quite excruciating passages in which Graham practically shows the reader his library list as proof that he’s the right kind of chap. But once the story gets going, and the writer gets into his stride, this is a really entertaining thriller that begins in London, flies to Paris, and then gallops about in the south of France. It’s a definite scamper through the maquis, you can practically smell the rosemary crushed underfoot among the pine needles as Graham runs for cover, again and again and again. But it’s not a survivalist thriller at all, unlike a Household novel, or even a Bond. There are scramblings about on the outsides of buildings, but Graham, an ex-Commando and ex secret service agent, is terrified of rats, insists on having decent meals with drinks, and sleeps in hotels and pensions at night, rather than bunked up in the heather.
Here’s the plot: Graham gets into the London train, and finds himself sitting opposite an old friend (that’s a borrowing from John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, for a start). The old friend is a publisher, and gives Graham a manuscript to read for his opinion. Graham is a bit surprised to see the name of the author, Rupert Rawle, because he saw Rawle shot and killed during the war. Moreover, he has particular reasons for wanting to know about Rawle, because Rawle tried to kill him, and also stole his girl, which was a terrible betrayal, since Rawle was also his hero, and his best friend. Graham takes the manuscript back to his London flat, leaves it there while he nips off to the bank and his club, but when he returns, it has gone, stolen through an opened window. And he hasn’t had a chance to read it. But he calls up his old secret service contacts to tell them that Rawle may be alive after all, and is told to leave it alone. Nothing daunted, he tries to alert a French former colleague, goes to Paris, and is told to leave it alone. Not one to take a hint, he gets onto Rawle’s trail, and is launched into a mystery that brings him back to Jacquie, the girl who dumped him, who also tells him to leave it alone. At this stage, it might be easy to give up reading the novel. Welcome writes cagily, constantly holding out hints of secrets that are influencing Graham’s actions, but the details of which we are not told. This is a bit maddening, and I’m still not sure what got me over that sticky first part, when the story and its importance need to be established, but when the writer seems to be doing more to drive the reader away by being secretive. Perhaps if you like secrets you won’t find this annoying at all, but I do prefer my plot on a plate before I start.
What kept me going were the characters, and how they lived, which is why I rate this novel very highly as a thriller for gentlemen. It is totally steeped in the gentleman’s way of life. Clubs: naturally, every man has one. One also has a London flat. Since Graham rides horses as his occupation, but is yet not a jockey, he obviously has private income. His flat’s living-room is packed with cups and trophies that he’s won at race-meetings. He takes the Sporting Times, The Daily World (which is a cover for The Daily Mail), and The Times. He employs a stockbroker. He’s not married because he’s still carrying a torch for Jacquie who ran off with Rawle, or whom Rawle bagged: it’s not clear which one carries the blame.
I like Graham, because he’s a competent and conscientious sort of chap, and he isn’t put off by people telling him to leave things alone. So naturally, as soon as he got on the plane to Paris, I was rooting for him. He also knows his way around Paris (a good sign), and is happy to drink champagne cocktails in the afternoon while waiting at a café thinking that somebody important might yet show up. And someone does. Trouble is, it’s the wrong someone, someone with a gun, and Graham is grabbed by the enemy. The enemy are thugs and a large foreign mastermind, and a gunman who cannot miss. We can tell that Jacquie is probably a bad ‘un because Graham mentions that her English is not quite perfect. (Bad sign for a gentleman’s girl.) Graham is beaten up severely, dumped at his hotel in a very bad state of repair, and told to go back to England. This he does, and then immediately flies back to the south of France to conduct his own investigation, and pursue Rawle to the death.
Graham is the kind of thriller hero I like, who fools the enemy by acting meek, and then does something unexpected, expertly carried out. He has pots of money with him, smuggled in and out of France in his pockets so he doesn’t have to get bogged down by Customs (this is definitely a thriller hero’s behaviour, since Dornford Yates’ crowd did this all the time, but it is not, strictly speaking, the conduct of a gentleman). Graham hires a car and zips off along the south coast of France, looking for something important and plot-relevant which is merely a McGuffin. The rest of the novel is concerned with him evading capture, escaping cleverly, deceiving and outwitting and taunting his captors, doing some damage to other people’s cars, shooting perfectly and casually, and displaying his perfect knowledge of the south of France’s highways and byways. Also of their hotels and cafes: it is extraordinary how many small villages he goes through where he is still on perfect best friend terms with the owners, no matter how many years have passed since the war and his presumable activities with the Résistance. Pretty nearly all of his meals are perfect. He hands out 5,000 franc notes for information, he gets hidden by innumerable allies, and he has a triumphant game of canasta that lets him nobble the scary gunman, against all the odds.
As in Moonraker, you do not need to understand the rules of canasta to survive the ten or more pages of what might otherwise be deeply tedious card-bore hell to understand that Graham is a great player. His playing is clever enough to make the bad man think Graham is hopeless. Acting stupid is a great skill, and it’s fun to watch it unfold. I’ve never played canasta, but even I could sense the points of tension and near-missery that we need to appreciate to enjoy this scene properly.
A gentleman has to be skilled in cards: this is a long-established fact from the eighteenth century, and it is so interesting that in the 1950s this still held true. Why cards? The demonstration of having a lot of money to lose at will? Graham loses no money in these games (though Bond wins a lot in his.) As an indication of skill at a game of chance, a pointless art? The ability to accept the responsibility of debts of honour? I do think it comes down to the money, but in Run for Cover there is also a strong sense that a man who can play cards well is likely to be a great winner of the game against life. He’s not a chancer, but a deliberate player of the odds, who knows how to accept good luck and bad luck, and play his cards as well as he can.
Graham does have a rather good bit of good luck in this novel, when he runs into another woman. His interactions with the not-quite perfectly accented Jacquie have left the reader feeling ruffled: why is he still mooning about after her, when she is so obviously a tart with no heart? So he’s on the run in the south of France, in a rather fetching disguise of a crew-cut, a pair of shorts, a sailor hat and a striped jersey. I laughed out loud when I read that: what a ludicrous caricature of a Frenchman’s disguise, but perhaps in the 1950s this had not yet reached caricature status. He’s had a night out sleeping in the woods, and he hears voices arguing. A couple are squabbling over a car that won’t start: the man (English) is clearly useless, since all he can do is make threats about their chauffeur who hadn’t serviced the car properly, whereas the woman is bored of this, and wants him to go and get help. So the woman is left in the car, alone in the woods, and Graham strolls over to see what’s up. He fixes the car, she realises he’s English and now knows instinctively what she’s dealing with. She offers him the use of her husband’s shaving kit, and then feeds him from the hamper in the back, and then, before we’ve can blink, they’re all over each other. At least she pulls the hood of the car up for a little privacy, but we are asked to assume that thriller heroes having wild outdoor sex with strange Englishwomen happened all the time in the south of France in the 1950s. No doubt they were up to date on how gentlemen should behave.
This podcast was written for the miniseries ‘Thrillers for Gentlemen’. I was looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. Fascinatingly, women were huge fans of Dornford Yates as well, and women’s magazines serialised his novels.
I couldn’t decide, originally, which one of Dornford Yates’s clubland thrillers of the 1930s to go for, so in the end I just took one from the shelf at random: Gale Warning, from 1939. The thing about Yates’s thrillers is that they are rather all the same. They have the same elements: the same impeccable handling of tension and plot twist, the same use of language, the same treatment of villains, and women, and heroes. But yet they are distinguishable. If I had told any one of the members of the Dornford Yates Yahoo group that this podcast was to be about the one where Plato put his hand down Audrey’s shirt and got in the way of a paperweight, they’d know exactly which one I meant. Each Yates thriller has its defining moments, and they are usually to do with the moment when something has changed the atmosphere, someone has acted in a way that has changed the plan.
Gale Warning (1939) begins with a classic Yates jolt to the stomach, a twist in the hero’s personal fortune that is designed to show you his character, and the kind of world he moves in, without doing anything so clumsy as ‘telling’. The narrator, John Bagot, lost his parents young, and thus also lost his home, since his father’s job as land agent came with the house. His best friend George offers him the job he was ‘bred’ to take up, as a land agent. Note: Yates uses the vocabulary of animal breeding in relation to the natural aristocracy that his characters represent. So if anyone in his books is described in terms of the studbook, you know that he expects you to approve of them, and to emulate their actions.
So John is offered a job as land agent by George, who is the Earl of St Omer, on his estate, which is called Peerless. Sorry, another note: Yates’ noble characters are often seriously noble, or ridiculously antique in their lineage. He invents titles with no discrimination at all, using the most outrageous nouns as proper names for estates and families. These are deviously manipulative in their emotional effect on the reader. If an estate is called ‘Peerless’ the reader knows immediately not only that it is the best of its kind, but also that it is inhabited by antique gentry who use antique vocabulary, indicating that they come of a very long line of descent, and that that automatically makes them good.
So John now has a job that he will take up in six months’ time. He is grateful, and determined to do the best for George and Peerless, so he decides to blow all his savings on a training course in the technical aspects of his profession. He can’t start the job any sooner because the agent currently in place has been given six months’ notice after being caught stealing. George won’t sack him immediately because that would wreck the man’s future: that’s the kind of man George is. The six months pass, and George sends John a telegram to invite him for dinner at Scott’s in London, to celebrate the start of their association. John arrives at the restaurant first, orders a newspaper, and sees on the front page the announcement of George’s death in a road accident en route to London. So now he has no job, he’s lost his best friend, and he only has 20 pounds left in the world because he’s spent his savings on the land agent training. Up, down, up, down. That’s how Yates constructs the first four pages of the first chapter.
John hears a man at the restaurant door asking if there is an alcove table, and gets up to vacate his own, since there is now no point in his staying. When he pauses at the restaurant door to button his coat against the wet night (actually it’s a ‘rough, wet night’: Yates uses metaphors like confetti to point up the messages of emotional melodrama), he is stopped by the man who had spoken, who knows exactly who he is, and who also knew George. This is Jonathan Mansel, Yates’ great thriller hero, and now that he is on the stage (another Yatesian trope: he does like to present his novels as populated by actors in a staged setting), the audience can settle down knowing exactly who is in charge, and enjoy the ride.
Mansel is Captain Mansel, so we know he is of impeccable bravery and has gentleman thriller qualities because he is an ex-officer. Any ex-officer in a Yates novel is automatically good, and a hero as well. It’s not a debateable point, and it can be quite reassuring to know these fixed points of certainty in the shady world of crooks and villainy without the law that Yates writes about. Jonathan, or Jonah, Mansel is also one of the Berry crowd, the strange, incestuously connected group of cousins who all live together in an infantilised world of devastatingly light humour (one day I will post the podcast that I wrote about them, in Adele & Co). Mansel is the hard man of that group, and called Jonah there, since they are all cousins together, but in the thrillers he is Mansel, as befits his commanding officer status. In the thrillers, Mansel is strong, stern and utterly in control. He’s also, technically, a criminal because his speciality is taking the law into his own hands. He keeps doing this, in book after book, because in Yates’ view, the police are useless, and vigilantism is the only way to deliver a good thriller. Mansel is friends with all the top policemen so he can call on them when he (very rarely) needs a safety net, but this is not always possible, and going ‘without’ the law is always his favourite option.
Now that Mansel has taken over the plot of Gale Warning, John can relax too. Naturally he is distraught about George, and is pathetically glad to be invited to join Mansel’s private vigilante scheme to kill the man who ordered George’s murder. It was a revenge attack for the foiling of a high-profile burglary of jewels that were stripped from the women’s necks at a private house party at which Royal personages were present. Here again we have some favourite Yatesian moments. Jewels are always more attractive than money as treasure, because money smacks of trade (not conducive for a gentleman), and jewels are shiny. Jewels are also usually around the naked body parts of women, and Yates takes enormous, lingering pleasure in ensuring that we can picture the scenes in which jewels are stripped (and they would be ‘stripped’, wouldn’t they?) from such arms or necks, because the threatened violation of women in a Yates novel is the one thing that will ensure the rapid and summary death of any villain, especially if Mansel is involved. Murders along these lines happen quite often in Yates’ thrillers. In Gale Warning the scene where the villain actually lays his hand on the woman’s skin is described in full to the reader: Yates wants us to feel pleasurably excited and also outraged. He had strong views about the rightful ownership and possession of women in his own life as well as in his fiction: he would not have been a pleasant man to know, I feel.
So George, Mansel and Mansel’s great friend and fellow thriller hero Richard Chandos, foiled this jewel robbery, and its organiser arranged for George’s murder in revenge, telling Mansel that he and Chandos were going to be next. So naturally Mansel takes the offensive, and offers John the job of helping avenge George. Enter another player: George’s fiancée, Lady Audrey Nuneham. (Pause for another note: Audrey is the daughter of a duke or earl, since she uses her title with her first name. This makes her of the correct rank to marry an Earl, in Yates’s eyes, though any lady could marry a peer.) Audrey is a classic high-spirited, proud and sharp-tongued Yates heroine, who routinely says vicious things to the man she will eventually marry. She will be humbled by his devotion, and his ability to take all her tongue-lashing meekly, and she will be described in animal terms. She will be schooled, and brought to heel, in the most humiliatingly subservient, abased vocabulary, because Yates does enjoy giving out a good dose of abasement. His characters exist to glory in their hierarchies of value in relation to each other. They worship each other’s good qualities and praise each other in simple, soldierly steady-eyed English. Sometimes it’s all too much, too baroque and too selfless.
Gale Warning continues to relate the hunting down of the first link in the chain of people who will lead Mansel & Co to Barrabbas, the criminal mastermind behind all the nastiness. We have some excellent episodes tracking the first man down in the City of London (some classic interwar City of London crime and trailing scenes here), and then a very long and seriously iconic episode of Yates writing about cars, and mapping, and navigation in northern France. We have the tense moments of closing in the prey, the recce, the tests of endurance, the stomach-jolting shock of surprise, aeons of high tension, the attack, and then the careful wiping away of the blood. It is marvellous stuff, nail-biting, and gentlemanly to the core. Also vicious, high-handed, chauvinist, rule-bound, and arrogant. It all depends how much you can take at one sitting.