Make mine a Worcester Sauce

John Bayley

There is a definite but at the same time indefinable category of writer who can in some way be thought of as ‘English’, in inverted commas. The concept would only apply in the twilight of Empire, between 1900 and 1950, a mere fifty years of elusive but positive literary ‘Englishness’. Four possible candidates, varying in attainments, would be T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Peter Fleming (perhaps both Flemings) and Richard Hughes. It makes no difference that Lawrence was half-Irish, the Flemings mostly Scottish, and Hughes partly Welsh. The presidential or father figure of the group would be John Buchan, another Scot, whose innings was over before the younger ones started to play, although he was still around as they became famous.

This English angle was partly suggested to me at the time when Hughes’s penultimate novel, intended as the first of a trilogy, was being considered in 1962 for the Prix Formentor. One of the jury, the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, told me he had enjoyed The Fox in the Attic, but thought it very much an ‘English’ view of the Continent, of Germany more specifically, the sort of view that Germans associated with English gentlemen, an admired class of persons who could not help but patronise everything outside their own immediate circle, even though they were great travellers and took a keen interest in other peoples. I saw what he meant, and he suddenly smiled and said, ‘Greenmantle, you know,’ as if mention of the Buchan title was the best he could do to suggest a highly elusive brand of sensibility.

His view seemed to be that of most of the Continental jurors, who awarded the prize, quite a prestigious one in those days, to the Italian novelist Gadda for A Horrible Mess on Via Merulana. I am sure they were right, but The Fox in the Attic was very generally praised and admired at the time, and the author of this excellent biography tells us in his last paragraph that he is sure Hughes’s books ‘live on, though now shamefully neglected’. Perhaps. I was certainly gripped for days by A High Wind in Jamaica, at about the age of 15, and I can still remember sentences from it which seemed to me specially haunting. ‘But for the life of him Captain Johnsen could think of nothing else but that house in quiet Lübeck with the green porcelain stove.’ I think I liked that precisely because it gave a sort of ‘English’ view of the Continent, although I had no idea of this at the time. Johnsen was the captain of the pirates who had accidentally kidnapped the children, thus providing Hughes with his plot; and at that moment a wholly undeserved nemesis is about to catch up with him.

I reread the novel not so long ago, and while I still admired it I found the old magic rather eclipsed. Unfair to make a verdict out of that. But the casual expertise, the calculated shocks, the stylish knowledgeability that now seemed rather less than convincing, all suggested a talent that could be perceived as historically and socially determined, rather than as ever fresh and new.

Hughes knew both T.E. Lawrence and Robert Graves and knew them quite well, to the point, probably, of being a good deal influenced. He had their flair, too, for being a man of letters who could take up all sorts of unlikely projects, as if they were a gamble that might pay off, and sometimes did. Two that remained abortive were his attempt before the war to produce a version of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Daughter-in-Law’ for the stage, and after it – in 1953 – to do a screen version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Board of Censors sat on that one: sexual intercourse, in the Larkinian sense, had not yet quite arrived.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in