Michael Gove recommends …

Robert Hanks

  • The Devil Is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley by Phil Baker
    Dedalus, 699 pp, £25.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 1 903517 75 8

In 1975, when he was 78, Dennis Wheatley finally achieved his long-held ambition of being elected to a really smart gentlemen’s club, White’s. On entering the building, so he told a friend, his first objective was to consult the membership book to find out how many had supported his candidacy – a gratifying 35. ‘Not bad for the Streatham born son of a shopkeeper.’

Wheatley was one of the most popular British writers of the 20th century, a fixture on the bestseller list for 40 years. A figure of 50 million copies sold in his lifetime is widely accepted, though the basis for it is elusive – the only source Phil Baker cites in his exhaustive biography is Wheatley’s own memoirs, and Wheatley was a relentless self-aggrandiser; but it sounds about right. In the mid-1960s, three decades into his career, he had 55 books in print, which collectively accounted for one seventh of Hutchinson’s turnover; Arrow, Hutchinson’s paperback imprint, was selling 1,150,000 Wheatleys a year, a quarter of their total output; in 1966, the paperback of The Satanist sold more than 100,000 copies in ten days. (Although his popularity extended overseas, he never caught on in America, perhaps because of the thoroughly unconvincing Americans he put in his books.)

In the public mind Wheatley is bound up with satanism, thanks to a couple of Hammer Horror films and countless lurid paperback covers in which soft-focus full-frontal nudity was combined with diabolical paraphernalia (horns, skulls). ‘Britain’s occult uncle’ is how Baker characterises him. In his best-known books he offered a cheap but potent blend of magic and sex, and a somewhat gaudy version of high living: dinner jackets and inverted pentangles; Imperial Tokay, Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and giant spiders; a menacing black servant with eyes glowing like coals; a naked young woman supine on a stone altar, breasts heaving, knife raised over her throat. But only a minority of his novels involve devil-worship; Baker’s title ties together the thing that brought in the money with the obsession that underpins all his work: social class.

Wheatley suffered from a sickly adoration of the rich and well-born, and a contrasting suspicion of the masses and any political system that allowed them any influence. One of the odder pieces of writing he produced was a ‘letter to posterity’ – it was buried in the grounds of his Hampshire home – to mark the wedding of the young Princess Elizabeth. In this, he told future generations how the seeds of social destruction were being sown in his own time by the mass media and the spread of ‘the false, pernicious doctrine that “all men are equal”’, and urged his descendants to rebel against the socialist dictatorship he saw as inevitable: ‘People can begin systematically to break small regulations, and so to larger ones with passive resistance by groups of people pledged to stand together – and eventually the boycotting, or ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’ In 1955, proposing the motion at the Oxford Union ‘that equality is in theory a pestilential heresy and in practice a pitiful illusion,’ Wheatley argued that extra votes should be given to those of ‘superior mentality’. He was sure that he would come under that heading.

‘Son of a shopkeeper’ was misleading: Wheatley & Son were high-class grocers who expanded into the wine trade, with premises in Mayfair and a clientele that included dukes and Rothschilds; but still, trade is trade. There was even more money – earned, alas – on his mother’s side: at an interview for a nautical training college Wheatley heard his father explain that the boy needed discipline because he was to inherit a quarter of a million pounds, a sizeable sum at the time (in the event he inherited a tiny fraction of that). He was born in 1897, and had a more or less orthodox Edwardian upper-middle-class upbringing, to which he didn’t take. He was precociously interested in girls and sex, lazy, addicted to sweets and cakes (and not above stealing and swindling to buy them), not academically gifted. Baker thinks he may have been dyslexic, and he was certainly an abnormally bad speller all his life; but he read voraciously, mostly adventure stories, and seems to have enjoyed a rich fantasy life. An unhappy school career, punctuated by expulsion from Dulwich College, ended when he turned 16 and was sent to Germany to learn the wine trade. He was much happier there, but this was 1913 and he didn’t go back after the Christmas holidays.

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