Monday, September 7, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
THE HISTORICAL FICTION OF ALFRED DUGGAN (published between 1950 and 1964)
Time was, I was a constant haunter of second-hand bookshops. Time is, I am too busy for such haunting. Except when I am overseas, I haven’t indulged in it for some years.
In my second-hand-bookshop-haunting days, I would buy all manner of books for “serious” literary reading. But, purely for more relaxing light reading, there were two authors for whose works I always searched. One was Georges Simenon because I liked (and still like) his short Maigret novels. The other was the English historical novelist Alfred Duggan.
A word about historical novels. Like every sane reader, I tend to be very wary of them. Most novels that claim to be “historical” tend more in the direction of daydream and fantasy than anything resembling verifiable history. It isn’t just the lowest sensational rank of “historical” novels (bodice-rippers and the like) and it isn’t just the glaring anachronisms that any informed reader will easily pick out. It is, far more fundamentally, the fact that most “historical” novels assume that values and attitudes of the past were the same as our modern values and attitudes, and that therefore the depiction of people in past ages is simply a matter of clothing modern people in period fancy dress. In other words, only a very small group of very good historical novelists ever really get inside the “mentality” of past times. And even in that small elite, it is still problematical to claim that they have genuinely captured the spirit of the past. What I am really saying is that they seem to have captured the mentality of the past.
It is a case of verisimilitude, not of veracity.
Now in that small elite of historical novelists, who know what they are talking about, I have no hesitation in placing Alfred Duggan (1903-1964). I read some of his novels with pleasure as a schoolboy and read more of them, with equal pleasure, as an adult, sometimes seeing in them nuances that passed me by when I was a kid.
In fact I now find in them one very pronounced and odd tendency to which I’ll return later in this notice.
As a novelist, Duggan was an unusual chap in starting so late. He was born in Buenos Aires as Alfredo Leon Duggan, of an Argentinian father with Irish ancestors and a wealthy American mother. His father died when Duggan was a small infant and the family had shifted to England. Duggan’s mother remarried, her new husband being Lord Curzon, one of the grandees of the British Empire. Alfred Duggan therefore grew up in an immensely wealthy family with aristocratic connections, and was given the education that a wealthy English gentleman would receive. Eton and Oxford. However, he was expelled from Eton for sneaking out at night to see a girl. At the Oxford of the 1920s, he was clearly one of the Bright Young Things, along with his friends Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh. He had a reputation for partying hard in London nightclubs and he achieved no distinction as a student.
Only in the late 1940s (partly because his mother had lost most of the family inheritance and he was in straitened circumstances) did Duggan turn to writing novels. His first, Knight with Armour (1950) was published when he was 47 and his last Count Bohemond (1964) in the year of his death. He produced fifteen novels in those fifteen years – one a year. All his novels are set either in classical antiquity (usually ancient Rome) or in the Middle Ages (usually Saxon, Norman or Plantagenet England). His first and last novels are both set in the First Crusade. Duggan also wrote 13 non-fiction books, some of them for teenagers, on the same general subjects as his novels. I remember in the late 1960s, doing Form 7 (Year 13) History with a history teacher who decided that we would do one of the less popular Scholarship options, the crusades. Our official textbooks were the three volumes of Sir Steven Runciman’s scholarly history of the crusades. But when writing essays we often cheated by dipping into Alfred Duggan’s racy one-volume Story of the Crusades 1097-1291.
So what was there to admire in Duggan’s historical fiction?
More than anything else it was his thorough knowledge of the periods about which he wrote (based on much research, including archaeological research) and his genuine attempt to reproduce the way people probably thought in past ages, as distinct from the way we think. He accepted their values, their religious beliefs, their attitudes towards other peoples and races as an essential part of who they were, and never had his characters mouthing values that might be more congenial to us. In every one of Duggan’s novels there is a complex social and political situation to which his characters react with as much nuance as we react to the modern world. In nearly every one, cunning and diplomacy form a major part of the tale. The past is never seen as a simple place, and there is little room for storybook heroics.
Here, simply to get the flavour of them, are comments on seven Duggan novels I’ve read:
Knight With Armour (1950) Duggan’s first novel, is told in the third person. It is a fairly straightforward account of the First Crusade as seen by an English-Norman knight. As in later novels it has precision; an odd avoidance of heroics; and meticulous descriptions of military processes. Most of the narrative is in the long slog of getting to the Holy Land and then setting up the siege engines to capture Jerusalem. Duggan enters into the mind of the times by showing how seriously the knights take miracles and the giving of oaths; and how (throughout) their Muslim enemies are simply distant “infidels” to them. But this does not mean the crusaders are stupid. They are very sceptical about the fortuitous discovery of the “Sacred Lance” that is supposed to have pierced Christ’s side. By having his (ordinary and not particularly heroic) main character killed on the last page, after having scaled the walls of Jerusalem, Duggan skews things by being able to end on a note of the crusaders’ victory, but without having to go into the nasty details of the slaughter that they then inflicted on the city’s non-Christian inhabitants. This was Duggan’s apprentice novel, and he would not be so squeamish in later works.
Leopards and Lilies (1954) is one of Duggan’s best books, even if it comes relatively early in his canon. Unusually for this author, its main character is a woman who is trying to protect herself in time of medieval civil war between the followers of King John (“leopards”) and the barons who seek French support (“lilies”). Lady Margaret de Fitzgerald, the daughter of a lesser baron, goes through two arranged marriages and switches her allegiances repeatedly in the civil war in order to protect her inheritance. It is never suggested that she has a tender heart. In fact, she is cunning and conniving, but – in the end – not as powerful as she thinks she is. I remember once lending this novel to people who claimed to be interested in medieval history and who, having read it, returned it to me in disgust because it was about such an “appalling woman”. I think they must have expected the kind of medievalist romanticism that Sir Walter Scott used to serve up. A story about a credible woman who engages in the real complexities of medieval politics was a little beyond them – especially a credible woman who is calculating and comes to a sticky end. The novel is notable for some of its set pieces, such as the one in which knights plunder an abbey when they are short of funds, and then try to make restitution when they realize they will be excommunicated.
Winter Quarters (1956) is one of Duggan’s essays into the Roman world. Camul (who narrates the story) and Acco are two Gauls who, in about 50 BC, flee from a family feud in Southern Gaul and join the Roman army as cavalrymen. They see some of Julius Caesar’s military genius, but join the legions of Marcus Crassus in his disastrous campaign beyond Syria. The narrative gives a Gaul’s-eye-view of Rome, Athens and Antioch en route to Crassus’ massive defeat at the hands of the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae, with the battle being described in close detail. Duggan unapologetically give us his main characters’ own beliefs, in this case in the influence of their gods.
The Cunning of the Dove (1960) presents the reign of Edward the Confessor as viewed by his chamberlain Edgar. Edward is different from the saint of pious memory – he is a genuinely chaste and holy man; he sees visions sent from heaven; he cures with his touch BUT he is also fully aware of the political and military affairs of his fragile little kingdom and, mainly by outstaying his adversaries, he manages to keep his kingdom together. Duggan is fully aware that the “England” Edward ruled was in fact just a corner of the modern south-east of England, squeezed by English Mercia and Danish Mercia and with frequent threats from the Welsh and Scots. Probably to the outrage of those who still cling to a Whiggish view of history (i.e. the part of it that concocted the myth of Saxon freedoms being lost in the Norman invasion), Duggan’s Edward the Confessor is a king who nominates William of Normandy as his successor, dislikes his pushy (and later, usurping) nephew Harold, and welcomes the prospect of Norman bishops taking over to sort out quarrelling and self-interested Saxon clerics and lords. The novel is clearly saying that saintliness isn’t necessarily incompatible with much cunning.
Family Favourites (1960) is another Roman story. As in Winter Quarters, the main character and narrator is a Celt observing a disastrous piece of Roman history. Duratius is a veteran legionary who has enlisted in the Praetorian Guard – the bodyguard of the emperor. When the emperorship is disputed, the Praetorian Guard make the beautiful teenage Syrian boy Elagabalus emperor, on the assumption that they will be able to control him. But his reign proves disastrous, and he is eventually assassinated. All this is observed ironically, yet with much pity for the young emperor, by the tough old soldier Duratius.
The King of Athelney (1961) is the story of the younger son of a Saxon family who becomes Alfred the Great. Its greatest strength is, once again, its clear understanding of the realities of power and how tenuous Alfred’s hold on power was when he won provisional victories in a land of many small dynastic kingdoms. The novel covers many years of his life after the death of his elder brothers, but spares us much domestic detail. It is emphatically clear that Alfred is a devout Catholic. He treasures a miniature sword that the pope gives him, when he is a child. Nevertheless, he is fully aware of the pragmatic nature of the “conversions” that pagan Danes undergo when they are defeated and captured.
Count Bohemond (1964), Duggan’s last novel, concerns a Norman nobleman from southern Italy who is one of the leaders of the First Crusade. In his last novel, therefore, Duggan returned to exactly the same period as his first novel Knight with Armour, only now the First Crusade is seen from the point of view of one of its commanders. Basically this novel has the same narrative structure as Winter Quarters, being mainly the long and episodic journey to a war. Duggan enters fully into his warlike Norman mentality – Bohemond takes it for granted that sack and pillage and massacre are legitimate parts of warfare. There is no wringing of hands over this. He wrings his hands only over bad strategy and the amusing hotheadedness of his nephew Tancred. Warfare is rendered in “long shot”, the details of battle clearly conveyed as a military historian would convey them. The author assumes that we are adult enough to draw our own modern conclusions without attributing them to a medieval character.
In all of these novels I find a real grasp of vanished worlds, a respect for the way people once thought, a refusal to moralise about their worldviews, an avoidance of sentimentality or prettiness and a great deal of hard historical knowledge. They are in the first rank of historical novels.
Which, as an endpiece, brings me to this “pronounced and odd tendency” which I now detect in Duggan’s novels but which quite passed over my head when I was a teenager. I do not know a great deal about Duggan’s private life. The little I know suggests that in his youth he chased the opposite sex, but he did not settle down to marriage (and children) until he was fifty, little more than a decade before he died.
Yet in many of his novels there is a pronounced homosexual undertone, or at least a distaste for heterosexual coupling.
Knight with Armour has its hero, en route to the crusades, marrying a widow who later cuckolds him and deserts him for another man – the woman is basically disposable in the narrative and a bit of a nuisance to the knight. There is no suggestion of romantic love.
In Leopards and Lilies, there is absolutely no romantic love. The two marriages of the woman protagonist are arranged marriages and her chief concern is to secure her inheritance and her child’s future. She quite likes one of her husbands, who is a venturesome knight – but she can coldly calculate to ditch him when he becomes an inconvenience.
Winter Quarters has a curious subtext, both in the relationship of the two Gauls, and in the fact that the two of them are running away from what they see as a malign Goddess and seeking the exclusively male protection of the Skyfather and Wargod. In the episodes set in Greece, much play I made of Greek homosexuality and a boy who tries to seduce Acco; and in Syria, Acco falls in love with a girl whom he abandons after she becomes a cultic prostitute. Female sexuality is apparently dangerous and corrupting. When Acco dies in battle, Camul attributes his bad luck to the long and hostile reach of the Goddess. (Though he himself is the narrator, Camul’s own sexual urges rate barely a mention.)
The Cunning of the Dove begins with the narrator, the chamberlain Edgar, admitting that he is homosexual by nature but, being a good Christian and knowing sodomy is sinful, he has chosen to live the life of a celibate cleric.
Family Favourites is the most overtly homosexual of the novels. The narrator (again, apparently asexual) observes the boy emperor from an ironical distance, but the boy emperor is frequently described as beautiful, consorts with stable-boys and at orgies harnesses female slaves to chariots like horses. Females are inferior beasts. The narrator’s ironical distance at times sounds very like suppressed love for the boy he discovered.
The King of Athelney has no overtly sexual element. Alfred marries for dynastic purposes and has children, but he finds his wife boring and is more stimulated by intellectual conversation with his mother-in-law. His strongest emotional bond is with his elder brother Ethelred.
In the first chapter of Count Bohemond, we learn that the count “seemed to take no interest in women; but his father was relieved to note that he was not interested in boys either”. Elsewhere we are told that he has a small penis. His life centres on warfare and sex is of no interest to him.
It could be, of course, that in his tales of ancient conflict and diplomacy, Duggan is reflecting truthfully the homosocial worlds of warriors, kings and lords. This is congenial to most male teenage readers, for whom romantic complications are soppy stuff in historical stories of battle and plotting. Even so, this particular perspective does seem built into Duggan’s worldview, which is more nuanced than my teenage eyes recognised.
I hasten to add that there are absolutely no explicit sex-scenes in any of Duggan’s work, and his depiction of the past is always a credible one.