»  The New Criterion

February 2005

  Alfred Duggan's Past

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[Note on "Thomas à Becket." The "à" seems to have fallen out of favor with historians and encyclopædists. You most often see him now as just "Thomas Becket." That is also Duggan's usage: "I am Thomas fitzGilbert, or Thomas Becket, or Thomas of Cheapside in London …" (God and My Right, end of Chapter 1) … though all the reviewers quoted on the blurb of the new English Library paperback include "à." Well: I was raised in Northampton, scene of one of the great dramas in Becket's life. Nothing much had happened in Northampton since then, so there were numerous landmarks named after the saint: Becket's Park, Becket's Well, Becket's Walk, etc., etc. We always used the "à," and if you want it, you will have to prise it from my cold dead fingers.]

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It is no use making any large claims for historical fiction. As is the case with with science fiction, the historical genre certainly has its masterpieces; but with very few exceptions — Henry Esmond, perhaps, War and Peace, and one or two others — even these masterpieces are understood to dwell in a realm separate from the main body of literary endeavor. It does not help that the lowest and most popular kind of historical novel is nowadays widely known by a rather demeaning sobriquet, one that escaped from the back rooms of publishing houses into general circulation some time around 1980: "bodice-ripper." It is hard to take a novel seriously when, on picking it up, you have that expression at the back of your mind.

Historical fiction is, in fact, in somewhat the same relation to mainstream fiction as opera is to instrumental music. There are some very high-minded music lovers who will not go to see an opera — and even some conductors who will not take on operatic productions. At the creative end, while many great composers have tried their hands at opera, only Mozart and Handel really made a convincing success of it. Haydn wrote 22 operas, according to Grove, but I think only Armida is much performed nowadays, and that not often. Just so with great novelists and historical fiction — Salammbô, anyone? Contrariwise, many composers of numerous enduringly successful operas created little of any other kind of work. Donizetti composed some chamber music in his youth, but you will have to hunt around very diligently to find it in live performance.

Alfred Duggan was a sort of Donizetti of historical fiction. He might have been as prolific as the great Bergamasc, too, but for the facts that he started late and died before his time. In the fifteen years from 1950 to 1964, Duggan published fifteen historical novels, precisely one per annum. He died in that latter year aged not quite 61. His writing career thus spanned that portion of life when most of us are looking forward to retirement. Duggan wrote no other fiction, only a handful of nonfiction books aimed mainly at children and teens, dealing with historical topics that can, in any case, mostly be found well presented in the novels.

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Here is a list of Duggan's novels, in order of publication, with a very brief pointer to the historical period of each. Some of them were given different titles for U.S. publication. I shall use the original, British title here and in all that follows.

It can be seen that Duggan's stories cover a good historical range, from the 8th century B.C. to about A.D. 1280. The Normans and Franks of the latter part of that range were of particular interest to him (6 novels), with Romans (5) a close second, Saxons (3) and Macedonians (1) filling out the remainder.

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Duggan himself said that he chose obscure periods for his novels in order to minimize the need for research. This was false modesty. It is plain from his books that Duggan knew a very great deal about ancient and medieval military history, and about the everyday customs of people in past times. And even if Duggan had any aversion to research himself, he was, in at least one instance, glad to use the researches of others. Elephants and Castles is built around notes bequeathed to him by the American historian Lee Byrne, who had been studying the book's main character, Demetrius Poliorcetes, for many years with the intention of writing a novel, but had died before he was ready to begin.

Duggan's self-deprecating remark, though, does find an odd echo in the quality of his books. It is the case, broadly speaking, that the best-researched of Duggan's books are the least fun to read. This calls for some explanation.

There are actually two quite distinct kinds of historical novel, which I shall call the "hard" and the "soft." On the one hand the writer of historical fiction may attempt to capture the inner life and motivations of some real and well-documented historical figure. Robert Graves's Claudius novels offer outstanding examples of this "hard" sub-genre. Our author might, on the other hand, center his story on some invented person, who is then let loose amidst historical scenery: think of Gone With the Wind or Patrick O'Brian's sea stories. (As a slight variant of this "soft" sub-genre, the same thing can be done with a historical figure sufficiently obscure he might as well be an invention.)

The "hard" sub-genre is less often attempted because it is much more difficult to pull off. To give a convincing account of the thoughts and emotions of, say, Charlemagne, you need to do a great deal of research into the man, his family, friends and colleagues. You also need a good understanding of human types, an imaginative appreciation of people who may be quite unlike yourself. This combination of diligence and insight is not often found among fiction writers, who tend if anything to be more lazy and self-obsessed than the human average. "Soft" historical fiction, on the other hand, can be tackled by anybody, including the kind of novelist whose central characters are really nothing more than self-impersonations. It is, in fact, rather amusing to imagine oneself wandering around in old Carthage or fighting at Manzikert. Probably anyone who has contemplated fiction writing at all has had the urge to write a book of this sort; and it is plain from the proliferation of low-grade "bodice-rippers" that lots of people want to read such books.

Duggan took on both sub-genres. Of his fifteen novels, I would characterize seven as "hard," the personalities drawn being St. Thomas à Becket, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the emperor Elagabalus, Edward the Confessor, Alfred the Great, the aforementioned Demetrius Poliorcetes, and Bohemond I of Antioch. I do not think it is unkind to say, though, that Duggan was at his best in the "soft" style. His invented main characters, or those actual historical figures like Cerdic and Roussel de Balliol who are so obscure they might as well be invented, are on the whole more successful than his re-creations of known personalities.

This can be seen rather clearly by comparing Duggan's first and last novels. As it happens, both books cover much the same historical and geographical territory. Knight with Armour tells the story of Roger of Bodeham, younger son of an Anglo-Norman knight. So far as I know, Roger is an invented character. Certainly there is no significant historical person of that name. (Though Bodeham is a real place — see below.) Having no hope of inheriting his father's manor, Roger goes off on the First Crusade in the train of Robert, Duke of Normandy. Duggan gives a vivid account of that tremendous enterprise, seen through the eyes of a minor and rather unworldly participant.

Count Bohemond uses the same historical background for a quite different story, centered on the character and deeds of Bohemond I. This involves us in the convoluted politics of the Crusade — the constant squabbling among the leaders, and the intrigues of the Byzantine Emperor. Bohemond, unlike Roger de Bodeham, is an experienced warrior, so that war seen through his eyes reads like the dry chronicle of some military historian. Compare, for example, the account of the Battle of Dorylaeum in Chapter 7 of Bohemond with the description of the same events in Chapter 3 of Knight. From the first: "Little groups of knights had disobeyed orders and tried to chase away their assailants. That always led to disaster …" From the second: "Hugh pulled his horse out of the ranks and galloped diagonally to the left … Roger and eight of his immediate neighbours followed him. Instantly the Turkish line on the hill was in motion …" In the first, we have a dry overview; in the second, the intimate personal witness of a youngster experiencing his first battle.

I don't mean to imply that all Duggan's "hard" characters are failures. Bohemond is a stuffed shirt — a mail shirt, of course — and Duggan's Thomas à Becket left me cold, his Edward the Confessor only a little warmer. (Though at least Duggan spares us the "gay" Edward of current imagining — in Julian Rathbone's The Last English King, for example. Duggan speaks frankly about adult matters, but his books are free of salacity and profanity, and I would recommend them without reservation to intelligent young-teen readers of the present day.) These are low points, though. When Duggan succeeds in giving us a major historical figure, he succeeds brilliantly.

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Most successful of all Duggan's "hard" fiction, in my opinion, is Three's Company, the story of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who was the third man in the Second Triumvirate that followed the death of Julius Caesar (the other members being Antony and Octavian). Of this person, the Oxford Classical Dictionary says: "Lepidus lacked the character and energy to use the opportunities which high birth and Caesar's favour placed in his way." Taking this as his key, Duggan delivers a devastating and often hilarious portrait of a man who, while intelligent, level-headed, brave, and dutiful, nurses an image of himself and his possibilities drastically at odds with his actual qualities. The book's only drawback is that it assumes more understanding of the very complicated constitution of republican Rome than a modern reader is likely to have. An ideal edition would have explanatory appendices like those very helpful ones included in Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" novels, to help us distinguish among aediles, praetors, quaestors, and so on.

Three's Company employs a successful "framing device": a brief running commentary on events appended to each chapter, in the very Waughian voice of one Lady Clodia, usually speaking from her dressing-table or bed of lust. Though plainly no fan of Modernist experimentalism, Duggan was not averse to departures from plain narrative, and deployed the full range of traditional novelist's tools to engage and hold the reader's attention. Last-minute surprises? Do not peek forward at the final pages of Leopards and Lilies.

It is in the "soft" sub-genre of historical fiction that Duggan truly excels, though. This becomes plain if you ask a Duggan fan to name his favorite of the fifteen books. My own, admittedly very small, sample yielded two votes for Conscience of the King and one each for Leopards and Lilies, The Little Emperors, and Lord Geoffrey's Fancy — all "soft" fictions. Two of these books deal with actual persons, though such obscure ones that Duggan can make free with their personalities.

Conscience of the King purports to be an autobiographical memoir of Cerdic, First king of Wessex, about whom little more is known but that he died in A.D. 534 after establishing the first Saxon kingdom on the ruins of Roman Britain. Cerdic is claimed as ultimate ancestor of all subsequent British monarchs, including the current one, though these claims depend on some genealogical sleight of hand by the later Saxons. He presents a puzzle to historians, his name being of obviously British (that is, Romano-Celtic) origins. As a king of the Saxons, he therefore appears to be playing for the wrong team. Duggan squares this circle brilliantly, giving Cerdic a mixed Roman, German, and British ancestry, and turns him into an amoral survivor, a sort of Dark Ages Harry Flashman, who manages to dispose of, or arrange for the disposal of, or fail to avert the disposal of — though regretfully in every case — all those who get in his way, notably his wife, his brother, and his father.

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Duggan's life was sufficiently colorful to make a novel by itself. He was born Alfred Leo Duggan in Buenos Aires in 1903. His father, Alfredo Hubert Duggan, was a third-generation Argentinian of Irish ancestry. The family were wealthy landowners; at the time of his death, Alfredo's father — that is, Alfred's grandfather — possessed eighteen large estancias. Alfred's mother was Grace Elvina Hinds, of the Hinds mansion in Decatur, Alabama, to where her father, J. Monroe Hinds, had moved after distinguished service in the Union cause during the Civil War. Hinds père entered the U.S. diplomatic service in the 1870s, eventually becoming U.S. Consul General in Rio de Janiero. Grace was a terrific beauty, who even (by her own account, at any rate) managed to turn the head of the asexual Lord Kitchener.

In 1905 Alfred's father was appointed "honorary attaché" at the Argentine Legation in London. I have not been able to discover what diplomatic duties this entailed, other than vigorous socializing; I suspect the answer is "none". The family moved to England, and Alfred's subsequent history is entirely English. As English as it could be, in fact: his father died in 1915 (of drink, according to his sons), and his mother then married George Nathaniel Curzon, the very epitome of the born-to-rule Imperial-British aristocrat — he had served as Viceroy of India, 1898-1905, and spent his entire adult life in the highest political and aristocratic circles. Little Alfred and his younger brother Hubert were educated at Eton, while Grace ended her days as the Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston, publishing, in 1955, a rather vaporous memoir of her life.

It is as an Etonian that Duggan makes his first appearance in literature, in the first volume of Anthony Powell's autobiography. Alfred himself was somewhat senior to Powell, who was better acquainted with Hubert, on whom he based the character of Charles Stringham in A Dance to the Music of Time. Powell does, though tell the story of Alfred's expulsion from Eton, which followed upon the discovery that he had been sneaking out to spend nights with a girl in the town.

From Eton Alfred went to Balliol College, Oxford. The writer Peter Quennell gave a memorable portrait of him there.

Alfred Duggan … was a dashing Restoration rake, who, having at length been converted to Catholicism, developed into a successful and prolific historical novelist. At Oxford, Alfred "was very rich.  … He was, moreover, the stepson of the Chancellor of the University, Lord Curzon. This connection irked the authorities, who otherwise would have summarily sent him down. We were often drunk, Alfred almost always." And not only did he keep a string of hunters, but every night of his life, wearing full evening dress, he would have himself driven off to London, and there spend the next three or for hours at a then-notorious Soho night-club. Driven back again, he would scale the façade of the college and struggle through his first-floor [i.e. American "second-floor"] window. The bribes that he paid his scout, I remember him telling me, ran into several hundred pounds a year. But, drunk or sober, he was always polite and impassive; and his starched shirt-front, with its lustrous pearl studs, seldom showed a crease or dent.

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The quote that begins in that second sentence is from Evelyn Waugh, another Oxford acquaintance of Alfred's. Waugh's date of birth was mid-way between those of the two Duggan brothers, and Waugh knew them both very well. He was actually present at Hubert's death, wrote memorably about it in both his Letters and Diaries, and based the deathbed scene in Brideshead Revisited on it. When Alfred died in 1964, Waugh wrote a fine, moving obituary for the Spectator, reproduced in The Essays, Articles, and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, and as a preface to the posthumously published Count Bohemond. In the obituary, Waugh declares his own favorite among Duggan's novels to be Conscience of the King, not a bad choice, and one which I included in my little poll up above. Notes Waugh: "Romans and Normans, the worlds of empire and chivalry, were the natural founts of his imagination. Modern history he regarded with calm despair."

When Lord Curzon died in 1925, he left his entire fortune to Grace, Alfred's mother. It did not last long. Grace was, in the delicate words of Lord Curzon's most recent biographer, "unencumbered by intellectual interests," and seems not to have grasped the most elementary principles of money management. She was also unwise in her choice of companionship post-Curzon, taking as her lover Sir Matthew "Scatters" Wilson, a bounder in the grand English "bad baronet" tradition, and a very confident but egregiously bad judge of both horseflesh and business ventures. By 1931 Grace was flat broke, and the affair with Sir Matthew had disintegrated. She moved in with Alfred, who had inherited some money from his father, and continued to live with him until his marriage in 1953.

The last ten of those years were spent at Bodiam Manor in East Sussex, from where Grace's bedroom window looked out at 14th-century Bodiam Castle. Lord Curzon, who was, amongst an awe-inspiring number of other things, a keen antiquary, had bought the ruined castle (with the manor as an afterthought) in 1916 in order to restore it. There had been a manor house, of course, long before there was a castle; and it is from the imagined Norman manor house that Roger de Bodeham rides forth in Knight with Armour. In her autobiography, in fact, Grace speaks thus of Lord Curzon's feelings towards Bodiam Castle: "He felt that it brought back the Age of Chivalry to him, and he almost expected to see knights in armour, or trains of long-robed ladies on their palfreys carrying falcons on their wrists, coming out of the great gate of the Castle."

Alfred's youthful addictions to booze, gambling, and loose women had come to a head early in 1924, when his stepfather decreed that no further bills would be honored with Curzon money except those due to tradesmen or debts of honor. "The Randolph Hotel, the tarts, and the night club will not be paid." It was decided to see what travel would do for the young man. A job was arranged with London's Natural History Museum, on whose behalf Duggan sailed across the Atlantic in a 600-foot barquentine, collecting specimens from the West Indies and Galapagos Islands. Much of the following 14 years was spent in travel and archæological explorations, mainly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus it was that Duggan acquired the great stock of geographical and historical knowledge that he later deployed so effortlessly in his novels. Strangely, though, the city of Antioch, which features in no less than six of those novels, and for which Duggan plainly nursed a fascination, was one he never visited.

In 1938, apparently anticipating WW2, Duggan joined the Territorial Army (roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Guard), and saw strenuous active service in the Norway debacle of 1940. Discharged as medically unfit, Duggan spent the remainder of the war working in an airplane factory. In later years, his inheritance gone, Duggan adjusted philosophically to his changed circumstances, living a bookish and domestic life utterly at odds with the extravagant dissipation of his youth. He seems to have been a devoted husband and parent, and a loyal friend. Waugh attributes the change principally to supernatural grace, and I suppose this explanation is as good as any; though there is little overt piety in the novels, other than what is required for mediæval scene-setting. Duggan's characters are, in fact, a very worldly lot. Whatever the quality of his faith, he did not impose it on his fictions.

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From Anthony Powell's memoirs:

In 1950, when I was editing the novel-review pages of The Times Literary Supplement, a publisher asked that a first novel by an unknown writer should not be overlooked on the grounds of belonging to an obsolescent genre of literature. The author was called "Alfred Duggan." I remarked how strange that I should have know someone of that name; the last man on earth to attempt a historical novel.

One can understand a person in postwar England thinking that he had seen quite enough history for a while, but obviously this publisher was in error. Probably there will always be a receptive readership for good historical fiction; though probably, as with opera, there will always be lovers of literature who just don't see the point.

What is the point? Science fiction fans like to speak of the "sense of wonder." Kingsley Amis, for instance, said that the purpose of science fiction is "to arouse wonder, terror and excitement." Some similar sense is stimulated by good historical fiction. To think that this person actually lived! (Or, in the case of the "soft" style: To think that some such person probably lived!) Everyone who has reached middle age has a sense of the remoteness and strangeness of life even a scant few decades ago. Children in iron lungs; drama on the radio; having your feet X-rayed in the shoe store; people smoking cigarettes all the time, everywhere. How much odder things were a century before that! And a millennium? Two millennia? Even to try to imagine such worlds one needs help. The writer of historical fiction supplies that help.

Yet ultimately historical fiction is, like all art, an illusion. Here are people just like us: same facial features, same limbs, their desires and hates arising from the same springs as ours. And yet their actions were often bizarrely, fathomlessly inexplicable to us. When the clergy of Seez filled an episcopal vacancy by election without consulting Geoffrey of Anjou, their lay lord, Geoffrey had the lot of them castrated, and the bishop-elect, too. An earlier Count of Anjou, Fulk the Black, in penance for his sins, voluntarily shuffled to Jerusalem and back three times — total 15,000 miles, much of it trackless mountain and forest — while shackled in irons. What on earth were they thinking? We cannot know. By the narration of such things, though, a skilful writer can rouse us to wonder and awe.

In Lord Geoffrey's Fancy Alfred Duggan introduces us to 13th-century Greece under the rule of Frankish knights. All the geography and ethnography of that place is refracted through the language and sensibility of these knights. Athens is "Satines"; Corinth is "Chorinte"; the natives are "Grifons" (Greeks) or "Esclavons" (South Slavs). The effect is to render the whole story as taking place in a completely imagined world, a Tolkeinian fantasy without the magic; yet the history is sound and well researched. At the end of the book, the narrator, returned to England, laments the passing of it all:

But I have seen it: the colours of western blazonry burning under the bright sun, castles of shimmering white marble, the Latin chant in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Satines, columns erected by the wise men of old and the soaring domes of the cunning Grifons. That life will never come again. It ought to be remembered.

Yes, it ought to be remembered — not just by archæologists and antiquaries, but by ordinary thoughtful men and women, seeking relief from the press of daily affairs in the productions of a gifted and informed imagination. There have been few historical imaginations better informed or more gifted than Alfred Duggan's.