Some writers do their best work when young, later deteriorating on account of fading inspiration, alcoholism, the corrupting influence of celebrity; Hemingway being an example.
The career of Alfred Duggan, the finest English historical novelist of the mid-20th century, followed a different course. He was born in Argentina, his father a rich Irish-Argentine, his mother American. By the latter’s second marriage he acquired Lord Curzon, former viceroy of India and foreign secretary, as his stepfather. As a young man he gave himself up to dissipation and its deceptive delights. He travelled in the Levant and engaged in amateurish fashion in archaeology, but most of the time he drank, and would sit pickled in the libraries of great country houses turning over the pages of books in apparently listless fashion.
How and why a man frees himself from the gin-trap of alcoholism is rarely clear. In Duggan’s case the war against Hitler and the recovery of his Catholic faith seem to have been determining influences. If alcoholism is a way of saying “no” to life, an expression of disappointment in life as sold to you, Duggan now found reasons to say “yes”. He joined up (London Irish Rifles), fought in the disastrous Norway campaign of 1940, and, on being invalided out, worked in a factory making aircraft.
He returned to the Church, and married soon after the war. Having exhausted much of his inheritance in his drinking years, he found himself now poor; so, as Johnson said of Savage, “he became of necessity an author”. Of necessity, doubtless, but also of inclination, for with no conscious intent, his years of poring over works of ancient and medieval history had prepared him for what was to be his life’s work.
He lived industriously in Herefordshire. In 15 years he wrote 15 novels, none of them a dud, half-a dozen books of popular history and others for children. All the novels are set in the Middle Ages or the ancient world. In self-deprecation he remarked that he chose periods where original sources were few and research not too laborious; more to the point, periods when no one spoke English. So he solved or, if you prefer, evaded the great problem that confronts the historical novelist: how to make your characters speak. All his novels, as I remember, have a first-person narrator. We may assume, if we choose, that Duggan has translated their words into an elegant, neutral modern English. His style is spare, unvarnished, economical, rich in irony. His friend Evelyn Waugh thought that “a particular palate” was required to savour these novels. I think he was right. You are fortunate if you have such a palate.
Duggan was a master of the significant detail. I have often quoted an example from his second novel, Conscience of the King, the story of Cerdic, first king of Wessex, from whom our Royal Family is descended. Duggan’s Cerdic is originally a Romano-Briton who eventually becomes the leader of a Saxon war-band. He is placidly reading – Ovid, as I remember – in his villa when word comes of a Saxon landing and he calls for his armour. He remarks, casually, that that was the last time he ever read a book. In that throwaway line Duggan gives you the passage from the classical world to the barbarian one.
I have just read The Cunning of the Dove, his novel about Edward the Confessor. I suppose it’s 40 years since I read it last. It stands up well, and makes Edward, the only English king to have been canonised, both interesting and convincing. The story is told by his chamberlain, a Saxon who thinks in English, who dictates his story in French to a priest who translates it into Latin because “no one has settled how French should be spelled”.
The priest understands English well – “for a foreigner” – but “it is a difficult language, full of compound words and poetical metaphors. Even my holy master sometimes stumbled in it, though it had been the tongue of his infancy.” So he would often break into French, which annoyed some of the great English or Anglo-Danish earls who didn’t understand what the king was saying. They would, our narrator tells us, be even more angry “when my master switched to Latin, the best language for real accuracy.” All this is in the introduction and sets up the reader nicely for the story, for we have been assured, unobtrusively, that the narrative, being in Latin, will be trustworthy.
Victorian historians, whether pro-Saxon or pro-Norman, tended to take a dim view of Edward the Confessor. The pro-Saxons deplored his fondness for Normans. The pro-Normans thought that piety was all very well, but kings should be warriors, and the Confessor wasn’t a patch on the Conqueror. Duggan makes him credible: an intelligent and amiable gentleman devoted to both hunting and religion. The king’s death is movingly recounted; he foretells “war and rapine for a year and a day”. Harold Godwinson is by this account an illegitimate king, one who had sworn an oath of loyalty to William of Normandy, and therefore now a perjurer, even in the eyes of his sister, King Edward’s widow.
It is one of the pleasures of reading Alfred Duggan that one has no doubt that he could equally well have told the story from the point of view of a servant every bit as loyal to Harold as our narrator is to the Confessor.
Allan Massie is chief book reviewer for the Catholic Herald