12 Books of Boyhood. #1
No, I’m not fortunate enough to have this dustjacket, this is the first edition cover, though I have a similar cover, with the legionnaire seated, for my copy of PC Wren’s The Wages of Virtue (first pub. 1916. 25th reprint 1942). My copy of Beau Ideal is a first reprint of the first edition, 1928, in which year it was a Xmas present “from George”. And for which I paid 10c, probably in 1967 (at which date it was not as old as, for instance Monkey Grip is today, which is an odd thought).
Percival Christopher Wren (1875-1941) was of the lower middle class, a school teacher, the son of a school teacher, who worked to put himself through university, getting an MA from St Catherine’s Society, Oxford University, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. He taught in England and in India.
Wren enlisted for WWI in India but saw no service (he was 40) and may have enlisted after the War in the French Foreign Legion, or may just have knocked around North Africa for a bit. Note that The Wages of Virtue, which was his first collection of stories about the Foreign Legion, was published well before he had any opportunity to be a legionnaire himself.
Beau Ideal was the third of the trilogy, Beau Geste (1924), Beau Sabreur (1926) and Beau Ideal (1928) which sought to highlight the British upper middle class, Boys Own ideals of honour and sacrifice, held firm in a seething cauldron (don’t all cauldrons seethe?) of underclass foreigners, sand and Arabs – Bedouin and Touareg.
Spoilers: I’m going to have to give away some of the ‘surprise’ elements in the stories here, otherwise you won’t make sense of what is going on, not that I remember everything anyway. Let us start at Brandon Abbas, a fine home in rural England. Living there are Lady (Patricia) Brandon, her nephews/wards twins Michael (Beau) and Digby Geste, their younger brother John, Claudia who may be Lady B’s illegitimate daughter, and Isobel (why she lives there, I don’t remember and I haven’t started re-reading at this stage). And maybe also a priest.
At a dinner party the lights go out. When they come back on the Brandon jewels are found to be missing and so also is Beau. Digby disappears soon after. John assumes they have gone to join the French Foreign Legion and goes after them.
They have various adventures in North Africa. Beau dies. Digby, John and two Americans, Hank and Buddy, escape into the desert. Digby dies. John comes home, returns, is imprisoned as a mutineer, abandoned in a grain silo with half a dozen others.
Hank and Buddy are rescued by Bedouin, pretend to be mute, learn Arabic, and end up rulers of their tribe, of all the surrounding tribes.
Mary, an American tourist, is caught up in a Muslim uprising, is rescued by a fakir who turns out to be a French officer in disguise – the “beau sabreur”. They, and Mary’s maid, escape into the desert, meet up with Hank and Buddy’s lot. And it turns out Hank is her brother.
And so we get to Beau Ideal. The scene in the prison/silo, a dying John being saved by a well-spoken American, forms the Prologue. And then we go back a few years (I’ve always assumed the Beau Geste stories were set pre-WWI, but I’m still not sure)
A nice American boy, Otis, is visiting rellos in rural England. Brandon Abbas is just over the hill. The Gestes are still children. He makes friends with them, falls hopelessly in love with Isabel.
Oh, to be seventeen again! Seventeen, on a most glorious English spring day, the day on which you have first encountered the very loveliest thing in all the world ..
We go on for some chapters in this vein. I find it less compelling than I did 55 years ago! Interestingly, Wren’s ideas on men retaining their ‘purity’ are very similar to those of his contemporary, Miles Franklin, though Wren is much more likely to at least mention unmarried sex and illegitimate children.
Otis makes a couple more (brief) trips to England while he’s at Harvard; discovers Isabel and John were engaged, secretly, the day before John took off after Beau and Digby; breaks with his domineering father as his older brother, Noel, had before him; comes into money; travels around Europe with his sister; they’re invited by a Colonel in the Spahis to visit him in North Africa …
As with most boys adventure stories in the time of empire, you have to put up with a lot of racism.
I have no views to offer on the subject of the ethics of the “peaceful penetration” of an uncivilized country by a civilized one. But nobody could travel southward from Bouzen, contrasting the Desert with the Sown, without perceiving that the penetration was for the greatest good of the greatest number, and ultimately for the whole world’s good, inasmuch as cultivation and production succeeded fallow waste; order and peace succeeded lawlessness and war; and the blessings of civilization succeeded the curses of savagery.
He’s talking about North Africa for chrissake the cradle of European civilization, who had maths and literature when the English had animal skins and woad! And of course all Arabs are oily and untrustworthy, town Arabs especially. Desert Arabs, if savage are at least sometimes noble. [The place names Bouzen and Zaguig, in either Algeria or Morocco, are apparently fictional].
A jihad breaks out while Otis is in Zaguig – I am reminded of how familiar Western commentary felt after 9/11, our illegal invasion of Iraq, and the rise of ISIS – and he fears for his life: “The loathsome indignity of it – a white man struggling impotent in the hands of blacks – his clothes torn from his body ..” Otis is wounded, unconscious under piles of Arab bodies; the French garrison falls. He winds up in Kent. in a sanatorium, where also is Isabel.
John has seen his brothers die, escaped, come home, married Isabel. But Buddy and Hank are still in the desert and he must find them. He has returned to Africa, been arrested by the French, and consigned to the penal battalions. Isabel begs Otis to find him, bring him home. So of course he too joins the Legion, is consigned to the penal battalions. And at the very last minute, finds John. But they are delivered into the hands of villains, are rescued by a half English, half Arab dancing girl whom Otis in desperation promises to marry, and so the adventures continue …
Why is all this so important (to me)? Firstly, I was bought up on a diet almost exclusively Boys Own fiction. Indeed, I had a subscription to Boys Own, or a magazine very similar, in primary school. Boys lived in posh houses, went to boarding school, their mothers had at least a cook and a maid, girls were ok, but were to be treated with respect and care, young women were to be adored from afar. And despite the fact I never saw a servant in my life – well, Granddad had a farmhand when I was really young – I bought into all that.
I may well have had Beau Ideal earlier than 1967, because I remember trying out some of Wren’s Foreign Legion French in French essays in third form (1965). I was in the Western District then and the squattocracy really did live in manor houses. I would spend weekends at Moyne Falls station, where my mate’s father was manager, which had a main house with 20 bedrooms, a tennis court, an airstrip, half a dozen subsidiary houses for staff, 12,000 acres of prime grazing, and so on.
And then, I have always had a girl that I was “in love with” for as a long as I could remember. Sometimes they knew, and sometimes they didn’t. The thing was that doing great deeds for a hopeless passion seemed perfectly natural.
By the time I was 16 or 17 and became aware that kids, some kids, the rough ones, around me were having sex, I was both horrified and fascinated. Boy-girl relations were on a pedestal, and I didn’t have any framework that included “bad girls”. I went part of the way, third base!, but never really believed that I might go all the way. Until of course, I did. But that’s another story
You will see that dynamic again, when we get to A Difficult Young Man, which I read for my matric, and which influenced me in the same way. As I remember, The Way of All Flesh, another matric text, was different, but equally important, in that its principal story was the rebellion of son against father (as was this, partly). They’ll be my next two reads, for February and March.
PC Wren, Beau Ideal, John Murray, London, 1928. 348pp
Potential read-alongers, I started on The Cardboard Crown (# 1 in the Langton tetralogy) last night, and will proceed to #2 A Difficult Young Man asap in order to write it up for Feb. I don’t have 3 & 4, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing and I guess I’m unlikely to come across them.