When the local train loafed in I got into it, with a stiff upper lip and a bleeding heart, and set out on as eventful and strange a journey as ever a man took.
P.C. Wren, Beau Geste (1924)
Of all the novels we have read during the past year, this is easily the most exciting as well as the most definitely ‘literary’, and we sincerely recommend it to all who care for a rattling good yarn by a rattling good writer.
The Sphere (1925)
Zinderneuf in Niger is one of the most remote outposts of the French empire. It’s not even a village, just a minor military base, a speck in the midst of the southern wastes of the Sahara, an ‘ill-omened mud fort, isolated in the illimitable desert like a tiny island in the midst of a vast ocean’. In appearance, it’s nothing to stir the blood, ‘a square grey block of high, thick mud walls, flat castellated roof, flanking towers, and lofty look-out platform’.
And yet, discovers Major Henri de Beaujolais of the French army, some inexplicable event has happened to turn Zinderneuf into a place of mystery and terror. At every notch in the battlements, there is a soldier of the Foreign Legion, with his rifle pointing out into the empty desert. And every last man of them is dead, ‘their feet in dried pools of their own blood’.
There are just two men not propped up at their posts – the French commandant of the fort, who is lying dead with a French bayonet through his heart, and an Englishman, also dead, whose body has been reverently laid out: ‘His eyes had been closed, his head propped up on a pouch, and his hands folded upon his chest.’ In the French commandant’s right hand is a loaded revolver; in his left a blood-stained letter written in English, confessing to the theft of a great sapphire known as Blue Water…
The opening image in Beau Geste, written by PC Wren (1875-1941), is arresting and sets up a superb puzzle – a landlocked Mary Celeste – that will take most of the rest of the novel to solve.
The presentation of this image, though, displays the book’s biggest flaw. Rather than being told by an independent narrator, in hushed, fearful wonder, the tale of how de Beaujolais found Zinderneuf is related by the man himself, telling his story to an old friend, George Lawrence of the Nigerian Civil Service. And de Beaujolais is the most annoying character in the book.
He has a problem that he cannot simply describe what he does, instead feeling obliged to explore and elucidate every single possibility of what he might have done, but chose not to. Where a reader simply wants action, there is first a swamp of digression through which one has to wade, as a quantum wave of options opens out before collapsing to reveal the next bit of the story. There’s a palpable sense of relief when – at the end of Part I – de Beaujolais disappears and the narrative is picked up by John Geste. Except that he too turns out to have the same tendency.
It’s deeply frustrating, because there’s no need for padding. It’s a longish novel of 140,000 words, and a decent editor could have chopped at least 40,000 of those with no sense of loss whatsoever.
The other feature that emerges early on is that de Beaujolais and George Lawrence have a jokey, joshing relationship that detracts a little from the awe we feel, confronted by this abandoned fort, defended by its abandoned corpses.
Again this is a strand that runs through much of the rest of the book. There’s a high level of banter and cynical humour – at least amongst those with whom our sympathies are meant to lie. (The evil, vicious characters are immediately identifiable by their lack of humour.)
It’s hard to quarrel too much with this, since it has the ring of reality to it; a certain gallows humour is probably a reasonable way of dealing with the dangers and boredom of military life at the frontiers of empire. And it does lend itself to some nice writing: ‘The man looked up. I liked him better when looking down.’ That’s not far off the economy seen in the hardboiled style that was starting to emerge in the American magazine Black Mask. And perhaps it comes from the same place as well – a world-weary cynicism characteristic of the brittle, broken days between the wars. But it can still pall on a modern reader.
The story of what happened at Zinderneuf, ‘that House of Death, that sinister-abode of tragic mysteries’, starts incongruously on the Devon estate of Sir Hector and Lady Brandon. She’s the aunt of three orphaned brothers – Michael, Digby and John Geste – and they live with her, when they’re not away at Eton and then at Oxford. She owns the famous Blue Water sapphire, and when the jewel is stolen, suspicion falls on the brothers. The response of each (and, frankly, this is the most implausible thread in a yarn of immense implausibility) is exactly the same, though they plan and act independently: they each run away and join the French Foreign Legion.
Michael Geste, nicknamed Beau, gets the title of the novel, but the most interesting character is actually John, partly because it’s he who tells the story, but mostly because – in the brief period between the theft of the sapphire and his departure for the Legion – he discovers that he’s in love with Isobel, his friend since childhood. And that means that we can enjoy the traditional Edwardian combination of honour and romance.
‘I would show my love that I, too, could do a fine thing, and could make a personal sacrifice,’ is how he rationalizes his ill-considered decision to enlist in the Legion. ‘Love was all and love was enough, until I should return, bronzed and decorated, successful and established, a distinguished Soldier of Fortune, to claim her hand.’ This, he’s convinced, is how she feels as well, as he points out in one of his letters to her: ‘You’d despise me, really, in your heart, if I stayed at home.’ One suspects that he’s mistaken.
Elsewhere, he expounds further on the twin themes: ‘while one half of myself ached unbearably for Isobel, the other half rejoiced wildly at the thought of adventure, travel, novelty, spacious life, mysterious Africa, the desert, fighting, and all that appeals to the heart of romantic youth.’
We are, in short, back in the world of The Four Feathers. And even at the time, there were those who thought that it was all a little dated. ‘I have heard it said,’ observed one reviewer, ‘that [Wren’s] romances are conceived along old-fashioned lines, that he is too reminiscent of Kipling.’
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Because although Beau Geste is set before the First World War, the novel was written in the aftermath of that conflict. And notions of honour and glory in sacrifice were less secure after four years of trench warfare on the Western Front.
Wren deals with the contradictions by having John Geste comment jokingly on his own moral code, refusing to take it too seriously. So when Geste is weighing up whether he really ought to join the Foreign Legion, he lists his reasons and imagines his future: ‘Stand by your pals through thick and thin. Adventure: Romance: Success: Fame and Fortune: and then England, Home, and Isobel…’ And then he dismisses the vision as ‘youthful nonsense’.
Similarly, he writes to Isobel on the eve of being sent out on active service: ‘[I] begged her not to waste her youth in thinking of me if a year passed without news, as I should be dead.’ Then, he turns to us and adds: ‘Having had my hour of self-pity, and having waxed magnificently sentimental, I became severely practical.’
This is where the bantering tone works best. There’s an underlying, nagging suspicion that the traditional code has been found wanting. ‘I am going to say nothing at all about my feelings,’ observes John Geste, on the death of one of his brothers. His response to the death of the other is even more revealing: ‘I have not the gift of tears. I have not cried since I was a baby, and the relief of tears was denied me now.’ John even spurns the idea of ‘any undue Christian meekness. I was the last person in the world to bully anybody, and I intended to be the last person to be bullied.’
It’s not a full rejection of convention, merely a suggestion that there’s something missing – and that the thrill of the adventure was always more important than the love interest. Yet, despite the doubts, the Geste brothers display the pluck and decency of the true Englishman, as well as some of his more justifiable prejudices: ‘He was,’ says John, of a character he meets, ‘a type of Frenchman that I do not like (there are several of them).’
Less creditably, Africa is – as discussed elsewhere – still treated as a white man’s adventure playground, and there’s an unpleasantly stereotypical Jewish pawnbroker. Unusually for such an adventure story, though, there’s also a nicely judged anti-English gag, when John meets an American. ‘“How did you know I was English?” I asked, as he stared thoughtfully at me. “What else!” he replied, deliberately. “Pink and white… Own the earth… British!”’
Considering that the other Legionnaires are ‘a devil-may-care, hard-bitten, tough-looking crowd’, the Old Etonian brothers fit in rather well, ‘aided by our intelligence, strength, sobriety, athletic training, sense of discipline, knowledge of French, and a genuine desire to make good … we were inoffensive by reason of possessing the consideration, courtesy, and self-respecting respect for others proper to gentlemen.’ The downside is: ‘we were accustomed to varied food, comfortable surroundings, leisure, a great deal of mental and physical recreation, spaciousness of life, and above all, privacy.’ (Privacy? At Eton?)
Whilst in North Africa, they learn Arabic, and start ‘haunting Arab cafés instead of French ones. We distinctly liked the dignified and courteous men with whom we talked over the wonderful coffee.’
What they discover from their experience of the Legion, though, somewhat to their surprise, is that class means more than race: ‘It struck me that community of habits, tastes, customs, and outlook form a stronger bond of sympathy than community of race; and that men of the same social caste and different nationality were much more attracted to each other than men of the same nationality and different caste.’
Not that class is always enough. There’s moral fibre to consider, as well. The Gestes’ aunt, Lady Brandon – like Mrs Adair in The Four Feathers and Mary in Lower than Vermin – is a woman who, ‘under parental pressure, assisted by training and comparative poverty’, married for money. In a memorable phrase, she ‘had contracted an alliance with Sir Hector Brandon as one might contract a disease’. He’s a ‘a selfish, heartless, gross roué’, whose only saving grace is that he’s seldom at home, since he’s
a mighty hunter before the Lord (or the Devil) and usually in pursuit of prey, biped or quadruped, in distant places. It is a good thing to have a fixed purpose, an aim, and an ambition in life, and Sir Hector boasted one. It was to be able to say that he had killed one of every species of beast and bird and fish in the world, and had courted a woman of every nationality in the world! A great soul fired with a noble ambition.
The sarcasm is justified, for he’s also the complete opposite of Lord Ringwood in Lower than Vermin, a disgraceful landlord who neglects his estates and tenants:
Children might die of diphtheria through faulty drains or lack of drains; old people might die of chills and rheumatism through leaking roofs and damply rotting cottages; every farmer might have a cankering grievance; the estate-agent might have the position and task of a flint-skinning slave-owner; but Sir Hector’s yacht and Sir Hector’s lady-friends would lack for nothing, nor his path through life be paved with anything less than gold.
The story of Lady Brandon forms a backdrop to the main story. Prior to her marriage, she had rejected the suit of George Lawrence, who ‘had taken her refusal like the man he was, and had sought an outlet and an anodyne in work and Central Africa’. Hence his senior status in the Nigerian Civil Service. He’s still in love with her, still sees her when he can, still dreams that they have a future together. The portrait of Lawrence captures the middle-aged casualty of a rigid moral code:
a tall, bronzed, lean Englishman, taciturn, forbidding, and grim, who never used two words where one would suffice; his cold grey eye looking through, or over, those who surrounded him; his iron-grey hair and moustache, his iron-firm chin and mouth, suggesting the iron that had entered into his soul and made him the hard, cold, bitter person that he was, lonely, aloof, and self-sufficing.
And, in a slightly shocking twist, Lady Brandon’s ward, Beau’s childhood sweetheart, ends up repeating the mistakes of her guardian, marrying ‘one of the richest men in England, nearly old enough to be her grandfather’.
Yet the old foundations remain solid, however much the structures built on them have been shaken. It remains important to live decently and to face death with dignity. And, even in a novel written after the First World War – by a man who served (albeit briefly) in that conflict – there is still honour to be found in dying on the battle-field. As Beau says, facing almost certain death in Zinderneuf: ‘Well, well! It’s as good an end as any – if a bit early…’
Beau Geste was an instant hit. Wren’s previous novels had got a handful of reviews and barely any sales, but Beau Geste struck a chord. It was published in November 1924, and went through six printings in the first six months, helped a little by the publicity that came when Wren’s death was (erroneously) announced. There were four more books to come in the series, featuring those characters who survived the first volume.
A movie adaptation, starring Ronald Colman and William Powell, was released as early as 1926. A further two film versions have followed – with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland (1939) and Guy Stockwell and Telly Savalas (1966) – along with a 1982 BBC serial that was something of an Old Whovians reunion party: co-written by Terrance Dicks, directed by Douglas Camfield, produced by Barry Letts. None of these screen versions is much cop. Laurel and Hardy’s Beau Hunks (1931), on the other hand, is a work of rare beauty.