‘Socialism is unnatural and, therefore, false. Nature is not always kind: some of her laws seem harsh: but rise against her, you cannot – she’ll always win in the end. “All men equal, and no more rich and poor.” Desirable, yes, but quite unnatural.’
– Dornford Yates, Lower than Vermin (1950)
You can never have enough P.G. Wodehouse, Dornford Yates or John Buchan in the house. No matter how ill or upset you are, they’ll cheer you up.
– Michael Gove, 2008
The title, of course, comes from Aneurin Bevan’s notorious 1948 speech, in which he said he regarded the Conservative Party as being ‘lower than vermin’. The man known as Dornford Yates, it’s safe to say, didn’t share this perspective.
Cecil William Mercer (1885-1960) was a barrister who served in Egypt and Greece during the First World War and, on demobilization, decided to become a writer instead, adopting the fanciful pseudonym of Dornford Yates from the surnames of his grandparents. His biggest successes came with two series of books: the Berry stories, about an interlocking group of upper-middle-class cousins who enjoy life and have cheerful adventures; and the Chandos novels, thrillers that blend Anthony Hope and John Buchan and feature yet more upper-middle-class heroes who enjoy life and have somewhat more dangerous adventures.
In the inter-war period, he sold around two million copies of these books, though even then he was a bit of an acquired taste. Those who liked him, loved him, and they devoured every title. But there weren’t many casual readers, as there were for the other thriller writers of the time, the likes of Sapper, Edgar Wallace, John Buchan. It’s striking, for example, that no films were ever made of Yates’s work.
The closest he came – long after his death – was a BBC adaptation of She Fell Among Thieves in 1977, scripted by Tom Sharpe, a dramatization that set new benchmarks for camp absurdity: it’s going some when Malcolm McDowell is the most restrained member of the cast. A series was planned, but although it was trumpeted on the covers of paperback reprints, it never actually materialized. Sharpe himself was reported to have said that ‘there wasn’t enough gold in the Bank of England to get him to do another’.
The lack of film representation is one of the reasons why Yate’s stock has fallen so low since the Second World War. (It’s distressing but true that Buchan’s status would be much less secure had Alfred Hitchcock not filmed The Thirty-Nine Steps.) But it’s not the only reason. There’s also the lack of humour: the characters in the Berry books, in particular, are always roaring with laughter at each other, but – however easy-going and engaging it all is – there are precious few jokes for the reader. Then there’s the fact that it took his publishers so long to bring out mass-market paperback editions of the books. Not to mention the sometimes rococo prose style that was dated even at the time. And there’s the politics…
Yates was a deeply conservative writer and never had any time for the Left. The first page of Blind Corner (1927) introduces us to his hero Richard Chandos just as he’s being sent down from Oxford for beating up communists (he treated them ‘as many thought they deserved’). He also takes time out in one of the novels to berate the BBC for referring to Franco’s fascists as ‘rebels’, rather than celebrating them as patriots for fighting communism.
But it’s not just that he objects to Bolsheviks. It’s the fact that he has no doubt that the social order of Edwardian England was pretty much as it should be, and that it suited everyone really rather well, whatever their estate. And if the attitudes of that era were looking out-of-date in the 1920s, you wouldn’t immediately guess it from the characters in his tales – at least from those of whom we approve. Most famously, there’s the case of a good and faithful servant who gets a cut of a vast treasure-trove and yet decides that he’d like to remain as a good and faithful servant, if that’s alright with his master.
Yates wasn’t alone as a popular writer in sticking to his anti-egalitarian guns in a changing world. But he had a problem that his work was set in a recognizable here and now, not in an escapist paradise. P.G. Wodehouse might jokingly title a novel Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954), but that was taken as fantasy fun, to be enjoyed in a sense of jokiness; Yates, on the other hand, seemed genuinely attached to that same feudal spirit, even after the Second World War.
Consequently, his version of Britain rapidly became unacceptable in fashionable circles. Alan Bennett mocked his novels in his first hit play, Forty Years On (1968), and in later years both art critic Brian Sewell and historian Simon Schama were embarrassed to admit that they’d read Yates as children, the latter shuddering now at the ‘snooty, empty-headed glamour’ of it all. ‘Beware of the high-octane snobbery,’ wrote Kate Macdonald, whose book Novelists Against Social Change (2015) is one of the few serious studies of his work. (The best remains Richard Usborne’s Clubland Heroes – in the original 1953 version, not the revisionist later edition.)
Despite all of which, those who have read Yates testify to a wonderful narrative power, an assessment that hasn’t diminished with time. ‘He always retained the gift of buttonholing readability,’ wrote Maurice Richardson in 1960. He was ‘a marvellous storyteller,’ agreed Tom Sharpe – through gritted teeth – in 1976. Mark Gattis’s conclusion in 2006, having encountered Yates’s ‘thrilling tales of buried treasure and Alpine inns’ was that they were ‘addictive’, and Michael Gove’s reference in 2008 to ‘mainlining’ on the books draws on the same imagery.
Towards the end of his life – now incongruously resident in the NCOs’ colony of Rhodesia, where he’d served during the Second World War – Yates wrote two volumes of memoirs which included his own fictional creations commenting on his writing. One character tells him that his work is being deliberately suppressed: ‘Because today you present the upper class in a good light, they regard your work as subversive propaganda and make every effort to discourage its perusal.’ Another is perhaps more honest: ‘You’re not a great writer by any means. I doubt if your stuff will live.’
Though Yates has, in A.N. Wilson’s words, sunk ‘to minor cult status’, there are still enthusiasts. Even in the current government, Gove is not the only person to have acquired the taste; in 2004, the then-shadow cabinet were asked to name their favourite fictional character, and Theresa May offered Yates’s Jonah Mansell (to the bewilderment of her peers). Nonetheless, Dornford Yates has almost completely faded from the public gaze, and presumably will never return. But he’s still a fine teller of tales. And his unpopularity does mean that second-hand copies of his books are available at unreasonably low prices.
Lower than Vermin is not typical of Dornford Yates’s writing. There are no scrapes or escapades here, not even a car chase; the characters aren’t bluff and jovial; and the story spans more than fifty years. This is, self-consciously, a Major Work. It is also, I think, Yates’s best novel. He wrote it in 1950, forty years on from his first published stories, and he was an absolute master of his craft. The seemingly effortless ease of his writing, the sheer confidence of his episodic structure with its liberal use of letters and diaries, is hugely impressive.
In 1952, he said that he wrote the novel because he felt obliged ‘to place upon record the truth about the old days’. The term ‘cultural Marxism’ had not yet been coined, but Yates recognized the phenomenon he was witnessing. The youth of Britain, he argued, were being deliberately miseducated about their history:
They are taught by fellow-travellers – for they can be nothing else – fellow-travellers older than they, that the old days were wicked days, when the rich oppressed the poor, when no one who was not well-bred had a chance of making good, when Great Britain did robbery with violence on nations weaker than she.
This, then, was his chance to set the record straight, to show how the feudal spirit that animated the great estates in his youth was the highest social ideal to which humanity can aspire.
We first meet Philip Greville Brabant, fifth Earl of Ringwood, and his sister, Lady Vivien, in 1892, when they are aged fourteen and sixteen respectively. The fourth Earl died six years ago and his widow is now living abroad, leaving the children in the hands of their trustees. A governess, Miss Carson, is appointed to bring them up, though she turns out to be much more than a governess – someone, rather, who enshrines and embodies the code of duty by which those in a position of privilege are expected to live their lives. ‘That wasn’t Lord Ringwood,’ she scolds him, when he’s a small child and is rude to a servant. ‘That was a rich little cad.’ And again, when he is at Harrow: ‘because you were born Lord Ringwood, you have no choice. Noblesse oblige.’
Philip’s predetermined role centres on his responsibility for the hundred or so servants that are necessary to maintain the family homes – two large country estates and a house in Grosvenor Square – as well as for the many hundred more tenants, labourers and pensioners living on his land, and for the myriad of small family businesses that form the supply chain for the entire enterprise. (One of the most charming episodes features an old man who comes to the big house once a week to wind up the clocks, a task that has been the responsibility of his firm for generations.)
Happily, such is the natural nobility of their breeding, and such is the rigorous sense of honour instilled by Miss Carson, that the siblings emerge into an adulthood that is full of grace. Philip joins the Horse Guards and serves with distinction in the Boer War, where he wins a DSO, before returning home to administer his estates; unlike, say, Sir Hector Brandon in Beau Geste, he is a model landlord. Meanwhile, Vivien – though her heart remains in the country – has come out as the most loved and admired young lady in London society.
They are, in short, the perfect advertisement for the aristocracy. Or, more accurately, for the system of aristocracy. Because it’s not just the high-born who are to be cherished. ‘You’re half a saint, my lady, an’ always were,’ Vivien’s long-serving maid tells her in later years, and she’s not wrong. But Miss Carson’s half a saint as well, and she’s ‘only’ a servant.
The novel is dedicated to ‘the Gentlemen of the Old School’, whether they were ‘peers or ploughmen, masters or servants, shop-assistants or statesmen’. This is a world where people still know their place in creation, a largely rural nation that follows the Arcadian rhythms of Nature, where the continuity of the centuries ensures that everyone has their part to play and is respected for playing it.
And so the Edwardian era passes by, ‘the gorgeous years of plenty and content; the gorgeous years of comfort and security; of faith and hope and charity – three virgins undefiled; of loyalty and mutual kindness’.
There is, though, a socialist serpent in this English Eden. A disgruntled, socialistic huntsman turns out to be an adulterer and, having seduced the ‘apple-cheeked, buxom, gay’ daughter of the miller, murders her in a doomed attempt to conceal his sin. Although he is swiftly apprehended and hanged, it is clear he is but the herald of a new order. And, as the children’s cousin and trustee points out, this truly is an ill wind. ‘If socialism is good, why doesn’t the Bible commend it?’ he asks. ‘Of all the thousands of precepts in Holy Writ, there is not one commending the equal state.’ He accepts that not every socialist will end up on the gallows, but he insists that they are aware of what they are doing:
‘The socialist knows his doctrine for what it is. He knows it’s false and quite unworkable, He knows you can’t fight against Nature as well as do you and I. But he is an envious man. He is jealous of those who have what he has not. Upon this he broods – and his jealousy turns to hate. He hates the aristocrat and he hates the rich, because he covets their rank and their worldly goods.’
This incident comes early in the story, and combined with the irony of the book’s title, it suggests that we are about to see the decency and dignity of Old England swept away by the uncouth belligerence of the lower orders, that Toad Hall is about to be invaded by the stoats and weasels.
In fact, Yates is much more subtle than this opening salvo suggests. There are indeed difficulties that come from government – increased taxation, evacuee children, town planners – but the real damage is not inflicted by socialist governments. There are other problems to be faced.
There are, in the first instance, the all-too-human failings of those who can’t emulate the semi-saintliness of Vivien and Philip. The code of honour is simply too onerous for some. A cousin, Mary, marries on her father’s instructions and finds herself tied to an appalling brute of a man, leaving her to reflect that ‘my only hope is in death’. Similarly, Vivien’s husband, though essentially a good man, has a fatal weakness for women that inevitably results in his downfall: he is cited as co-respondent in a divorce case, and is obliged to leave the country in disgrace, no longer welcome in society.
He at least has the chance to find his true self in the trenches: ‘Honestly, Vivvy, it is the most glorious life. Rough, hard, savage,’ he writes in his last letter home. ‘But it’s the real thing. The thing that men were meant for. The thing that I was made for, any way.’ His heroic death in December 1914, recognized with a posthumous Victoria Cross, redeems both his personal reputation and his family name. ‘Others have won the VC,’ a fellow officer tells his widow; ‘but the show your husband put up – well, it ranks with Agincourt.’
Individual salvation is one thing, but collectively the Great War sees ‘the end of Merrie England’. Philip rejoins his regiment – it’s a matter, as ever, of duty – and rises to the rank of colonel; he survives, but his health is wrecked by four years of ‘overwork, exposure and strain’. Nothing can ever be the same again. And just to hammer the point home, there is a second war with Germany, leaving Philip – who, as a child, once shook the hand of a man who fought at Waterloo – to reflect that this really is the end:
‘What was left of the flower of England is being cut off. Most of it went in my war. And now the rest has gone. Centuries went to its making, and now the trees have been felled. A very few will survive, but what can they do? They will be utterly swamped by lesser men.’
And so it comes to pass.
By the time Lower than Vermin was published, Dornford Yates’s moment had already been and gone, and the novel attracted few reviews. Those it did receive were mostly uncomfortable with the political underpinning. Yates ‘splutters with emotion’, read one, while another concluded: ‘it is a safe bet that your enjoyment or otherwise will depend to a large extent on your political point of view.’ Even the most positive accepted that there was a dwindling market for such work: ‘those who like it will like it greatly: the rest do not matter, for they will be self-condemned.’
Personally, I think it’s better than that. Like Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited (1945), Yates is using the image of the great country estate to chart (and to lament) the changes in British society – and I don’t think a comparison between the two novels is to Yates’s discredit. He’s aiming at an epic, almost mythic expression of loss, and for the most part he achieves it. Most importantly, and again like Waugh, this is not polemic but art; one doesn’t have to share Yates’s political perspective to feel the power of the piece, just as one doesn’t have to be Catholic to appreciate Brideshead.
Perhaps it’s a question of time. Today, we’re further away from the novel’s publication than it was from its opening scene, and the politics belong to history now. Whether the depiction of the England that has passed is accurate or not really doesn’t matter a great deal any more; what counts is the effectiveness of its evocation of pre-lapsarian humanity. And that’s the greatest of all human myths: the yearning for the lost golden age.
‘Better to remember the old days when men and women were happy, whatever their rank,’ as Miss Carson writes in her diary. ‘They loved one another then.’