We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The Fatal Englishman:
Published in Great Britain in 1996, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives, Sebastian Faulks’ first nonfiction effort, now appears stateside, presumably spurred by the success of his novels Birdsong and Charlotte Grey. Eloquently written and ambitious in scope and structure, the book chronicles the truncated lives of three young men: painter Christopher Wood, RAF pilot Richard Hillary, and journalist and spy Jeremy Wolfenden.
Faulks explains his objective in a prefatory author’s note:
The stories of young people who delight parents and friends with their talents have a concentrated significance in their beginnings, and in their premature ends there is a natural poignancy that brutally epitomises the disappointment that is also common but less evident in longer, duller lives.
Three such lives, each done at the length its span naturally required (a third of a life, a third of a book)—that might well seem full enough to take away the sense of ‘so what’ that would cling to a single short life….
As I researched and wrote these three lives, various links between the three characters and various common themes emerged, none of which I had known about before I had started….
So while I attempted, as gently and as truthfully as possible, to shape the events of their lives into some comprehensible pattern, I tried also to respect their individual energies, which seemed to push in the opposite direction, back towards singularity: the artist, the airman and the spy.
The Fatal Englishman begins with Wood, the book’s most romantic figure. The son of an emotionally and often geographically distant physician father, Wood contracted polio in his mid-teens; complications from the disease left him with a chronic limp. Forced to withdraw from schooling for nearly two years, he was cared for by his mother, to whom he was intensely devoted, and, during his convalescence, he grew interested in art. In the spring of 1921, after a year of college, Wood set off for Paris, determined to become the greatest painter the world had ever seen.
Strikingly handsome, he soon attracted the attention of Chilean diplomat Antonio de Gandarillas, a wealthy, rakish socialite who became his patron and lover. Torn between painting and the beau monde, Wood toured Europe with Gandarillas, hobnobbing with, among others, Diaghilev, Picasso, and Cocteau, and experimenting with opium. Impoverished and frustrated by his failure to forge a distinctive artistic vision, he began a series of relationships with women, among them Jeanne Bourgoint, the model for one of the titular characters of Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles; Meraud Guinness, an aspiring artist whose wealthy family opposed the liaison; and Frosca Munster, a Russian emigree who became, after his mother, the great love of Wood’s life.
The summer of 1930 found Wood in Treboul, a seaside village in Brittany, where, in a frenzy of creativity fueled by opium, he painted nearly 40 faux-naive canvases in six weeks. At 29, mentally and physically exhausted, he returned to England—where, after lunching with his mother and sister in Salisbury, he leapt from a railway platform into the path of an oncoming train.
Faulks makes no grandiose claims for Wood’s paintings and, given the eight examples reproduced in his book, is judicious in his restraint. But he’s clearly fascinated by the young man’s impetuous life and the glittering, decadent world through which he moved, as well as his dedication to his art, at several points comparing the doomed artist to a more gifted literary countryman who also died young:
Wood resembled Keats in many ways: in the desire to live a life of sensation rather than of thought, the almost reckless devotion to work, the spasmodic development that came swiftly from the ruins of temporary failure, and in the boyish eagerness that felt weighed down by admiration of past achievement but quickened by its appreciation of the modern.
With Hillary, the best-known of his subjects, Faulks explores the heroic impulse and the cult of celebrity. Born in Australia in 1919, Hillary, the son of a civil servant, was, like Wood, much closer to his mother. When Hillary was 3, the family moved to London; four years later, when his father was assigned to a post in the Sudan, he was placed in an English boarding school. Handsome, athletic, disputatious, and sexually precocious, he planned to become a writer.
In 1937, he entered Trinity College, Oxford, but left after completing his second year to participate in the war effort as an RAF pilot. His motives were not primarily
patriotic or ideological, as he explained in a dialogue with a left-wing pacifist friend found in his acclaimed memoir The Last Enemy:
“In the first place I shall get paid and have good food. Secondly, I have none of your sentiments about killing, much as I admire them. In a fighter plane, I believe, we have found a way to return to war as it ought to be, war which is individual combat between two people, in which one either kills or is killed. It’s exciting, it’s individual and it’s disinterested. I shan’t be sitting behind a long-range gun working out how to kill people sixty miles away. I shan’t get maimed: either I shall get killed or I shall get a few pleasant putty medals and enjoy being stared at in a night club.”
Ironically, Hillary experienced both of these options. After flying numerous successful Spitfire missions against German Messerchmitts, he was shot down over the North Sea in September 1940. He suffered near-fatal burns resulting from a cockpit fire and endured a series of harrowing operations to restore skin to his face and hands. During his long recuperation, Hillary began writing The Last Enemy. He also enjoyed a brief affair with movie actress Merle Oberon, who, herself, had been disfigured, then reconstructed, following an automobile accident.
Published in 1942, The Last Enemy was an immediate success, articulating the courage of a generation of young men thrust into battle. Some reviewers, however, were unconvinced by the author’s climactic conversion from self-centeredness to high-minded moralism.
Unfulfilled by his new celebrity, Hillary insisted on returning to battle, even though his eyes and hands remained essentially unfit for flight. On Jan. 7, 1943, piloting an outmoded, poorly maintained Blenheim, he crashed into a frozen hillside. His body was so badly burned that he could be identified only by his wristwatch. Dead at 23, Hillary became a national media celebrity, a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice.
While acknowledging and often celebrating the young man’s valor, Faulks scrutinizes the airman’s myth with skepticism. He compares Hillary’s writing, unfavorably, with the work of World War I English poet Wilfred Owen, and he devotes two pages to summarizing an Arthur Koestler essay, published in Horizon three months after the pilot’s death, that deconstructed Hillary’s reputation. “This was the nub of what Koestler was suggesting: that while Hillary’s motives were mixed, he was affected by the pressure of public expectation into making some kind of exemplary death.”
The Fatal Englishman collapses in its closing section, the life of a man who Faulks asserts captured the spirit of his time as emblematically as did Wood and Hillary. However, the evidence Faulks offers to justify this claim isn’t very convincing, and the parallels he seeks between the three men never materialize.
Born in 1934, Jeremy Wolfenden was a child prodigy, the son of a university don. Raised in privileged surroundings, he won a scholarship to Eton and, upon graduation, was awarded another scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied history but left a term before completing his degree. A promiscuous homosexual hailed by his classmates as “the cleverest boy in England,” he moved to London in 1952 and worked as a youth-club helper while awaiting admission to the National Service Naval Russian interpreters program. After two years of military service, he returned to Oxford, then embarked upon a career as a journalist.
Easily bored, Wolfenden eagerly accepted the Daily Telegraph’s 1960 offer to send him to Russia as the paper’s foreign correspondent. But once in Moscow, isolated, lonely, and increasingly alcoholic, he became involved with Ruari Chisholm, a spy operating out of the British Embassy, his wife, and their 19-year-old au pair, Martina Browne. Chisholm’s subversive activities were discovered, and the family beat a hasty retreat to England. Wolfenden, compromised by a sex scandal at his closely monitored hotel, was blackmailed by the KGB into serving as a low-level informant, exposing British journalists dabbling in espionage.
In 1964, the Telegraph reassigned Wolfenden to New York, where Browne had moved and was working at an advertising agency. Two months later, to the bewilderment of the groom’s friends, the two were married. At the end of that year, following a brief but perilous return to Russia, Wolfenden was transferred to Washington. Ill from untreated hepatitis contracted while in Moscow and ravaged by alcoholism, he died in December 1965.
“Unless I was being defrauded on a magnificent scale,” Faulks writes, “it appeared that, at the astonishing age of thirty-one, the most brilliant Englishman of his age had drunk himself to death.” But Faulks’ account of Wolfenden’s life fails to convince us of his vaunted brilliance, or even his qualifications as a representative of his generation. All we’re offered is a portrait of an unfocused, compromised, self-destructive young man. One can’t help feeling that, in his search to find a hitherto obscure subject to complement the sagas of Wood and Hillary, which have been researched by previous biographers, Faulks was indeed defrauded; at the least, he made a maladroit choice.
Part of Faulks’ inability to vivify his third subject stems from the absence of Wolfenden’s voice. In composing the other biographies, the author drew heavily on Wood’s letters to his mother and Hillary’s memoir, but his information about Wolfenden was almost entirely secondhand, obtained from interviews with the people who knew him, most of whom are more compellingly portrayed than the journalist-spy himself.
The closing paragraphs of The Fatal Englishman offer more speculations than conclusions:
Compared to Christopher Wood or Richard Hillary [Wolfenden] had “achieved” almost nothing. Despite being far cleverer than they were, he was more deeply and horribly flawed. Apart from the memory of his brilliance, he had left nothing behind—no paintings, no book, only some newspaper articles now lost by the paper in question. Yet, like the other two, he had touched a nerve; in some minor way, he had represented a generation. How? Was it that, like Hillary, the epitome of the 1930s private figure forced by calamitous events into a public role, he had become a victim of sinister global forces? Was there something exemplary in his life, like Wood’s, or in his death, like Hillary’s?
This string of rhetorical queries betrays Faulks’ lack of conviction about Wolfenden’s suitability as the third panel of his biographical triptych. His failure to convince us of Wolfenden’s genius makes these questions not only unanswerable but imponderable. CP