The Aerodrome by Rex Warner (1941)

What a record of confusion, deception, rankling hatred, low aims, indecision!
(The Air Vice-Marshall nicely summing up this absurd novel, page 200)

There’s a genre of books about English village life, set in the 1920s and 30s, which are so normal, so provincial, so banal, and yet so utterly removed from the world we live in now, 80 years later, that an air of surrealism hovers over them, a gentle sense of unreality.

American tourists fresh from the excitement of Pamplona, the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome etc, were often nonplussed to arrive in 1930s England and find themselves invited to village fetes and vicarage tea parties, all emotions so repressed, everything so hemmed in by good taste, the scones and cream arranged just so, that foreign visitors felt something weird and lurid must be hidden just below the surface.

This feeling, that everyone’s frightfully good manners are too good to be true, is one appeal of the very English detective novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the primmest of country house parties all turn out to conceal vipers’ nests of infidelity and jealousy.

Rex Warner’s third novel, The Aerodrome, takes this kind of vicarage tea party mode, a fussy English concern for napkins and cucumber sandwiches (the central figure is in fact a village Rector’s son) and then transmutes it into an increasingly weird and clunky allegory.

Rex Warner

Warner was a typical product of the Auden generation. Born in 1905 to a clergyman father, he went to a jolly good boarding school where he was jolly good at games, and then onto Oxford, where he associated with W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender, and published in the chummy university magazine, Oxford Poetry.

He was also typical of that generation in that:

  1. he picked up at post-war Oxford a radical attachment to revolutionary communism (this was the generation of the Cambridge spies e.g. Anthony Blunt, expensively educated at Marlborough, Cambridge then became a spy for Stalin)
  2. he went on to become a teacher and writer

The Aerodrome was Warner’s third novel. The first, The Wild Goose Chase (1937) is a fantasy in which three brothers, representing different personality types, are on holiday when they come across a wild goose and chase it into a fantasy land ruled by a right-wing dictator. The second, The Professor (1938), is the story of a liberal academic whose struggles against a repressive government eventually lead to his arrest, imprisonment and murder.

The Aerodrome continues this combination of fantasy and strong political message. It’s the story of a fairly innocent and naive young man, Roy, brought up in a village vicarage by the dear old Rector and his lovely wife, all of them friendly with the kindly old Squire and his lovely sister.

Roy is partial to a few beers and games of darts with the lads at the village pub, and is having a heady first-love affair with the publican’s willing daughter, Bess. But he also finds himself drawn to the slick, drawling, manly air force officers from the nearby Aerodrome.

For just outside the village, with its sweet old Manor house and characterful old pub and dawdling river, is a big new Aerodrome, staffed by brisk, efficient, no-nonsense men of action, the dynamic hi-tech forces of the 20th century looming over the almost feudal life of ye olde village.

Should Roy choose the earthy life of the village i.e. getting drunk with Mac and Fred, and (literally) rolling in the hay with bosomy Bess? Or acquiesce in the growing power of the Aerodrome and its brisk no-nonsense leader, the Air Vice-Marshal, and a love affair with the highly-sexed wife of one of its top officials?

However, what this quick summary fails to capture is the weirdness of the actual plot and the difficulty of penetrating Warner’s clunky, thunking prose style.

It’s not exactly rubbish, but I can see why The Aerodrome is long forgotten (it has no Wikipedia page, you can’t find the text anywhere online). And difficult to understand how the noted short story writer V. S. Pritchett called Warner ‘the only outstanding novelist of ideas whom the decade of ideas produced’, let alone why Anthony Burgess considered it as much of a modern classic as Nineteen Eighty-Four!

The plot

1. The Dinner Party

The story opens in media res with our hero drunk lying face down in a wet mire in Gurney’s Field, enjoying the sensation of the watery black mud seeping in at the collar and between the buttons of his formal dinner shirt. We learn his name is Roy. He is the son of the village Rector. It is his twenty-first birthday.

2. The Confession

Earlier that evening Roy’s parents had held a little birthday dinner party for him, the guests consisting of the Rector and his kindly wife, the elderly Squire and his lovely sister, and a Flight-Lieutenant from the nearby Aerodrome.

To Roy’s horror his ‘father’, the Rector, makes a speech in which he reveals that he and his wife are not Roy’s parents, but that baby Roy was brought to them by someone from the local village and they arranged to take him as their own. Now they’re revealing the truth. In front of a table of strangers.

Disgusted, the Flight-Lieutenant gets up and leaves, Roy follows him, and ends up going to local village pub where he proceeds to get hog-whimpering drunk, staggers out the pub and across country with two drinking buddies – which is when he trips over a wire fence and finds himself face down in the mud – which is where the book opened.

On reflection I can see how this episode is meant to convey, as literally as can be, the earthiness of village life, its drunken peasant quality.

Anyway, Roy sobers up a bit and staggers back to the vicarage. He slips through the only unlocked window into the house, and finds himself in the study and is still in the curtained window alcove when he realises the Rector is kneeling in prayer and (like Hamlet’s father) confessing his sins. Astonishingly, he reveals that his wife was once in love with his best friend, Antony – he caught them in embraces a couple of times – and so the vicar-father conceived a wicked plan to go mountain climbing with Antony, to get to a particularly tricky cliff and there to yank Antony off the ledge and, as he dangled helplessly from the safety rope, to slowly cut through the rope so that Antony plunged to his death.

This whole scene would be pretty unrealistic in itself, but as Roy peeps through the curtains drawn across ‘his’ window he sees the Rector’s wife peeping from the curtains of the neighbouring window alcove. She spots him and winks. On her usually placid face is a shocking expression of malice and contempt.

As the Rector-father concludes his long piece of exposition, she slips over to the door and makes a fuss of opening it as if coming into the room, the Rector snaps out of his prayerful trance and welcomes her presence, she puts on a simpering vicar’s wife expression and Roy, watching all this from the crack in the curtains, is left absolutely flummoxed.

Within the space of one short evening he has discovered that his ‘parents’ are not his parents, that his supposedly saintly ‘father’ is in fact a cold-hearted murderer and his lovely ‘mother’ had a passionate affair!

But not half so flummoxed as the reader. Is this clever allegory, deliberately absurd Joe Orton-style satire, or tripe?

3. The Agricultural Show

Events follow each other in quick succession, with a sense of mounting hysteria, or plain weirdness. Roy, his ‘parents’ and the Squire’s sister meet up next morning to motor out to the annual Agricultural Show. So far, so Archers. They bump into the Flight-Lieutenant who is breezily apologetic for leaving the little birthday party the night before, then, on a whim, jumps onto the back of the show’s prize bull (Slazenger), cutting through the nearby fabric of the marquee tent they’re in, and riding the mooing protesting massive bull through the gap in the tent and out into the astonished and screaming crowds. What?

4. The Accident

They come to the Beer Tent where Roy discovers his drinking buddies from the night before, Mac and Fred. Strange scenes: a retired grocer with a red face and white hair staggers to his feet and makes a long speech to his dead mother to forgive him his wicked life. In another corner is a rat-catcher who, for a pint, takes live rats out of his teeming pockets and bites their heads off. A quarrel turns into a fight and the village bell-ringer, George Birkett, is smashed in the face with a broken beer glass by a short man who then darts out the tent, allegedly some member of staff from the Aerodrome (p.44).

This isn’t a normal Agricultural Show. It is more like something out of Breughel, or maybe Hieronymus Bosch.

It’s time for Roy’s date with Bess, they agreed to meet at noon, he finds her, they swagger arm in arm through the show, to her adulation he has a go at the coconut shy and being a big touch chap knocks all the coconuts off their shies.

They come across the Flight-Lieutenant now ensconced in a display area of his own, demonstrating the working of various machine guns to entranced little boys, and onlookers. He sees them and shouts over that the bull was recaptured and is perfectly fine, then gets on with his demonstration.

Roy and Bess wander beyond the bounds of the show itself across farmland to a remote barn and here have what was presumably as much sex as the censors of a 1940s novel would allow i.e. it’s written obscurely and elliptically, but clothes are unbuttoned and some kind of sexual experience is had (though nothing is ‘satisfactorily achieved’) which leaves Roy dazed (p.47).

They are just adjusting their clothes when the Flight-Lieutenant comes running over the field towards them and announces in his foppish, bantering style, that there’s been an accident. ‘I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man’. The F-L thought he’d loaded one of his machine guns with blanks, but they were real bullets, the Rector was among the crowd, and when he fired, the gun fired a ream of real bullets into the Rector who fell over like a nine-pin. It is specifically pointed out that the bullets didn’t just hit him, they ripped off his face. The corpse is unidentifiable. The Flight-Lieutenant is absurdly formal about his apologies. Frightfully sorry, old boy. ‘It was a really bad show.’ (p.48).

5. The Squire

Everyone takes this tragedy in their stride. The narrator isn’t that upset. The body lies in a coffin at the Rectory for a few days. Roy goes to the Manor to visit the Squire. He finds the old man at the end of a visit from an airman from the Aerodrome. The smartly dressed man salutes and leaves. The old Squire tells Roy the devastating news that the Aerodrome is going to take over the village, all its land, lock stock and barrel, converting the pub, all the houses, even the church, to air force purposes (p.55).

This prompts him to a soliloquy in which he reflects that his whole life has been for nothing, all the little kindnesses, running the boys club, helping expectant mothers, it’s all come to this. To be kicked out of his own home in his 70s. And his sister, Florence, has devoted her life to him, but he knows she’s never been happy. At least not except for one short period and he, the Squire, did what he could to crush even that (p.56). Roy listens politely and embarrassed.

6. The Funeral

The Rector’s funeral is held at the local church. First the Air Vice-Marshall appears at the Rectory. He is immensely blunt and to the point, polite as a robot, unbending. Roy can feel himself attracted to the man’s steely efficiency (the ‘power and confidence of the man’, p.62) and we get the impression both the womenfolk – the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, Florence – moisten at the lips.

To people’s surprise, the ceremony is led by the Air Vice-Marshall. The address he gives is blunt to the point of rudeness. In fact he hardly lauds the dead man, instead using the opportunity to announce to the startled villagers that the entire village is going to be taken over by the Air Force, who will instal a new padre, take over as employees of all the adults, maintaining their pay, as long as the work is done conscientiously. An old boy rises to his feet to protest but the Air Vice-Marshall asks for him to be removed and two smartly-dressed airmen are immediately at the man’s sides, taking his arms and hustling him out of the church (p.67). After this stunning announcement the Air Vice-Marshall steps down from the pulpit and the rest of the service follows in the traditional style.

7. New Plans

Afterwards in the pub, what I suppose Warner intends us to think of as the common people, the chavs, the villagers, swig their ale and complain about the news: ‘The old Rector was a good man, he wouldn’t have allowed no takeover of the village’ etc.

When the pub closes, Roy has another date with Bess, she comes out the pub to join him, link arms and go for a country walk. She, like the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, is impressed by the Air Vice-Marshall (just twenty years later Sylvia Plath would write: ‘Every woman adores a fascist.’). Bess begs and insists that Roy join the air force, and they get married and he will be an airman and she will be an airmans wife, oh won’t it be marvellous.

As so often happens, the Flight-Lieutenant strolls along at just that moment, the opportune moment, like an angel or allegorical figure, like Hermes or Puck.

He sits down by them in the shade of a hedgerow and Bess enthusiastically tells him that Roy is going to join the air force and they’re going to be married. At which the Flight-Lieutenant rather surreally explains that, when the air force take over the village, he is going to be made padre and so he sort of has the legal right to marry them right now if they want. ‘Tomorrow’, says the excited Bess. And Roy walks her back to the pub and hands her over to her publican father, both of them dizzied by the prospect of getting married.

8. The Impulse

En route back to the Rectory, Roy bumps into the Squire’s butler, flustered and without his customary bowler hat, who tells him the Squire has taken to bed and is very sick. Returning to the Rectory, Roy finds the Air Vice-Marshall has arranged to stay overnight and overhears a conversation in which he tells the Rector’s wife:

‘I was merely observing that those who have been my enemies tend to die out, usually as a result of their own weakness or incompetence, while I survive them.’ (page 81)

Roy formally enters, the adults suspend their conversation, the Rector’s wife also tells him about the Squire who’s been calling for Roy. Cut to a few hours later and Roy is in the Squire’s bedroom, curtains drawn, night-time, fire burning, the old man is in bed, unconscious, barely breathing. Suddenly he stirs and utters the words: ‘Your father’ before relapsing exhausted. A few moments later, with great effort, he says: ‘Florence’.

Now, having been alerted to the unlikely sexual shenanigans concerning the Rector and his wife right at the start of the novel, I immediately began to suspect there was more to Roy’s parentage than meets the eye. The precise story, as told by the Rector at the opening birthday party, was that the baby was found in a basket by the road at the top of the village, and the wife of the village publican brought the babe in a basket to the Rector who adopted it (p.19).

Well, the abandoned baby with a fateful parentage is as old as writing, appearing in Jewish (Moses) and Greek (Oedipus) mythology, and hundreds of novels as a cheap plot (Tom Jones, Oliver Twist). What if Roy is the Squire’s sister’s son? What if she had an affair with the wicked Rector? Alternatively, who was it ‘discovered’ and brought the babe in a basket to the Rector’s? The landlord’s wife. What if Roy is her child? In which case his affair with Betty would be incest.

Anyway, Roy has taken the old man’s hand as he tries to say something dreadfully important, but at that moment the Squire’s sister, Florence comes in and starts to gently stroke the old man’s face when, to everyone’s astonishment, the old man’s legs shoot out, his grip tightens on Roy’s hand, and he bites deep into his sister’s hand!. She shrieks and the old man only bites harder at which the sister’s face completely transforms and she starts beating him round the face, smack smack smack. Too astonished to move, Roy watches the old man’s jaws slacken, the sister whip away her bleeding hand, and they both hear his death rattle. The old Squire is dead (p.85).

Roy sees it is his duty to comfort the Squire’s sister, although at the same time repelled by her actions. Then out into the hall where the Squire’s servants are all gathered, muttering about the news, and so home to the Rectory where he finds the Air Vice-Marshall, brisk and businesslike, fastening his gloves before getting into his chauffeur-driven car and motoring away.

9. The Honeymoon

Cut to a few weeks later. The Flight-Lieutenant, true to his word, has ‘married’ Roy and Bess. Not only that but he and a couple of air force buddies have fitted them up a sort of quarters in a corrugated iron shed at the bottom of airfield property. Over the days they and the happy couple bring pillows and fabric and turn it into a cosy love nest. Neither of their families know they’re married. They meet at the edge of the village and spend afternoons and evenings there together. They finally have proper sex, and Roy is astonished by the world of splendour which opens up for him.

On the day of the Squire’s funeral, the air force begins its formal takeover of the village. The village divides into two parties, the older inhabitants who’ve been used to traditions and dislike the new regime, and the younger men who admire the airmen and their machines and, now that agricultural work has come to an end, hope to get jobs as labourers or technicians up at the aerodrome – with the landlord acting as a sort of referee between them.

The Squire’s sister becomes openly contemptuous of the airmen, spitting on the ground after the Flight-Lieutenant’s walked by. He now takes Sunday service in the church but doesn’t bother changing out of his airforce uniform and reads dully and uninspiredly. The Rector’s asks Roy if he might consider working for the air force. She doesn’t know that, at the same time as he got married to Bessy, Roy signed up to join the air force.

10. A Disclosure

Roy is bowled over by the intimacy and power of sexual love, and a bit irked that Bessy is far more excited by the prospect of him joining the air force, learning to fly, them getting married quarters and a little car, of travelling abroad! The weeks go by. One day she is a bit distant. She explains that her mother is always trying to put her off him. Roy vows to go and see her, walks down the sloping field, stops at the bottom and waves. He feels a tremendous closeness and intimacy with her, as with no-one else.

He walks to the pub and presents himself to the landlord’s wife in the garden, among the lupins, delphiniums and buzzing bees. After preliminary chat she takes him up to her bedroom (her husband, the landlord, being fast asleep in the bar) and tells him blank: Bess is his sister. The Rector had an affair with her, the landlady. She got pregnant, Bess is the result. At first Roy denies it, explaining that the Rector explained at his birthday that he was not Roy’s biological father. Oh but he was, the landlady explains. Just that he got the Rector’s wife pregnant quite a bit before they were married. They married in a hurry, then the Rector’s wife was packed off abroad with her, the landlady, Eve, to accompany her. The Rector’s wife returned, the story of the finding of the baby in a basket was cooked up and arranged between all three of them. And during this period the Rector had started an affair with the landlady, getting her pregnant too. ‘Oh he was a fine man.’

So the beautiful young woman Roy is having an affair with, who he has married and who has opened up for him the world of sexual delight… is his half-sister!

Chapter 11 Change of Plan

Roy walks back through the village, across the fields and up towards the tin shed in the field, when he hears voices. Laughter. He jerks open the door of the shed to reveal Bess on the bed naked and the Flight-Lieutenant naked above her. As she scoops bedclothes up around her nekkid body, the Flight-Lieutenant is up and getting swiftly dressed, so swiftly that within moments he is moving towards Roy holding his call-up papers for the air force. As Roy looks down, the Flight-Lieutenant, obviously quite scared, skips past him, into the open and is off with a typically unfeeling quip: ‘Sorry about this, but all’s fair, you know’ (p.112).

It’s the old story: the more totally in love you are, the deeper the knife twists in your guts. Roy reels. Bess’s uneducated simplicity comes out. She thought she was being ‘nice’ to both of them. She tells him she started her ‘affair’ with the Flight-Lieutenant the day before she and Roy were married. And she goes on to tell him, as if it will help, that the Flight-Lieutenant is much better, physically, than him: much more confident, much more exciting, makes her feel much more at ease. Thanks, Bess.

This chapter well conveys the flood of contradictory feelings you experience in such a situation, including the impression that it’s all a bad dream and all you have to do is reach out your hand to restore the wonderful, paradisal intimacy you once shared with another human being. But the more they talk the worse it gets, and then Roy decides to prick her smug self-satisfaction and tells her they are brother and sister.

This prompts a moment of horror, Bess struggles to process this momentous new fact, but then she manages to smile and say, ‘Well at least that makes it easier.’ She reaches out her hand and smiles at him, ‘What shall we do now, Roy?’ but he too has processed the situation to a conclusion and says, ‘Do what you want’, turns on his heel, walks down the field then breaks into a run over fields and fences, till he gets to the river, strips off and dives into its refreshing cleansing cold waters.

12. The Air Vice-Marshall

Cut to a few weeks later. Roy has been inducted into the air force along with fifty or so other recruits. Life isn’t as cushy as he’d anticipated, the accommodation is basic, the food is poor, up early, to bed late, lots of exercise and none of them have been anywhere near a plane.

The Air Vice-Marshall assembles them in an underground lecture theatre (a lot of the Aerodrome’s facilities, it turns out, are underground, linked by an underground railway – maybe on the model of the French Army’s Maginot Line defences.)

The Air Vice-Marshall delivers an extended lecture about what is expected of the new recruits (pp.121-128). They are seeking not only to protect but to transform society. He anatomises the feudal rules of the village, labouring under a worn-out religion nobody believes any more, losing themselves in drunkenness and humiliating ‘love affairs’.

The airmen must rise above all that. First be rejecting their parents and all aspects of their former lives. Then the Air Vice-Marshall embarks on a lengthy description of how, although love and sex are inevitable for any young man, they must not let themselves be trapped by women, time-bound creatures made by biology to be bound to the past (parents) and future (children) more than men. All love affairs end in tears. A true airman makes sure the tears are not his. All love affairs are between unequals. The airman must make sure he is not the giver who ends up feeling exploited. He must always be the exploiter, the taker.

This way the airman can fulfil his destiny which is to escape the constraints of time and achieve the complete self-mastery, which is Freedom.

I can imagine many a feminists head exploding in outrage as she reads this extended and forensic explanation of how to exploit women and their supposedly ‘better’ nature. For me, though, the disappointment is in Warner’s fictional character’s target. We know from the book about European fascism which I’ve just finished reading (To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw) that, in the ideology of true Fascism, a key tenets alongside transforming the state and devoting yourself to The Leader, is fighting communism. Communism was the great bogeyman which helped unify all kinds of forces on the right of politics and helped them bury their differences to create authoritarian dictatorships across Europe.

You can see why mentioning specific political movements or parties is too specific or narrow for the kind of broad allegory Warner i writing. But it seemed to me that he was playing to the gallery instead of addressing the issue. What I mean is: these passages address an issue dear to the hearts of humanist and liberal readers of literature (love and relationships and feelings and emotions etc) and completely irrelevant to the actual historical circumstances of Fascism, which has its origins in the collapse of parliamentary democracy and the spread of street violence which only The Strong Man says he can quell.

13. Alterations

They watch a synchronised flying display. The man behind the radio-controlled co-ordination of the planes is an elderly mathematical genius. The Air Vice-Marshall congratulates him. The implication is that someday soon actual pilots will be redundant.

Roy is now a talented pilot. He’s surprised to discover he is already regarded as more promising that the Flight-Lieutenant who he used to so admire. When he goes down into the village he finds it transformed. The sleepy high street is full of air force vehicles or squads of cadets marching up and down. The Manor has been gutted and turned into an officers club with a new rooftop restaurant, the elaborate garden torn up to make way for a swimming club and tennis courts. When he drops into the pub, Roy’s old mates avoid him. He’s one of them now.

The airmen hear that the Flight-Lieutenant is going native. It’s as he and Roy have switched identities. Roy finds the villagers harder and harder to take, beginning to think these simple muddy souls are fit only for hard labour, while the Flight-Lieutenant is reported to be taking his duties as padre more and more seriously, delivering extended sermons, asking for Aerodrome funds to help repair the church tower. He has long ago lost interest in Bess. On his rare visits to the pub Bess tries to be friendly with Roy, but he’s having none of it.

In a striking scene Roy makes a rare visit to the Rectory only to discover the Flight-Lieutenant leaning against an armchair, having his hair idly stroked by the Squire’s sister. He has become their darling – whereas Roy has become an airman – coldly he asks for his clothes, shakes hands and departs. He has become the brisk, rude personality he admired at the start of the book.

14. Eustasia

Their positions become even more reversed when we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant is in love with a lady on the airbase called Eustasia, but that she upsets him by often asking after Roy — rather as Bes, although ‘married’ Roy, secretly lusted after the Flight-Lieutenant.

Now, just to spite the Flight-Lieutenant, Roy determines to have an affair with her. (Eustasia is, by the way, the wife of the genius mathematician-engineer who’s designing the radio-controlled airplanes. She’s bored. She has lots of affairs with the fit young pilots.)

The Flight-Lieutenant takes Roy to her rooms, introduces them. She has just got out of the shower and is wearing a dressing gown. Clearly this is her seduction outfit. She tells the Flight-Lieutenant to run along and buy some cigarettes and, once he’s gone, there is a moment of stasis super-charged with meaning and lust. Then she puts her hand on Roy’s knee, he grasps her thigh, she pout towards him and they are kissing lustfully.

In the midst of their grappling they realise the Flight-Lieutenant has reappeared in the room, sinks to the floor beside the sofa, puts his head against it and start crying. Roy looks down at him with contempt. The Flight-Lieutenant lets rip with a lot of stuff about how she’s the only woman who understands him, he feels so out of place at the aerodrome, and other emotional claptrap. With a jolt Roy realises this is how he must have appeared when he made his declarations of undying love to Bess. Eustasia treats him like a puppy. Everything he says, his entire outpouring of heartfelt emotion, means nothing to her.

Now this, this thread of meditations about love, which run from Roy’s puppy love for Bess, through devastation at her betrayal, to his newfound cynical confidence with a worldly woman like Eustasia, and their cynical almost sadistic treatment of the Flight-Lieutenant, this strikes me as having an imaginative force and experience unlike anything else in the book. The intense focus on analysing the relations between men and women reminds me a little of Kingsley Amis.

They become lovers. They meet and have sex every day in her stylishly decorated apartment. Roy is a confident man of the world and takes her to the officers club and to balls. He thinks back with a shudder to the time he wasted in the shabby tin hut on the edge of a field with the landlord’s stupid daughter in her home-made dresses. God, how far he has come!

15. Discipline

To his surprise Roy is appointed personal assistant to the Air Vice-Marshall. Slowly he discovers the scope of the Aerodrome, not just to defend the country but to transform it. Thus it has departments devoted to banking, agriculture, fisheries and so on.

From this point on (page 149), rather suddenly, Roy – and therefore the entire text – is transported to high up in the secret paramilitary organisation which actually runs the Aerodrome, and we now hear all about it from two sources: 1. verbatim speeches which the Air Vice-Marshall gives explaining the movement’s philosophy and 2. Roy’s description of his own discoveries about the movement’s aims (to take over and transform society).

Alongside his discoveries, Roy hears of incidents of insubordination in the village, leading up to the murder of an Air Force officer. In vague militaristic terms we learn that an example is made, anyone caught criticising the Air Force is dealt with severely.

Then we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant has been taking his job as padre too seriously and making anti-Air Force comments. The Air Vice-Marshall takes Roy along with him to the next Sunday service at the village church and they are both surprised to see the Flight-Lieutenant appear in full vicar outfit, to which he has no right, ascend to the pulpit and start talking about the good old days before the Air Force took over.

At which point the Air Vice-Marshall steps into the aisle and orders the Flight-Lieutenant to come down. As he hesitates some parishioners start muttering and there are shouts of ‘throw him out’ at which the Vice-Marshall draws his revolver and points it at the Flight-Lieutenant.

While he hesitates the Squire’s sister rises and starts shouting at the Vice-Marshall, pushing her way past sitting parishioners into the aisle, points at the Vice-Marshall and other airmen, starts saying, ‘Listen, listen all of you,’ and the Vice-Marshall shoots her point blank.

The Squire’s sister falls to the floor dead. The parishioners cower, the women start weeping, the Flight-Lieutenant comes down along the aisle and kneels beside the bleeding body, the Vice-Marshall orders his men to arrest him (p.159). The Vice-Marshall and Roy leave the church together, Roy is astonished at how little he feels for the murdered woman.

16. The secret

Roy goes to the club. Fellow officers are laughing and joking about the shooting. Roy reveals an extremely strange attitude to the killing of one of his oldest friends, which is that he finds it unaccountable that he seems to be somewhat moved. This is not an ordinary novel, in which we might expect the protagonist to be badly shaken up. He realises it is nearly his birthday, nearly a year since the events which kicked off the narrative. He realises he isn’t interested in the date or the occasion. He has now been lifted onto the Air Force’s level of abstract living, detached from human values.

He walks past the pub and toys with going in but the locals, the ones he used to be mates with, give him dirty looks. But the landlady comes out, takes him aside, and tells him how miserable Bess is, in fact she’s so broken-hearted she’s ill. This gets through Roy’s zombie-carapace a little and he promises to get Dr Faulkner the chief medical officer at the Aerodrome to visit her.

As he walks into the Aerodrome grounds he sees Eustasia outside her apartment building. She waves him over and insists on taking her upstairs to his flat. There she announces that she’s pregnant, staring at the floor. Roy is horrified – airmen are forbidden from having children, it ties them down – but pretends to be pleased.

But when Eustasia starts telling him how excited she’ll be to leave the Aerodrome and go live in another part of the country, Roy can’t hide the dismay at the ruin of all his plans and ambitions, and suddenly Eustasia gets really angry, ‘You never loved me’ etc. And then Roy feels sees in her the recriminations he brought against Bess and feels sorry for her. And they have sensitive tearful sex, both of them knowing their happy-go-lucky fun days are over.

17. Bess

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner, the Aerodome chief medical officer, to see Bess. She is in her bedroom, hunched up in the windowseat, staring into space, catatonic, the lap of her homespun dress full of primroses she’s picked. Immediately we think of Ophelia, who went mad and picked flowers.

In a surprising development Roy gets down on his knees and puts his head in her lap. She strokes it absent-mindedly like Ophelia and Hamlet. He realises that Eustasia and the entire Aerodrome and its plan to take over and transform the nation mean nothing to him next to Bess’s love.

I remembered suddenly and vividly the moment in the past when we had been together in the field listening to the larks singing, the time when I had decided easily and gladly to abandon myself to her love. The promises and ambitions of that time may have been stupid and ill-considered. I had believed them to have become null and void; but I saw now that the feeling that had prompted them could never be recalled. It was not that I had any more a desire to possess her. Such an idea would in any case have been absurd; but I knew in a moment and with certainty that compared with her health and happiness the aerodrome and all that it contained meant nothing to me at all… (p.175)

I was astonished at how soppy this was, and how quick and complete the change in Roy’s attitude. He has little or no plausibility as a character, as a depiction of a real human being. He is more a robot witness of the ‘allegorical’ and often bizarre events Warner puts him through.

18. New friends

Roy bumps into the Rector’s wife waiting outside the Aerodrome. It is eerie how neither of them seem particularly upset by the events they’ve witnessed – the Rector and the Squire’s wife being shot dead.

She amazes the reader by explaining that the Flight-Lieutenant is the dead Squire’s sister’s son. The Squire had refused to have the boy in the house, had insisted on him being sent away, nobody knew about it, and nobody realised it was the Flight-Lieutenant until a chance remark of his confirmed it. (But this is the man who shot dead the Rector, her husband – how can anyone… oh, whatever).

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner to see Bess and then walk back to the Aerodrome on numerous occasions. She had been in a deep depression, incapable of speaking. Slowly she is coming out of it and the doctor assures Roy her recovery will be complete, but he’s not telling something, Roy catches him and the Rector’s wife conferring, there’s some secret.

Somehow Roy manages to reconcile his realisation that he loves Bess, that he sympathises with the villagers and realises the values of the Aerodrome are worthless with… working closely with the Air Vice-Marshall on the plan to take over the country. You can see how he’s not really a person, but more a puppet in a pantomime.

And it tells you everything about Warner’s priorities that he devotes just one paragraph to this subject – the plan to take over the entire country: whereas he has given us pages and pages about a) Bess & her health b) about the Flight-Lieutenant being the Squire’s sister’s son and now c) goes into an extended analysis of the new flavour of his love affair with Eustasia i.e. they stop having sex but enter a deeper kind of relationship. All his about love and relationships, but barely a paragraph about the plans to take over the country. Those are his priorities.

Now you might remember that the Flight-Lieutenant had been imprisoned at the Air Vice-Marshall’s order after the scene at the village church. Now he’s released, has been reduced to the ranks and is working as ground staff. Roy meets him again at Eustasia’s apartment and they discover they’re back to being friends again. Roy tells him how disillusioned he is with the Air Force, the Flight-Lieutenant urges caution.

But at their next meeting Roy tells the Air Vice-Marshall that he has got Eustasia pregnant.

  1. The Air Vice-Marshall reveals that he, too, once had a liaison with her (confirming the sense that more or less all the men on the Aerodrome have slept with Eustasia)
  2. The Air Vice-Marshall angrily reminds Roy that a key tenet of the Air Force is it is absolutely forbidden to have children. Children are a tie to the future and an airman must have no past or future, he must elude time in order to become a New Man.

The Air Vice-Marshall gives Roy three days to sort it out i.e. to force Eustasia to have an abortion. (This is a pretty obvious symbol of the Air Force’s literal denial of life in all its messy glory, and crystallises Roy’s sense that:

the code under which I had been living for the past year was, in spite of its symmetry and its perfection, a denial of life, its difficulty, its perplexity and its suffering, rather than an affirmation of its nobility and its grandeur. (p.193)

19. The Decision

One day Roy is out at the Aerodrome watching the Flight-Lieutenant and other mechanics making last-minute adjustments to the twenty-seater plane which is to fly the Air Vice-Marshall to some important meeting. The Flight-Lieutenant steps briskly away, in the direction of Eustasia’s block of flats and Roy goes to follow him, but is intercepted and delayed by a chat with Dr Faulkner.

Walking on to Eustasia’s flat he is almost knocked over by a squad of six motorcyclists heading out of the base at top speed. Arriving at Eustasia’s flat Roy finds all the doors open and a message. She and the Flight-Lieutenant have done a bunk, running away together. He realises the motor bikes were sent out to catch them. Stepping out into the Aerodrome road, Roy sees one of the bikers returning. He salutes and the biker tells them they caught up with the escapees at a narrow stone bridge. The cars crashed, both the people inside were crushed, killed.

He is describing it to the doctor, stunned, when an orderly tells him the Air Vice-Marshall wants to see him. Roy reports. The Air Vice-Marshall is in an excellent mood. He jovially tells Roy how this means he is off the hook – no more pregnant Eustasia, no more difficult decision for Roy. He can refocus on his work.

Roy tells him he can stuff his work. He is disgusted and repelled by the organisation, The Air Vice-Marshall controls his fury and tells Roy he has no option but to have him killed. (All this passes as in a dream. I had no sense of threat, and couldn’t care less about Roy, unlike, for example the real terror you feel on Winston Smith’s behalf.)

The Air Vice-Marshall is just offering Roy a last opportunity to change his mind and save his life when there is a swift knock at the door and the doctor and the Rector’s wife walk in. This is more like a Whitehall farce than a dystopia. The doctor apologises and call the Air Vice-Marshall Antony.

Antony!? The name of the man the Rector confessed to sending plummeting to his doom up some mountain, the supposed lover of  his wife, the Rector’s wife before they got married!?

Yes: now it all comes tumbling out, as on the last page of a whodunnit or the last few minutes of a bedroom farce. Yes: as a young man the Air Vice-Marshall (Antony) had been in love with the Rector’s wife (we never get to learn her name), and had had a fling with her while the Rector was pursuing a more formal wooing. Spotting them, the Rector had suggested their trip to the mountains where he cut Antony’s rope sending him plunging down the mountainside. But he had survived and returned (somehow the Rector never noticed this), returned to discover that his lover, pregnant with his son, had now married the Rector (thinking Antony dead) and born the child who is… none other than Roy!

So…. so when the landlady told Roy she was his mother, after the Rector had an affair with her…. that was a lie? So Roy is not a blood relative of Bess? So their ‘marriage’ was not incest?

But not only this – the Rector’s wife now tells us and the audience that Antony not only returned from the dead and berated her for marrying his would-be murderer and making him his son’s father… Antony then went and had an affair with her best friend, the Squire’s sister, got her pregnant, and spirited away the baby, a boy, a son, who was to return years later as…. the Flight-Lieutenant!!!

So…. the Air Vice-Marshall… let me get this straight… when the Air Vice-Marshall shot dead the Squire’s sister in the church he was killing the woman he had an affair with and the mother of his son, the Flight-Lieutenant, who he then had thrown into prison and… and has just now despatched a squad of motorcycle riders to have killed.

Yes, because the Rector’s wife now accuses Tthe Air Vice-Marshall of having had one of his sons murdered, and being on the verge of murdering the other, too (Roy).

(So the Flight-Lieutenant and Roy were brothers… which explains why he was invited to Roy’s 21st birthday party right at the start… doesn’t it?)

After the Rector’s wife makes her big speech explaining all this, the Air Vice-Marshall turns to Roy and says I told you so. What an absurd, messy, sordid business life is. Come with me, cast off the shackles of the past and be free.

Can you not see, and I am asking you for the last time, to escape from time and its bondage, to construct around you something that is guided by your own will, not forced upon you by past accident, something of clarity, independence and beauty? (p.200)

The doctor now reveals that it was he who saved Antony/the Air Vice-Marshall’s life after his fall and nursed him back to life. He pleads for Roy’s life. Furious, the Air Vice-Marshall says he’ll be lucky to survive for his treason.

He asks Roy if he’s coming with him to the climactic meeting of the organisation, to finalise plans for the coup. Roy says No. The Air Vice-Marshall tells him he’s going to lock the doors, if anyone tries to escape he’s giving orders for them to be shot down, He goes out and they hear the lock turn.

Through the window of the office where he’s locked up, Roy idly watches him walk across the runway, meet up with the Chief Mathematician and all the other important men from the organisation. They get in the plane. The Air Vice-Marshall himself is flying it. It taxis down the runway, turns and takes off. But it doesn’t climb as it should. Then climbs too steeply. Then the wing Roy had seen the Flight-Lieutenant fiddling with falls off! The plane plummets back to earth, smashing and exploding on impact, killing everyone inside it.

20. Conclusion

Three last pages tie up loose ends. The doctor tells Roy how he was friends with both the Rector and Antony and a) nursed the latter back to health b) decided with him to keep his survival a secret and stage a fake funeral c) never told the Rector the truth (thus letting him live a life plagued by guilt).

And watched the recovered Antony vow never to let himself be influenced by women or love or the past, but to remake and remodel himself. Out of this burning ambition grew the ambition to remodel the entire country and human nature. So: that’s the origin of the Air Vice-Marshall’s steely determination and ‘fascist’ beliefs.

But now that he’s dead, the organisation he had built up over years collapses. The threat of a coup evaporates.

Bess is now healed. Reconciled with her, Roy now marries her in a formal ceremony. They sit in the fields by the ancient elms. He is at one not only with her, and with Nature but with… past time, the way the messiness of time, our pasts and everyone else’s pasts prevents anything human from being pure, or being made new. The author’s final message is:

It was not for me, I knew now, to attempt either to reshape or to avoid what was too vast even to be imagined as enfolding me, nor could I reject as negligible the least event in the whole current of past time. (p.205)


Cast

  • Roy – the 21-year-old first person narrator
  • The Rector – his supposed father, murdered his friend Antony, shot dead by the Flight-Lieutenant at the Agricultural Show
  • The Rector’s wife – Roy’s supposed mother
  • Antony – the Rector’s friend and his wife’s lover, who the Rector confesses to murdering in chapter two
  • the Squire – a 70-year-old, white haired old worthy, lives in the Manor, dies after the Aerodrome requisition the entire village and specifically after his siter has beaten him round the face
  • the Squire’s sister – Florence, who has devoted her life to her brother, but falls into a huge rage at his death-bed and then is shot dead by the Air Vice-Marshall of the church
  • Mac – one of Roy’s drinking buddies from the (unnamed) pub in the (unnamed) village
  • Fred – another of Roy’s drinking buddies
  • the landlord – of the unnamed pub
  • the landlady – of the unnamed pub, who claims to be Roy’s mother, by the Rector
  • Bess – the landlord’s sexy but simple daughter who Roy has a passionate affair with, and even gets unofficially ‘married’ to, until the landlady tells Roy she is actually the illegitimate daughter of the Rector and so Roy’s step-sister
  • the Flight-Lieutenant – a drawling, lackadaisical smart young representative of the Aerodrome and its complete lack of conventional manners or pieties, who accidentally shoots the Rector dead, has a fling with Bess behind Roy’s back, is tasked with being the village padre after the Aerodrome takes it over, but slowly adopts village values, takes his duties seriously, begins speaking out against the Air Force
  • the Air Vice-Marshall – ‘a slight tense figure’ (p.158) the logical, no-nonsense head of the Air Force and indeed of the wider ‘movement’ which is planning to take over the country and transform it
  • the mathematician – a tall, elderly man with a small straggling beard (p.131) mastermind of a new technology of remote controlled airplanes; married to the pneumatic Eustasia
  • Eustasia – sexy wife of the mathematician who has had affairs with a string of airmen and now takes up with Roy
  • Dr Faulkner – medical co-ordinater at the Aerodrome, tends to Bess during her melancholia

Time

Several times the Air Vice-Marshall goes well beyond a conventional view of fascism as the takeover of the state and the expulsion of all the time-servers and money-lenders and parasites who infest it, far beyond that, to expound a vision of a new type of Man who will have a new type of relationship with Time! (p.128)

He explains that the airman must reject his parents, siblings, family and background i.e. all the ties of the past – and cease to worry about his own life, how it will turn out etc, in other words, cease to fear about the future. In other words, the New Men, by abandoning the ties of past and future, by entire devotion to the mission of the Air Force, can escape Time itself:

‘What is the whole purpose of our life… To be freed from time, Roy. From the past and from the future.’ (p.150)

Only then will we become ‘a new and more adequate race of men’ (p.128).

But in the last few chapters, as Roy passes the apogee of his attachment to the Aerodrome ideals, he comes to see that men are stuck in time for better or for worse, and that it is this embedded-in-time-ness which creates the potential, the adventure and excitement which are quintessentially human, as against the rigid, utterly predictable logic of the Air Force. ‘We in the Air Force had escaped but not solved the mystery’ (p.177).

It is only human to make mistakes, and get caught up in the confusing messiness of life, whereas it is an error:

to deny wholly the relevance of the world of time and feeling where such mistakes were only too easy to make, and to erect in contrast with it our own barren edifice of perfection, our efficient and mystical mastery over time. (p.181)

This interest in Time is an unusual and thought-provoking spin on the central polarity the novel describes. It reminds me of the contemporaneous obsession with time in T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton (1936).

Style

My plot summary gives you the events but doesn’t give any sense of how hard The Aerodrome is to actually read, chiefly because of its clotted, clunky style.

Warner writes in long sentences, often with three or four subordinate clauses, with non-standard word order, and using idioms or phrases which have long ago been dropped from ordinary English. Take the opening of chapter five:

In our house, as I should say in many others, death had not been in the past a frequent topic of conversation; but now, with a dead body in an upper room lying beneath a sheet, both the presence and the certainty of death were never, during the days that preceded the funeral, far from our minds. (page 50)

The prose is sufficiently different in layout and phrasing from modern English that, at moments, it prompts your mind (expecting clarity and logic) to set off in the wrong direction and you have to call it back in order to reread what the text actually says. Take this passage describing the layout of the Aerodrome, much of which is built beneath ground so that staff move around it using an underground railway.

By this railway we had come immediately after breakfast, accompanied by the three or four officers who were responsible for our training, and since the early days after we had been called up had been rigorous enough, we had been surprised to find this place so luxuriously furnished and so unlike the severity of the quarters in which we had so far lived. (p.119)

A modern writer would perhaps say the training had been ‘very rigorous’ – saying rigorous ‘enough’ sets a modern reader up to expect that it was vigorous enough for something to follow logically. Similarly, when I read the first ‘so’ I expected the sentence to continue ‘so luxuriously furnished that…‘ – I mean that the ‘so’ would lead into a conclusion rather than remain an adverb.

Maybe it’s just me, but I found Warner’s prose as stiff and restraining as Roy’s dinner party white shirt. Towards the end of the book the landlord’s wife approaches Roy:

She appeared to me at once as both older and less self-possessed than she had been at our last interview, and though for some weeks after that time I had avoided conversation with her, now I was by no means displeased to see that she evidently wished to talk to me; for I still retained for her the affection of my childhood, and did not fancy that she could reveal anything else to me that could disturb the serenity in which I lived. (page 163)

Warner’s clunky, peculiar prose style has at least two consequences:

1. You as the reader have to work quite hard to penetrate the prose and make out what’s happening, or to rethink the crabbed sentences into more flowing English so you can grasp their meaning. Quite often I felt Warner was struggling, didn’t have the basic expressive skill, to describe his own story.

I saw that Eustasia was watching me closely. Her large eyes were fixed on my face and there was an expression of eagerness in them, as though she were attempting to drag to her my thoughts from behind my forehead. (p.169)

2. The style is so peculiar and stilted that it keeps you on the outside of the narrative.

Apparently Warner intended his book to be an ‘allegory’ and it’s just as well because it doesn’t work as a psychological novel i.e. a novel where we’re meant to care in the slightest about the characters.

Roy barely reacts to the bizarre and shocking things he sees – his father’s confession, the Squire’s sister slapping the Squire to death, the Vice-Marshall shooting her dead – Roy moves through the story like a zombie.

The only places his account comes to life are in the scattered descriptions of being really head-over-heels in love with Bess, the persuasive account of his distress when he discovers her with another man, and then the new set of emotions he discovers during his affair with the worldly-wise Eustasia.

But almost all the other passages – about the Rector, his wife, the Squire, his sister and much of the description of the Aerodrome – are processed logically, in his stiff, starchy sometimes clumsy prose, and leave the reader utterly outside the experience. I kind of read at The Aerodrome but never felt I got inside it. Certainly none of its characters or events made much impression on me. For Anthony Burgess to compare it with Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most effectively nightmareish novels ever written, is grotesque.

Critique

By the end of the book, it has become, almost in spite of itself and its odd prose style, an impressive text. I’ve given a detailed summary so you can judge for yourself what you think of the story as a story; I’ll mention a few other aspects.

Many critics claim Warner is a kind of English Kafka. This is maybe true in two respects:

  1. the overall allegorical feel of the story in which incidents and details are crafted to fit into the totality of the allegory, as they are in The Trial and The Castle
  2. the bizarre and inexplicable elements – having recently reread all of Kafka I was reminded how plain weird many of the episodes in Kafka’s novels are, and also that he left the novels in fragments precisely because he was good at weird and intense scenes but less good at figuring out how to stitch them together

Kafka and Warner are even similar in their attitude to sex, in the sense that Kafka’s two main protagonists, Joseph K and K, seem to be very attractive to women but end up having sudden sex in incongruous places with little or no courting or foreplay – a little like Roy finds himself fornicating in a hay barn or a rickety tin shed with Bess.

For me, though, the central criticism of the Aerodrome is in its vision of a totalitarian movement. It’s too simple and too clean. Having just read Ian Kershaw’s exhaustive survey of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, a key element in the rise of right-wing dictatorships was the violence – the violence of thugs on the street, the violence of left and right wing paramilitaries, and then the violence of seizing and holding power. Enemies were rounded up, gaoled and murdered.

The Aerodrome contains some thrilling speeches by the Air Vice-Marshall about how the movement is not going to take over the country, it is going to transform it, how the old world of muddle and confusion will be swept away, how a new breed of men who have rejected the past and have no fear of the future – who have, in other words, escaped the bonds of Time – will for the first time live properly human lives.

But, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is a very shiny, technology-driven vision. Clean, antiseptic. It doesn’t take into account the actual conditions which gave rise to right-wing government across Europe which were, above all, poverty, unemployment, complete loss of faith in elected governments, and real fear of a communist revolution. These were the elements which so destabilised European nations that right-wing, often military figures could step in and promise to restore order, give people jobs, and prevent the advent of the communism which huge portions of the population were so terrified of.

None of this is in The Aerodrome. None of the political complexity, the collapse of government, and the street violence. It is a strangely antiseptic and theoretical vision of what a fascist regime would look like. And this theoretical or ‘allegorical’ treatment extends to the way the opposite of the fascist movement is not a communist or social democrat regime, it is rural tradition. But this wasn’t the alternative most people in urban industrialised Europe faced, let alone in Britain, the most urbanised country in the world.

Instead the central antithesis in the book between hi-tech airmen and drunks from the pub feels like a warmed-up version of the age-old dichotomy between city and countryside which stretches back through all civilisations, to the ancient Roman and Greeks and probably beyond, in which the businesslike city-dweller is glamorous but somehow shallow, while the country-dweller is humble and thick but somehow more authentic.

And in the simplicity of its age-old dichotomy The Aerodrome also fails to investigate the much more tangled imagery of contemporary Fascism which somehow managed to combine both elements, so that the Nazis managed to create posters and propaganda films which showed blonde Hitler youths both helping with the harvest, exercising in the country and flying brand new Messerschmitt fighter planes.

German Fascism, like Italian and Spanish cousins, combined veneration of Blood and Soil with veneration of shiny new technologies, to present the propaganda image of the totality of a nation united in one purpose.

By adopting his gleaming airmen versus doddery old village types, Warner misses all the complexities and contradictions of actual Fascist regimes, and instead paints a kind of children’s cartoon version of it.

The Aerodrome is, at the end of the day, despite its terrible prose and lack of any attempt to create credible characters, an interesting and occasionally enjoyable book. But as any kind of guide or insight into the actual fascist mind it strikes me as useless.

Also it tells you bugger-all about the air force, any air force, or what it was like to fly a plane in the late 1930s. For a book which describes the joy of flying, try Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936).

Credit

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner was published in 1941. All references are to the 1968 Sphere Books paperback edition (cover price 7/6).


Related links

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham (1941)

‘Don’t be afraid. The devil’s a sportsman and he looks after his own.’ Rowley Flint

This is a ripping little novella, gripping and compelling, slightly ludicrous and strangely affecting, which I read from cover to cover in a single two-hour sitting. Maybe it would be the perfect introduction to Maugham for someone who’s never read him.

Background

When she was 22, Mary, a young lady from a good family, married Matthew Panton. Little did she realise he would turn into an alcoholic and a gambler. He gambled and was reduced to sottish inebriation every night, often not coming home at all because he had gone off with the first woman he could drunkenly chat up. After eight years he had gambled away his inheritance so it was tragic, but also a blessed relief, when he killed himself while driving blind drunk and had a high-speed car crash.

After prolonged discussion with the family lawyers it emerged that Mary had just enough income to survive, if she was frugal. So she welcomed a kind offer from friends, the Leonards, to go and recuperate at their villa overlooking Florence. It was not grand, it was a bit cold, but it was the perfect rest cure, with the added benefit of being looked after by the kind maid, Nina, and her husband, Ciro.

The plot

The story unfolds over a few fateful days. Mary is expecting a proposal of marriage from an old friend of her family’s, the eminent diplomat, Sir Edgar Swift, K.C.S.I., of the Indian Civil Service. Twenty five years her senior, he’s been in love with her since she was a teenager. They have had many discussions about it and now he is stopping over on a trip to Cannes, to propose to her.

Sir Edgar arrives, has tea, they talk politely and he informs her that he has been confirmed in the governorship of Bengal. Behind this is the possibility that he will one day be made Viceroy of all India. Marry him, and all that pomp and circumstance would be hers.

Maugham carefully investigates Mary’s feelings and hesitations on the matter – of course it would be a glorious life and yet… the age difference. She tells Sir Edgar she will give him her answer in three days’ time.

Submitting to her wish, Edgar leaves. As an after-thought, he insists she carry the revolver he’s given her when she goes out, since ‘you never know with all these foreigners about’. Touched and amused by his concern, she absent-mindedly agrees.

Mary then motors into Florence to attend a party given at a restaurant, Peppino’s, by the old Princess San Ferdinando. Despite her title, the Princess is in fact a humorously cynical old American lady who married an Italian prince some forty years earlier. He had affairs; he died. Whereupon she inherited his land, house and inheritance and has made herself into a well-established grande dame and hostess of Florentine society.

This is the kind of party which Maugham, for so long a hobnobber among the rich and titled, describes with such urbane confidence. I particularly enjoyed the character of the choleric old English traveler, Colonel Trail, much given to imbecile spluttering and indignation.

Also a guest is the wicked debauchee, young Rowley Flint, a kind of Errol Flynn character. (As a sample of his repartee, at one point he tells Mary that she is ‘an almost perfect specimen of the genus peach’ which made me laugh.) Rowley smooths up to Mary, with the sly encouragement of the wicked old princess, but Mary easily fobs him off – all carried off in the kind of sparkling dialogue which Maugham deploys to such effect in his many comic plays.

The Princess had arranged the party specially to hear a singer perform at Peppino’s but, to the Princess’s disgust, the singer is off sick tonight and has been replaced by a violinist. He is a shy, frail-looking man who plays a set of sentimental songs, but can’t overcome the disappointment of the rich clientèle. When he passes around a hat only a few coins and small notes are given.

Feeling sorry for him, Mary astonishes Rowley by handing over a hundred lira note.

At the end of the evening the Princess suggests to Mary that she give Rowley a lift to his hotel in her stylish little coupé. So she does. Rowley flirtatiously suggests they drive on into the country for a while, it being such a fine June evening.

During this drive a) Rowley makes a pass at Mary which b) she confidently rebuffs, during which she c) explains that he is the last kind of man she would have an affair with. If she was tempted to have an affair, it would be to make someone happy; to find someone less fortunate than herself, and to make him the gift of her lovely sexual body; to make the affair an act of charity. Rowley thinks this a ridiculous attitude and they squabble. So Mary drives Rowley back to his house, then turns round to drive up the hill to the villa.

At a bend in the road up the hill there is a fine viewing point and she pulls over and parks, gets out and stares out over the panorama of Florence by moonlight. Her mind and heart are confused and whirling: should she marry old Sir Edgar in order to have a distinguished middle-age? What of Rowley’s arguments that she is still young and beautiful and ought to enjoy life while she can? All mixed in with sad memories of her one true love, the husband who turned into a useless drunk.

She is so deep in thought that she is startled when a cigarette is lit in the shade of the tree next to her. Out from the shadow comes the violinist from Peppino’s, looking even poorer in his own clothes than when he’d been dressed in the threadbare costume of the troupe of musicians at the restaurant.

Initially scared, Mary is softened by his gentle attitude and poverty. Turns out he’s renting a room in one of the shacks further up the hill. Mary offers him a lift. On the way it turns out he’s had nothing to eat and so, by now feeling thoroughly sorry for him, she drives him on up to the villa.

She hears his story. His name is Karl Richter and he’s not Italian at all, but Austrian. He was among a student group which spoke out about the Anschluss (whereby Hitler’s Germany incorporated Austria in March 1938) whereupon they were all arrested, a couple shot and the rest thrown into a concentration camp. After a few months he managed to escape and made his way across the mountains to Italy, where he just about scrapes a living playing the violin.

As it happens the villa is decorated with impressive murals and, because Karl had mentioned that he was an art student back in Austria, Mary shows them to him. Then she takes him into the kitchen and cooks him bacon and eggs which he eats ravenously. Back in the living room there is a gramophone which, when she turns it on, proves to have a record of Austrian waltzes on it.

So it feels perfectly natural that they start dancing, her feeling his strong undernourished body pressed against her, he almost drunk with happiness, with a full stomach for the first time in months, mind filled with the wondrous art of the villa, and holding a beautiful woman in his arms.

Suddenly they are both overcome with passion, his fairly understandable, but Mary’s a logical consequence of the aim she stated to Rowley back in the restaurant – to make her love/body a gift of charity, to make someone happy. They make love.

Maugham tactfully skips the actual sex. Later she is sitting in an armchair chair, he sitting at her feet. Now the argument starts. He declares his undying love and that she must marry him, live with him, become his.

Mary delicately tries to explain that she’ll be leaving Florence in a few days because she’s going to say Yes in marriage to another man (Sir Edgar). Karl is upset and the more Mary tries to explain, the worse it gets. In her honest way, she can’t help revealing that she only took Karl to bed out of charity; she was doing a good deed. But from Karl’s point of view, the doorway to a wondrous better life had barely opened before she is slamming it shut in his face.

‘I didn’t mean to be cruel. My heart was full of tenderness and pity.’
‘I never asked for your pity. Why didn’t you leave me alone? You have shown me heaven and now you want to thrust me back to earth. No. No. No.’

At one point Karl approaches her threateningly, Mary remembers the gun and takes it from her handbag. Karl is so angry he shouts, ‘Yes, go on, shoot me, put me out of my misery.’ She drops it, he grabs her and, er… ravishes her, this time with real anger and aggression.

Once again they are lying on the bed after passion. Karl gets to his feet and she hears him padding round the dark bedroom. Suddenly there is a loud bang: he has shot himself through the chest.

Oh my God!

Part two

Maugham describes Mary’s panic-stricken reaction to this disaster. Practical worries swamped by her emotional reaction to the suicide of the man she’s just made love with. It’s made worse by the maid, Nana, tapping on the bedroom door, asking what the bang was. ‘It’s nothing,’ says Mary, ‘must have been a car backfiring in the road below.’ The only person she can think of who can help her in this crisis is Rowley, so she phones him and this begins part two of the book.

For Rowley turns out to be fantastically helpful, resourceful and reliable. Woken by her call in the middle of the night, he borrows his hotel porter’s pushbike and quickly cycles up to the villa.

Mary turns the light on, shows him the body and tells him the whole story with no omissions.

Rowley is shocked and appalled but quickly regains control. He tells her to fetch the car. They carry the body out and put it in the back. Rowley gets a towel and mops up all the blood on the floor. He drives to a place she suggests, up a remote hilltop road towards thick woods. They’re about to get the body out of the back when they see lights from a car coming along the same road. With quick thinking Rowley gets in the back with her (their feet on the warm corpse which is in the chairwell) and as the car goes by, make a big show of snogging, just another courting couple. The Italians in the car driving by whoop encouragement and start singing La donne e mobile. Italians.

Having finally disposed of the body, they drive back to the villa where Mary she says she’s got a luncheon appointment the next day but obviously can’t go. Quite the opposite, Rowley tells her. She mist take a sleeping pill now, and tomorrow she must go and be her usual bright and happy self.

Which is what she does. Takes pill, sleep deeply, wakes late. Bath and make-up helped by the maid. Then off to lunch at the Atkinsons’ and another of the frightfully posh social scenes Maugham does so well – old man Atkinson (‘a fine, handsome, grey-haired man, plethoric and somewhat corpulent, with an eye for a pretty woman’) flirting with Mary outrageously and Mary doing her best to keep up the light-hearted banter in between panic-stricken flashbacks to the night before.

I suppose it’s about here that one should mention that not much of this is very plausible. Mary is flustered alright, but shows little of the psychological trauma you might expect in a modern rendition of these events. The fact that she has to go to this lunch party – and that the conversation turns to the wretched little violinist they’d been forced to listen to the night before, instead of the hoped-for singer – are not indicators of ‘real life’ but of exactly the same kind of narrative logic you find in Maugham’s plays, or indeed of the popular American films noirs of the period.

Events are carpentered together in order to produce the best dramatic effects, with only a passing concern for psychological plausibility. This is brought out even more in the next few scenes which have a kind of melodramatic or even soap opera logic.

Chapter 7 Back at the villa after her lunch ordeal, Mary is sitting in the exquisite garden when Rowley saunters in and up to her. They review the events of the night before and Rowley points out they’ve been damn lucky. Mary tells him she’s really frightfully grateful. With a charming smile Rowley explains it’s because he likes the risk, the gamble, the excitement of an adventure.

Then he asks about the gun, which they had forgotten in all the excitement. Mary had put it back in her bedroom drawer – bad idea. To her horror, Rowley gets it then goes down to his bicycle and cycles off to the wood where he dumped the body. A little later he returns safely, saying he dropped it in a stream nearby.

It is only now that she gives a really thorough blow-by-blow explanation of what happened the night before, the flow of the conversation, the sex, the suicide. And Rowley gives his explanation:

‘I think I can tell you why he killed himself,’ he said at last. ‘He was homeless, outcast, penniless and half-starved. He hadn’t got much to live for, had he? And then you came. I don’t suppose he’d ever seen such a beautiful woman in his life. You gave him something that in his wildest dream he could never have dreamed of. Suddenly the whole world was changed because you loved him. How could you expect him to guess that it wasn’t love that had made you give yourself to him? You told him it was only pity. Mary, my dear, men are vain, especially very young men: did you never know that? It was an intolerable humiliation. No wonder he nearly killed you. You’d raised him to the stars and then you flung him back to the gutter. He was like a prisoner whose jailers lead him to the door of his prison and just as he is about to step out to freedom, slam it in his face. Wasn’t that enough to decide him that life wasn’t worth living?’

Mary is surprised that Rowley, according to ex-pat received opinion a well-known wastrel and ne’er-do-well, turns out to have such sensitive insight into other people. Which comes on top of her surprise at how sensible, calm and decisive he had been last night.

Mary hands him a telegram she received that morning from Sir Edgar. He will be arriving that afternoon. ‘Are you going to marry him?’ asks Rowley. ‘I need someone to look up to, someone to look after me,’ replies Mary.

But then she horrifies Rowley by announcing she will tell Edgar all about last night. ‘No, no, no,’ says Rowley. He knows these Empire Building types, the soul of integrity and honour. Sir Edgar has a shining ideal of her; it would be madness to destroy it. But I must she says, I must tell him the truth.

‘Have it your own way, sweetheart,’ replies insouciant Rowley, bids her adieu and saunters back out of the garden.

Chapter 8 There follows kind of scene Maugham excels at and which feels like it comes straight out of one of his plays. The worthy and dignified suitor, Sir Edgar, arrives to ask the hand of the younger women he has worshiped chastely and honourably all her adult life.

Unfortunately, ignoring Rowley’s advice, Mary does tell him about last night, leaving out nothing – the pity, the sex, the suicide, the hiding the body.

I don’t know whether we’re meant to be moved or amused or both by the subtlety with which Maugham describes the psychological negotiations which then ensue. It is like watching two masters play chess.

Mary realises she has shattered Edgar’s idealised vision of her – but that he is bound by his own code of nobility to continue with his proposal of marriage. That much she expected.

However, Edgar surprises Mary by announcing that he cannot now, of course, accept the post of Governor of Bengal. Why? Because now more than ever (i.e. in the dying days of the Raj) the British are only ruling by dint of their integrity. Sir Edgar wouldn’t be able to sleep at nights knowing that at some point, any point, in the future, the whole affair might somehow come out tarnish his reputation and, by extension, the entirety of British rule.

Not least because of the role played by bloody Rowley Flint. Sooner or later he’ll tell one of his many women and it will all come out. So it’s not so much his own personal fate Sir Edgar is concerned about, but  that it might damage British rule in India and the Foreign Service to which he has dedicated his life.

No, he will resign his commission and they can live quietly somewhere, maybe the Riviera, on his pension.

Mary hadn’t expected this at all. She is appalled. She realises that her confession has made Sir Edgar abandon his career, now, just as it reached its climax of success, the reward of thirty years of loyal service. But that he feels obligated by his sense of honour to pursue his suit regardless of the cost to himself.

Her confession has ruined his life, and yet he has the honour and dignity to accept the fact quite calmly.

And so – just as in the best of his plays – we watch Maugham make his character think on her feet. She realises she must do the right thing and force Sir Edgar to drop his marriage proposal, in order to rescue his career. But it must be in such a way so as not compromise him, to make him feel he is fulfilling his duties. She must place herself in a guilty position, she must paint herself in such a way that he can honourably dump her.

And so Mary lights on the solution of telling Sir Edgar that, given the difference in age and the fact (previously well aired) that she doesn’t really love him, that although she respects him and has great affection for him etc,. she had only said yes because when he was working full time as governor they wouldn’t see very much of each other and so the marriage would have worked as a sort of companionable arrangement.

However, if he is to quit his job and they are to live as a retired couple on the Riviera, well, they would be in each other’s faces all day long. And this wouldn’t work.

He was silent for a long time. When he looked at her again his eyes were cold.
‘You mean that you were prepared to marry the Governor of Bengal, but not a retired Indian Civilian on a pension.’

Excellent. Result. Mary has made herself appear heartless and scheming. She has killed not only his love for her, but his respect. She has given Sir Edgar the gift of enabling him to drop his suit with a clear conscience.

‘In that case we need not discuss the matter further.’
‘There doesn’t seem much point in doing so, does there?’

Abruptly frigid and correct, Sir Edgar stands up. He shakes her hand. He leaves. End of scene.

Chapter 9

Rowley rings up and is his usual flippant self.

‘Have you got any ice in the house?’ he said.
‘Is it to ask me that that you made me come to the phone?’ she answered coldly.
‘Not entirely. I wanted to ask you also if you had any gin and vermouth.’
‘Anything else?’
‘Yes. I wanted to ask if you’d give me a cocktail if I got into a taxi and came along.’
‘I’ve got a lot to do.’
‘That’s fine. I’ll come along and help you.’

Rowley turns up and, to cut a long story short, renews the proposal of marriage which he had made a few nights earlier, when he was drunk and she was driving him home. He tells Mary he has a farm in Kenya which he’d been letting a manager manage for him, but he’s just sacked him and fancies going out to manage the place himself. Fancy coming along?

‘How on earth could I ever hope to keep you even moderately faithful?’
‘Well, that would be up to you. They say a woman ought to have an occupation, and that would be a very suitable one for you in Kenya.’

But:

‘But I don’t love you, Rowley.’
‘I told you the other night, you will if you give yourself half a chance.’

Does it matter that none of this is particularly plausible? No. It is a social comedy, a comedy of manners, just like his many smash-hit West End plays. The reader’s job is not to seek for deep psychological analysis or investigation of the human condition. It is to be entertained and amused.

What the hell. Mary says Yes.

Rowley gave a great throaty chuckle. He jumped up and dragged her to her feet and flung his arms round her. He kissed her on the mouth. ‘So now what?’
‘Well, if you insist on marrying me… But it’s an awful risk we’re taking.”
‘Darling, that’s what life is for – to take risks.’

As delicious, as piquant, as sharp and sweet as a lemon sorbet.

Dolce far niente

Decades of holidaying on Capri and then living at his sumptuously-located villa in the south of France gave Maugham a profound feel for the physical and psychological well-being produced by beautiful Mediterranean landscapes and the balmy air of southern nights.

To dine there on a June evening, when it was still day, and after dinner to sit till the softness of the night gradually enveloped her, was a delight of which Mary felt that she could never tire. It gave her a delicious feeling of peace, but not of an empty peace in which there was something lethargic, of an active, thrilling peace rather in which her brain was all alert and her senses quick to respond. Perhaps it was something in that light Tuscan air that affected you so that even physical sensation had in it something spiritual. It gave you just the same emotion as listening to the music of Mozart, so melodious and so gay, with its undercurrent of melancholy, which filled you with so great a contentment that you felt as though the flesh had no longer any hold on you. For a few blissful minutes you were purged of all grossness and the confusion of life was dissolved in perfect loveliness.

Although at its core is a grisly sequence of events, this short book is punctuated by lyrical descriptions of beautiful scenery and stylish living. Here’s a description of the Atkinsons’ lunch party.

On that warm day of early June there was an animation in the air which put everyone in a good humour. You had a sensation that no one there was affected by anxiety; everyone seemed to have plenty of money, everyone seemed ready to enjoy himself. It was impossible to believe that anywhere in the world there could be people who hadn’t enough to eat. On such a day it was very good to be alive. (p.66)

God knows, there’s no shortage of ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ authors who can effortlessly convey feelings of anguish and despair, delving deeply into the tragedy and absurdity of existence. One of Maugham’s great appeals as a storyteller is that, even in the midst of sordid or even murderous events, he is able in the settings and the atmosphere of his stories to convey moods of great tranquility and serenity.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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