I’ve often tried to reason out why I enjoy Dornford Yates’s books so much, since there are things about them which I really don’t approve (Germanophobia, anti-Semitism, appalling attitudes towards the working classes, and so on) – “the school of Snobbery with Violence”, as Alan Bennett put it (lumping together Yates’ work with that of John Buchan and ‘Sapper’). This is perhaps unsurprising, given his class and the time he was writing (his first book The Brother of Daphne was published in 1914 and his last two books in 1958). Yet most of his books are well-crafted, and the thrillers are exciting even by modern standards, though the heroes and villains are never armed with anything more lethal than a revolver, and they rely on maps and local knowledge rather than satellite technology and sophisticated telecommunications.
The books can be broken down into groups:
- humorous stories, often in a short story format, featuring Berry Pleydell and his family (the ‘Berry’ books, narrated by Berry’s cousin, Boy Pleydell, a thinly fictionalised version of Yates himself);
- thrillers featuring and narrated by Richard Chandos, often set on the Continent;
- collected short stories, often with characters who appeared in other novels;
- two volumes of reminiscence/autobiography (retold by Berry and Boy Pleydell);
- several stand-alone novels, ranging from a fantasy The Stolen March, to a bleak study of marriage and divorce, This Publican.
I don’t recall now which book I discovered first – it was probably ‘Jonah and Co.’, one of the Berry books, when I was a teenager. It’s still one of my favourites – the tone is light and there are many funny moments in it (particularly when Berry is telling the others about his attempts to smuggle tobacco into France). It’s set in southern France, mostly, in around 1922, and one of the charms of the book is its easy evocation of that long-ago between-the-wars ambience, where the characters had sufficient private income to spend their lives not working, and cars were a rarity on the roads.
In fact, that’s one of the things that stands out for me in most of Yates’ books – the prevalence of the motor-car. In most of his books there’s a car chase (often against the clock, rather than racing another car), and he writes them very well. You can sense the freedom the car gave to people able to afford one, instead of having to travel by train or carriage, and the way it enabled them to find places off the beaten track to explore and visit. It’s a far cry from modern driving, of course, and more romantic.
The Berry books, with the exception of Adele and Co., were originally written as short stories, and even when not still have that episodic quality to them, which makes them ideal for reading in small chunks (short bits is all I can take of The Brother of Daphne, for example, owing to Boy’s endless flirtations in each story). Adele and Co is a sort of comedy-thriller, starting off in Paris, where the family (Berry and his wife Daphne (who is Boy’s sister), Boy and his wife Adèle, and cousins Jonah and Jill Mansel) wake up after a dinner party where they have all been slipped Mickey Finns, and find that they have been robbed of their jewels and other valuable items. They decide not to take this lying down, and pursue the criminals through France, while also being pursued by a gang of criminals who also want the jewels, led by the formidable ‘Auntie Emma’ (actually a man, who in a later book is found to be called Daniel Gedge). It’s an exciting read, full of twists and turns, and amusing moments, plotted more in the way of one of the Chandos thrillers than the episodic Berry books, but a good deal lighter and less violent.
The Chandos books begin with Blind Corner, which sees Chandos, Jonah Mansel and Chandos’ friend Hanbury (together with their servants) attempting to find and recover treasure at Wagensburg Castle in Carinthia, Austria, while also being dogged and pursued by the hard-nosed criminal ‘Rose’ Noble. The sequel, Perishable Goods, has Adèle Pleydell kidnapped, with our heroes setting out to rescue her (I don’t want to say more, since this would involve spoilers for the first book). These books involve ruthless bands of professional criminals, though some of these men are more competent and capable than others, and Yates doesn’t make the mistake of portraying them as too villainous to be believable; our heroes respect their adversaries, too, even if they are determined to best them. Apart from ‘Blind Corner’, a few women do pop up, mostly to be rescued, though Audrey Nuneham does a fantastic job in Gale Warning (only later needing to be rescued, unfortunately). In some, the women are criminals wanting to get out of their lives of crime (Katharine in ‘Shoal Water’, for example, and Mona Lelong in ‘Red in the Morning’). His older women, freed from the necessity to be young and beautiful, are often very interesting characters – autocratic but interested in the world, very intelligent and driven (such as ‘Vanity Fair’ in She Fell Among Thieves or, on the opposite side of the coin, the Duchess of Whelp in She Painted Her Face).
After the Second World War, Yates wrote a few books dealing with the changed world order – Lower Than Vermin, for example, which tells the story of a brother and sister, children of the Earl of Ringwood, and their lives from the late nineteenth century to the immediate post war era, and it is elegiac in tone for a vanished way of life, defending the ideals and mores of the upper classes during that time. However, perhaps realising that his characters’ time was over, many of his later books were retrospectives, telling stories which happened in the past – The Berry Scene, for example, and his “autobiographies” As Berry And I Were Saying and B-Berry And I Look Back.
If you can ignore the class attitudes – there is a general approval of the working classes who labour honestly and who respect their ‘betters’, for example, and virulent disapproval of “communists”, strike fomentors, working classes dissatisfied with their lot or anyone advocating class mobility, since evidently Yates was a firm believer that the classes were intrinsically different and should not mix except on specific and defined terms – and rabid hatred of Germans (again perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Yates served in the First World War), the books have much to recommend them. At least there’s not much real, overt anti-Semitism in most of the books (although it’s possible that the couple of profiteers in two of the Berry books are intended to be Jewish, it’s never stated): in one of the short stories, there are a couple of Jewish villains, and there is, in This Publican, a Jewish character described in extremely disparaging terms. In most of the thrillers, the villains are career criminals, with no racial characteristics to slur. Yates has a fond and loving feeling for the countryside, and his descriptions are evocative. His prose style is careful and detailed, but not stilted, if rather old-fashioned, and is very readable: the humour is more conveyed in dialogue than action, though there are funny scenes, particularly in the Berry books:
“But don’t you want to get the Plazas?” said Adèle uncertainly.
“I want a lot of things, but I’m not such a fool as to waste my life trying to jump when they’re out of my reach. We are seven: with Casca, eight. How the devil are we to comb France? You might as well try to empty the Welsh Harp with a stomach pump on a rainy night.”
“Must you be vulgar?” said his wife.
“Yes,” said Berry, “I must. Futility always arouses what baser instincts I have. As a boy I was corporally reproved for my definition of algebra. I said it was like –”
A shriek of protest smothered the impious revival just in time. Still, what Berry had said was much to the point. With nothing whatever to go on, what could we do?
“If you think there’s a chance,” said Piers, “I’ll come in blind.”
“So will we all,” said Adèle. “If you think there’s a chance.”
“Which means that you don’t,” said Jonah, and got to his feet.
“There’s always a chance,” said Berry. “Plaza might lose his memory and stop to ask me who he was. And he might do it near Dieppe. So let’s take the villa – in case. It’s only nine miles from the town, so we shan’t need a car. I can walk in and get the bread – easily. And if it’s wet I can always take the string bag.”
(extract from Adèle and Co., 1931)
House of Stratus (which still appears to be publishing) re-published most of Yates’ novels several years ago: as a result, his books are now more often found second-hand than before. I have a motley collection of hardbacks (mostly reprints and a couple of first editions), and paperbacks, which I collected over a number of years. Google Books and House of Stratus have extracts available on line for tasting purposes, and Project Gutenberg also has four complete books available on-line: Anthony Lyvedon (but unfortunately not its sequel, Valerie French), Berry and Co., The Brother of Daphne and Jonah and Co.). Why not try a couple?