H.E. Bates was first introduced to me as the author of The Darling Buds of May, which I used to love on the TV, but I have never actually read anything by him. Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944) has been on my shelf for almost five years – indeed, I bought it one week after reading Lyn’s review at I Prefer Reading. Indeed, you can see my comment saying that I intended to keep an eye out for it.
It joined those books I took to Edinburgh with me – and, in fact, I think I read all of this one on the train journey. It certainly begins dramatically. John Franklin is forced to crash-land while in a bomber plane over France, along with his fellow pilots. That happens in the first few pages, and was my introduction to the excellence of Bates’ writing:
The ground was too soft and the moon for a few seconds jolted wildly about the sky. The Wellington did a group loop, about three-quarters circle, and Franklin could not hold it. He was aware of being thrown violently forward and of his sickness knotting in his stomach and then rising and bursting and breaking acidly, with the smell of fuel and oil, in his mouth. He was aware of all the sound of the world smashing forward towards him, exploding his brain, and of his arms striking violently upward, free of the controls. For a moment he seemed to black-out entirely and then the moon, hurling towards him, full force smashed itself against his eyes and woke him brutally to a moment of crazy terror. In that moment he put up his hands. He felt his left arm strike something sharp, with sickening force, and then the moon break again in his face with bloody and glassy splinters in a moment beyond which there was no remembering.
Now, I usually prefer the crux of a novel to be about somebody forgetting to return a library book (for instance), but I thought that was really rather good – and the domestic reader is not ostracised at any point by war jargon or jingoism.
For some reason they are very keen to be in Occupied France rather than Unoccupied France. I couldn’t work out why that was (anybody?) – being around Nazis seems like a bad idea to me, but I’m sure there are reasons.
This all sets up the main section of the novel. Franklin is badly injured, but they have no choice but to get away from the wreck of their aircraft. Warily, he approaches a woman at a farmhouse. At the first one, she is terrified but asks him to leave. At the second, the woman is completely calm, and welcomes him and the others in for food and somewhere to rest. She and her family selflessly offer them somewhere to stay for as long as is needed – though it would mean they would certainly all be killed if it were discovered.
‘Calm’ is the word that is used over and over to describe Francoise, and it is very fitting. She is softly-spoken, unflappable, and sensible. Even when she and Franklin travel into the nearest town because his arm badly needs the attention of a doctor, Francoise refuses to panic or even (it seems) worry. She has a wisdom that can only be gained by implacably facing the unfaceable. (And a good line in simple bribery: ‘She smiled. “With a chicken you can do most things,” she said.”With two chickens you can do anything.”‘)
Lyn uses the word ‘understated’ in her review to describe Fair Stood the Wind For France, and it is very apt – and Francoise sets the tone. Her manner seeps into the novel. Terrifying and terrible things are happening, but Bates does not inject the novel with undue drama; instead, we witness these events in a kind of a quiet horror and share the simple humanity of the characters. Because, of course, Francoise and Franklin begin to fall in love. And they do that in a very understated way too. There are no overblown statements, but simply a meeting of minds and a shared understanding.
It’s a lovely novel, which combines the simple and the extraordinary beautifully. Thank you, Lyn, for bringing it to my attention – and this proves that books can wait a while on the shelf before they’re finally enjoyed!