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The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives

The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives

by Sebastian Faulks

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In The Fatal Englishman, his first work of nonfiction, Sebastian Faulks explores the lives of three remarkable men. Each had the seeds of greatness; each was a beacon to his generation and left something of value behind; yet each one died tragically young.
Christopher Wood, only twenty-nine when he killed himself, was a painter who lived most of his


In The Fatal Englishman, his first work of nonfiction, Sebastian Faulks explores the lives of three remarkable men. Each had the seeds of greatness; each was a beacon to his generation and left something of value behind; yet each one died tragically young.
Christopher Wood, only twenty-nine when he killed himself, was a painter who lived most of his short life in the beau monde of 1920s Paris, where his charm, good looks, and the dissolute life that followed them sometimes frustrated his ambition and achievement as an artist.
Richard Hillary was a WWII fighter pilot who wrote a classic account of his
experiences, The Last Enemy, but died in a mysterious training accident while defying doctor’s orders to stay grounded after horrific burn injuries; he was twenty-three.
Jeremy Wolfenden, hailed by his contemporaries as the brightest Englishman of
his generation, rejected the call of academia to become a hack journalist in Cold War Moscow. A spy, alcoholic, and open homosexual at a time when such activity was still illegal, he died at the age of thirty-one, a victim of his own recklessness and of the peculiar pressures of his time.
Through the lives of these doomed young men, Faulks paints an oblique
portrait of English society as it changed in the twentieth century, from the Victorian era to the modern world.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his first work of nonfiction, Faulks, a bestselling British novelist, takes up the brief but brilliant lives of three gifted countrymen who died young: painter Christopher Wood; fighter pilot Richard Hillary; and foreign correspondent Jeremy Wolfenden, considered the brightest mind of his generation. Through these tragic tales, Faulks explores the British character as it painfully evolved during the 20th century, spurring both the acceleration and fatal plunge of these vital young men. Wood, a part of the beau monde of 1920s Paris, drew praise from the likes of Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Hillary, who heroically returned to the skies after a fiery dogfight, won renown as a writer in his early 20s. While the sections on Wood and Hillary prove interesting, they are sometimes plodding, and shot through to distraction with background information. The final section on Wolfenden, however, is gripping. Great things were expected of the Eton and Oxford standout even as he became a reckless, alcoholic correspondent in Moscow, drawn into the world of Cold War espionage. While ambition, addiction and arrogance play destructive roles in these lives, homosexuality and the British attitude toward it is a recurring theme that Faulks suggests as a contributing factor. But the complaints here are mostly minor. The writing is solid, at times poetic, and the research thorough. In the end, Faulks manages to jolt the imagination with the tantalizing agony of what-might-have-been. 8 pages of photos not seen by PW.(May 12). Forecast: The recent release of the film version of Faulks's novel Charlotte Gray and of his new novel, On Green Dolphin Street, may help build a critical mass of readers. This triptych was an acclaimed bestseller across the pond, but with its English setting, a more modest fate seems likely. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Three young men of promise; three generations of Englishmen; three men dead before their prime. Faulks, author of Birdsong and On Green Dolphin Street, uses these three short lives to paint a picture of evolving British society and its effect on its citizens. He takes as his springboard Calvin Trillin's Remembering Denny, a study of a young man of such luminance and charisma that his 1957 graduation was covered by Time magazine, yet who killed himself without fully realizing his potential. What is there, Faulks asks, about a given time and society that will stifle a given personality? How, the question is subtly asked, might that personality have fared in a different time? Like the Denny of Trillin's book, two, at least, of the three subjects studied here were unable to handle the fact of their homosexuality in the climate of their day. Christopher Wood, an aspiring and talented artist born at the turn of the century, threw himself into dizzying Parisian life of art, drugs and sex in the rarified atmosphere of the Picassos and Cocteaus, and killed himself at 29. Richard Hillary, whose even shorter life centered around his desire to be a WW II fighter pilot, was horribly burned, spent months in hospital, then by his own choice flew again and was killed in an unexplained training accident. He had time nevertheless to write an account of his flight experiences in The Last Enemy. Faulks points out how Hillary, like many of his generation, felt they had lost something by not being a part of the Great War of 1914-1918; Hillary was determined not to miss his own great war, and gave his life to participate. Brilliant, flamboyant and an "out" and practicing homosexual, Jeremy Wolfenden affected analmost mal-de-siècle world weariness with any endeavor he undertook, while carrying off any task with panache and ease. He turned aside from all he could have been at home to be a hack journalist living in a cramped flat in Moscow: Moscow, which of all possible locations was most prone to spying on a British citizen and using perceived homosexuality as a prime target for blackmail. Wolfenden cared little about his own peccadilloes being brought to light, but, in an ironic twist of fate, his father, Jack Wolfenden, was at that time crafting the Wolfenden Report, which was to affect the civil liberties of all British homosexuals. The pressure eventually cracked Jeremy's cool façade, and he spun out of control on alcohol and drugs, dying at 31. A fascinating trio of essays, accessible to the mature reader. Discussion of sexual matters. Category: Biography & Personal Narrative. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 1996, Random House, Vintage, 314p., Boatner; Writer, Minneapolis, MN
Library Journal
Fans of novelist Faulks's evocative depictions of wartime heroism (e.g., Charlotte Gray) will embrace his first venture into biography, a study of three brilliant yet mortally flawed men who lived on either side of the World War II era. Working in chronological order, Faulks first sketches the life of artist Christopher "Kit" Wood. Wood's ambition to become a great painter led him to Paris in the 1920s, where charm and circumstance placed him in the company of cultural giants like Picasso and Cocteau. In a profile of Royal Air Force ace Richard Hillary, Faulks ably changes gears as he describes a man who personified the casual fatalism of a spitfire pilot. Faulks finishes with Jeremy Wolfenden, a proud homosexual and dazzlingly intelligent journalist ensnared in Cold War blackmail and spy games. Of course, as the title informs us, these men are all doomed to an early death. There is nothing romantic about killing yourself with drugs, drink, or daredevilry, yet Faulks is able to captivate with his meticulous, caring treatment of these three who died on the cusp of greatness. Recommended for all public and academic libraries. Gail Benjafield, St. Catharines P.L., Ont. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cinematically inclined English novelist Faulks (Charlotte Gray, 1999, etc.) mourns the beautiful, talented sons of Albion, doomed to early graves. The youthful accomplishments of the three men depicted here promised renown, for better or worse, but they died prematurely. Faulks doesn't have much of a thesis, apart from the belief that "young or short lives are more sensitive indicators of the pressure of public attitudes than lives lived long and crowned with honours," a nice enough point that goes unbuttressed. Still, his brief biographies are marvels of economy and good writing, reason enough to read them. His first subject, Christopher Wood (1902–30), was the toast of beau-monde Paris, a first-class painter who haunted the smart cafes and was on a first-name basis with Diaghilev and Picasso. Gifted though he was, Wood never quite got over the shock of childhood polio ("he was shamefully removed from the world of other children, and was in continual pain") and killed himself before he could fulfill his gifts. Unluckier still was Faulks's second subject, RAF pilot Richard Hillary (1919–43), handsome and confident until badly burned in a plane crash during the Battle of Britain; he survived but was severely disfigured and died three years later during a training-flight accident. Fans of John le Carré will be most drawn to the final portrait, of tortured Jeremy Wolfenden (1934–65), hailed as the most brilliant Englishman of his generation and beloved of Oxford University's female students, for whom "his acknowledged but still illegal homosexuality added to his mysterious glamour." Wolfenden ended his days playing, and being played by, spies and counterspies of the English, American, andSoviet intelligence services, all of whom found use for the easily tempted and blackmailed young man, who drank himself to death by age 31. Well-crafted and intelligent sketches of particular interest to students of nonfiction writing, who'll find a useful model here
From the Publisher
“Compelling and stunningly written.” –The Times (London)

“Faulks is a prodigiously talented writer.” –The New York Times

“You may not have heard of the subjects of these three essays, but please do not let that hinder you. . . . [Faulks’s] spare narrative hides a commitment to his subjects which pulls you in and leaves you gasping for these lost lives.” –Mail on Sunday

“Flawless. . . . Poetic. . . . Superbly portrayed. . . . [Faulks’s] feat of imagination . . . is phenomenal.” –Daily Telegraph

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.21(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

One day in the spring of 1921 a beautiful young Englishman set off for Paris to become the greatest painter the world had ever seen. His name was Christopher Wood and he was nineteen years old. Until he took the boat for Calais on 19 March he was working for a fruit importer in the City of London. He was the son of a doctor in the North West of England, and his sudden disappearance to France confirmed his family's worst fears. Although Christopher wore shirts from the best outfitters in Jermyn Street, was well-mannered and polite to his parents, he seemed to have no understanding of middle-class convention. Some combination of circumstances had combined with a fierce streak in his character to make him wild and ambitious. He was determined to be a painter, and the intensity of his desire was frightening to his parents.

Dr Lucius Wood and his wife Clare had two children: Christopher, whom they knew as Kit, and Elizabeth, whom they called Betty. As a child, Kit had his hair cut in a bob and wore smocks. So did Betty. The family was relatively well off; the parents believed in God and the children believed in Father Christmas.

One December Kit wrote:

My dear father Xmas, I want a new good yacht and I want it to be all hollow inside and gun and a top And Betty a big doll and a gun And I want a very sparp chissel and a good screw driver and a good peaint box and mother wants a nice comfy bed With love from Kit and Betty Wood.

He always knew what he wanted, and in his childhood he almost always had it. His mother was devoted to him and he to her. He would gather crocuses for her birthday on 25 March and she repaid him with her doting indulgence. Clare Wood came froma Lancashire family called Arthur on her father's side, and a seafaring Cornish family called Pellew on her mother's; Kit liked to think that the sea, and boats, were in his blood. Dr Wood was a general practitioner. He was a less demonstrative person than his wife and took a detached view of his son's early enthusiasms. He called him 'Snodgrass' after the would-be poet in Pickwick Papers. Next to Dickens, Dr Wood's preferred reading was the Bible.

At the age of seven, Kit was sent to a preparatory school called Freshfield, where he excelled at games. In 1914 he went to Marlborough College in Wiltshire. This was one of the newer public schools, lacking the history or burnish of Eton and Winchester, but respectable in its way. The aim of such schools was to prepare their pupils for the service of the British Empire abroad, as soldiers, diplomats and administrators, or to ready them for work in the professions at home. Games were as important as work, though neither was as crucial to the school's philosophy as the idea of 'independence': their claim was to turn a boy into a man, even if the evidence suggested he was still a child.

At the moment Kit Wood began his time at Marlborough in September 1914, the world changed. 'The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness,' wrote Henry James, 'is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.' It was as though the history of Europe had been torn up: Erasmus, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Goethe, Mozart, Dante, Montaigne, Tolstoy, Rembrandt, Beethoven . . . their work had no cumulative value any more; it was smashed into fragments that Eliot would try to reassemble in The Waste Land. Almost ten million men died.

While Kit Wood struggled to settle in at school, his father went as a medical officer to the Western Front, where he stayed for the duration of the War. While he was away, Kit became seriously ill. The disease seems to have started as polio but then to have been complicated by the development of septicaemia or a similar infection. One of Wood's adult friends thought it had all started with a football injury. In any event he was now forced to abandon the games field: he was unable to do his lessons in class but had to read and write in a lying position. In March 1916 he had to be withdrawn from Marlborough altogether. His mother nursed him at home, and in the long, painful hours of his illness he turned to painting. His love for her, already profound, was intensified by his physical dependence.

Dr Wood was absent from his son's life, except in the occasional letter from the Front. The progress of the War was known to Christopher Wood only from odd glimpses of his mother's newspaper during his convalescence: the 'real' world was kept at his mother's arm's length.

The illness ruined his education. He did not return to school until January 1918 when he arrived at Malvern College in Worcestershire. Like all such schools in England at this time, Malvern was in a state of grief bordering on paralysis. The school magazine that listed Wood's arrival also recorded the award of nineteen DSO's to old boys of the school and thirty-six MC's. There was no artwork in it; there was almost no room for anything but the names of the dead: a total of 457 Malvernians were killed in the War. Teachers of school sixth forms were finding it difficult to keep their nerve when the names of boys they had so carefully nurtured towards manhood and university appeared a few weeks later in the dead and missing columns of The Times.

After four years on the Western Front Dr Wood returned to find that his little son had become a handsome, crippled young man. His boyish beauty had remained; he had a short straight nose, a strong jaw and hair of the colour known as fair, though by no means blond, brushed back from the temples where it showed the first signs of receding. He had a clipped, rapid way of speaking, indicative of a nervous intensity that had developed in him since 1914. He limped when he walked, though he used his cane as much for conversational emphasis as for physical support.

Dr Wood had taken a job on the Earl of Derby's estate at Knowsley near Liverpool. The family lived in a spacious house in Huyton, which was then an affluent suburb. He told Kit that he too should train to become a doctor, but among the changes wrought in Kit by what he came to call 'the War years' was a powerful indignation at anything he viewed as meddling in his affairs. Dr Wood's suggestion was briskly rejected by his son, who told him he had had enough of blood and illness: he had decided to go to Liverpool University where he would study architecture. This had the air of a compromise worked out with his mother: the subject was artistic yet respectable, the university was near home. It was as close to being a painter in an attic as he could yet realistically manage.

Wood viewed it as no more than a means to an end. One of his architectural drawings from the university survives: it is a solid piece of work, correct and craftsmanlike, but on the back of it is a highly-coloured painting of a young woman. His mind was not on elevations but on other plans.

After a year he left university and took a job in London working for an importer of dried fruit called Thornley and Felix. He lived in rooms in Bayswater and his homeward route in the evening took him past the Cafe Royal, where Augustus John habitually held court. Friends of Wood later claimed that he one day approached the throne with some drawings and that John was so impressed that he arranged for Wood to go to Paris and lodge with his friend Alphonse Kahn, a well-known collector and connoisseur, while he studied painting. It is possible that Wood had met John when he went to lecture to the Sandon Club at Liverpool University and was thus able to reintroduce himself, but it is more likely that the Paris connection was made by a Wood family friend called Robert Tritton, who dealt in Oriental antiques.

Alphonse Kahn had taken up attractive young men before, though there is no evidence that he required them to become his lovers in return. Kahn was an extreme example of a 1920s Pairisian type whose money came from international finance but whose interests were in art and patronage. He lived in an astonishing house in the sixteenth arrondissement and he invited Christopher Wood to abandon his little rooms in Bayswater and to come and stay with him while he looked for a studio and more permanent lodging.

So it was that the untrained, uncertainly talented Christopher Wood took the train to Dover and crossed to Paris, where few English artists of his generation had previously ventured. The day before he left, as though in symbolic farewell to the life he was leaving, he played a round of golf with Robert Tritton at Woodhall Spa, a seaside course in Lincolnshire.

Christopher Wood was a child of the Edwardian era, born at the last gasp of imperial pomp into a country depicted by later writers, such as Philip Larkin in his poem 'MCMXIV', as crisscrossed with narrow roads and deep hedgerows, with village names from Domesday all grown-over with loving neglect, and patient football crowds with trusting, upturned faces, unresentful of their prosperous betters with their long weekends, grouse-shooting and towering blancmanges.

The England of Wood's childhood was in fact a fearful place, engaged in a battle on all fronts to keep the modern world at bay. Wood's desire to be a painter and his departure to lodge in Paris with an unmarried 'connoisseur' were deeply alarming to his father. Attempts to interest English people in new developments in painting, writing or psychology had all failed: the country not only had little appetite for knowledge of human behaviour, it had no real interest at all in the life of the mind.

Far from being imperially complacent, Britain was worried about its place in the world. After the Boer War, alarmist literature circulated about the poor physical quality of the British young: congested city conditions had produced a generation of stunted, weak, voluble children who lacked in physical or moral stamina. In the port of Liverpool, Christopher Wood's father saw just such conditions, and came to the same conclusion as the demagogues who suggested that Britain's best way forward was in increased—or as they put it 'splendid'—isolation from Europe and its modern ways.

By denying legitimacy or even publication to many of the ideas current in Europe, the conservative forces of Edwardian England managed to confuse the cranky with the serious by driving both underground. While socialism was emerging as a credible political force, anarchism occupied almost as much public attention. Many people who might have seen feminism as the most important means of social advance were distracted into anti-vivisectionism, vegetarianism or the investigation of the occult. While the country retained some adamantine self-belief, and an instinctive patriotism which found its most poignant expression in the raising of the Pals' battalions in 1915, it was morbidly sensitive to the currents of new thought that were abroad.

And abroad, in the opinion of the middle classes from which Christopher Wood came, was where they should stay. Channels to the continent were few and subversive. Walter Sickert had lived in Dieppe and studied the French Impressionists; Wyndham Lewis had been to France, as had David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein. Ben Nicholson went to Paris in the early 1920s and made some flirtation with abstract painting before retreating into figurative work for the next six years.

Christopher Wood had no historical self-consciousness and was motivated by complicated and utterly personal patterns formed in the period of his illness. He did not see himself as a pioneer, but no amount of ignorance on his part could stop him from appearing to the people he met in Paris as a very curious figure indeed.

Alphonse Kahn's house in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne was dominated by a vast salon with a polished parquet floor and open fires at either end. About the walls were hung paintings by Turner, Rembrandt, Greuze, Poussin, Matisse and other modern painters that Wood could not immediately identify. Wood's quarters consisted of a beautifully decorated bedroom, with bathroom and lavatory attached. Kahn provided him with meals and helped him to enrol at art school. Wood had wanted to go to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but it was beyond his means; he signed up instead at the Academic Julian in the Passage des Panoramas off the Boulevard Montparnasse, which had been made fashionable in the 1890s when Bonnard, Vuillard and fellow-painters of the Nabis group had passed through. Matisse, Leger and Derain had added their lustre to the Academie, though by 1921 it had come to depend on visiting Americans.

All these names, all these styles of painting . . . and all that Christopher Wood had was his ambition. He needed not only to orientate himself in a foreign capital, but to catch up with what had happened there when he was a child. The principal breakthroughs in painting and sculpture had been made in Paris by Picasso and others before the War. Paris had drawn in artists from all over Europe: Modigliani, Miro, Brancusi, Picasso, Kandinsky, Giacometti, de Chirico, Chagall, but still in England the most famous painter was Augustus John.

Wood never managed to form a clear perspective on the development of modern painting; and his enthusiasms were often contradictory. He admired Augustus John, even though John's work had already degenerated by this time into a succession of society portraits where his undoubted technical facility was not imaginatively stretched. But Wood also came to like Cezanne, Derain, Matisse and other French painters who were more determinedly modern. He compensated for his lack of academic understanding by an instinctive good taste, and a sensitivity to a wide variety of art.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Copyright 2002 by Sebastian Faulks

Meet the Author

Sebastian Faulks is best known for his trilogy of novels set in France: The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong, and Charlotte Gray, the latter two of which were bestsellers. After a period in France, he and his family now live in London.

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