John Auden was a pioneering geologist of the Himalaya. Michael Spender was the first to draw a detailed map of the North Face of Mount Everest. While their younger brothers—W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender—achieved literary fame, they vied to be included on an expedition that would deliver Everest’s summit to an Englishman, a quest that had become a metaphor for Britain’s struggle to maintain power over India. To this rivalry was added another: in the summer of 1938 both men fell in love with a painter named Nancy Sharp. Her choice would determine where each man’s wartime loyalties would lie.
Set in Calcutta, London, the glacier-locked wilds of the Karakoram, and on Everest itself, The Last Englishmen is also the story of a generation. The cast of this exhilarating drama includes Indian and English writers and artists, explorers and Communist spies, Die Hards and Indian nationalists, political rogues and police informers. Key among them is a highborn Bengali poet named Sudhin Datta, a melancholy soul torn, like many of his generation, between hatred of the British Empire and a deep love of European literature, whose life would be upended by the arrival of war on his Calcutta doorstep.
Dense with romance and intrigue, and of startling relevance for the great power games of our own day, Deborah Baker’s The Last Englishmen is an engrossing story that traces the end of empire and the stirring of a new world order.
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Skelgill Farm below Cat Bells, Newlands Valley, Cumberland, August–September 1917
The path from the farmhouse door led past a clump of blue willow herb, through a green wicket gate, and down a slope that fell away into the valley. Seen from the children's bedroom window, Skiddaw's broad shoulders presided over Newlands Valley like a benevolent paterfamilias. Cat Bells, rising directly behind the house, was more suitable for small legs. On their arrival on August 2, 1917, the children left their mother behind to race each other to the top. Michael, the eldest, passed by his father and Miss Cox, their nanny, on the way up. Arms raised in victory, he gave a shout of triumph as he reached the summit while Stephen, his younger brother, straggled up behind him. This was the first of many mountains Michael Spender would climb.
"Daddy! What's that noise like a motor bike in the bracken?" Humphrey had called out three days later, more accustomed to the sounds made by soldiers than the sound of crickets. Humphrey was the baby of the family; his nickname was "Little Mouse."
"Look how ripe my hands are getting!" Stephen shouted, extending his berry-stained fingers toward his mother, Violet.
With war rationing, berry picking was considered a patriotic duty and the three Spender boys approached the task like little soldiers. Stephen wanted to become a naturalist; he kept a collection of yellow-striped caterpillars in matchboxes. When not picking bilberries, he was weaving back and forth over the footpath trying to catch butterflies with the net his father had bought him in Keswick the day before. His sister, Christine, had surprised everyone by hooking a large pike in Derwentwater. She screamed and dropped the rod, but her father had jumped up and landed it for lunch. It had been ages since they'd had fish.
With his golden locks and bright blue eyes, Michael was his mother's favorite. After a year of piano lessons his music teacher told Violet she had nothing left to teach him. His first year at Gresham's had been a brilliant success. Yet since his return from boarding school, Violet had become concerned about a change in his manner. He had taken to a rather slangy way of talking, setting himself apart from his siblings with a schoolboy swagger.
Even so, she couldn't help but admire his remarkable appreciation of nature.
Michael directed everyone to stop, turn around, and take in the way a beam of sunlight was breaking through a bank of clouds. It brushed the flank of the facing mountain and traveled down the valley, striking a clutch of farm buildings among the trees and lighting them up with an irrepressible whiteness.
On such a day, it was hard for Violet to believe there was a war on.
Not long after Violet's death four years later, Christine and Stephen would vie to see who could recall the most about that summer of 1917. Humphrey had been too young to remember much. And Michael, well, he was something of a mystery to them. But for Christine and Stephen the holiday not only marked the early end of their childhood innocence but also represented England, at its dearest and most glorious. Christine remembered how the rain had left the raspberries in a copse of larch looking like tiny ruby-encrusted cushions. Stephen would describe how slugs, sliding through tiny rivulets of water, looked like barges on the Thames and how the sound of his father reading poetry came in through their bedroom window, as if Skiddaw itself were reciting. But at the center of those fairytale days was their mother, Violet, then twenty-seven years old. Stephen was tireless in trying to unravel the tiny knots of feelings his scattered memories of her evoked.
Once celebrated for her flushed Pre-Raphaelite beauty, Violet Schuster had been sheltered by family wealth. While her brothers followed their father, a King's Counsel, into the sober field of banking, she nurtured a love of poetry. But after four children in four years — Michael was then ten, Christine nine, Stephen eight, and Humphrey seven — Violet in 1917 was no longer the ingénue she'd once been. Poetry hadn't prepared her for the household chaos brought about by four young children and a husband often called away on business.
Before Violet had time to reckon what the war might mean, her youngest brother had been killed at the first battle at Ypres. From that moment the battlefield was never far from her thoughts and each week it came closer. The back garden of their house in Norfolk received the first of the German bombs to fall on English soil. A dud. Soldiers had invaded her home, carrying her children to dugouts below the cliffs while it was safely detonated. A Zeppelin came so close to the roof, she feared it might be scraped off. The fields between the house and the bluff filled up with the tents of billeted troops. Cavalry officers in bright uniforms thundered around on horseback. There were ceaseless drills: "Present arms! Form fours! Eyes front! Eyes right!" The sound of guns reverberated in her small chest, sending her to the edge of collapse. Her black eyes acquired a hunted look.
In the summer of 1917 it had taken several days in the Lake District before Violet realized that lowing cattle and the drone of haymowing machines had replaced the sound of guns. Yet watching families with picnic baskets filled with sandwiches, she could think only of the insufficiency of the wall that lay between them and the terror overwhelming Europe. Everyone else might pretend all was well, she fretted, but few really dared think of all those boys going off to die in France. No one, not even her husband, Harold, could say why. Being part German, Violet didn't recognize the enemy the newspapers described with such shocking venom. She knew only that something had gone terribly wrong. "Our laughing children, all too young as yet / to know French fields with English blood are wet," she wrote.
On clear evenings Violet and Harold would sit out in deck chairs reading the Romantic poets and admiring Dame Nature, wearing all her jewels, as Harold liked to say. Harold's engagement with his offspring involved piggyback rides, roaring like a lion, and a daily inquiry as to whether they had done their little duty. But after ten days of steady rain he became eager to catch up with the progress of the war at his London club. One day before he left, the sun broke through the clouds. Violet got up early, leaving Harold snoring in bed.
Miss Cox was already in the kitchen making sardine and egg sandwiches. After breakfast, Violet hustled the family down to Derwentwater, directing the procession of children, baskets, and thermoses of tea, into the rowboat. Settling in a lakeside cove Violet was a blur of high spirits, flirting shamelessly with Harold, calling him her darling Buffalo, hanging on his neck and covering him with kisses.
For Christine looking back on that day there was something desperate in her mother's behavior. She believed the lakeside picnic marked the beginning of the end.
"But she seemed so well on the day of the picnic!" Stephen protested.
"That's what she pretended," Christine said. "Pretended to him, pretended to us, pretended to herself: Because she didn't want the operation." Violet's death was attributed to a botched hysterectomy.
"You worked this all out yourself?" Stephen asked.
In the summer of 1917 Michael was still Harold's "little man," the one he chose to accompany him to Keswick to mail important letters. To his siblings, Michael was a demigod. They never questioned his right to pronounce upon their shortcomings or his instruction on the most efficient way to row a boat. In Harold's absence, Michael took over the drills. When the sun returned, he marched his brothers and sister off to collect butterflies while he and his mother walked to the end of Newlands Valley to climb the ridge.
Michael had been impatient to reach the saddle that day, eager for a sight of Borrowdale Valley on the other side. Violet, finding the sodden slopes slippery without hobnailed boots, fell farther and farther behind. At five o'clock she had insisted they stop for tea, though the pass was at most fifteen minutes away. Michael ate his bread and jam while studying the map, loudly insistent that he was not giving up hope of a view. Violet poured a mother's worries into her holiday journal.
When Stephen asked why Wordsworth had become a poet, she knew how to answer him. But Michael's questions were those of a stranger. How many tons of water come over the weir by the Penrith pencil factory in one minute? She hadn't the faintest idea. If the earth were flat instead of round would there be a horizon? She'd never wondered. Is it possible to determine the weight of Skiddaw? Whatever for?
A passage from a memoir by a poet all of London had been talking about seemed to directly address Violet's concerns about Michael. She wrote it down.
"I now clearly see that the mistake is to judge boys by the standard of grown-ups," Rabindranath Tagore had written. As a young man Tagore had been plagued by a nameless melancholy. Yet he had gone on to great fame and was now considered a font of Eastern wisdom. In his memoirs he drew on his own example and cautioned anxious parents not to "forget that a child is quick and mobile like a running stream; and ... any touch of imperfection need cause no harm, for the speed of the flow is itself the best corrective." Violet's worries quieted.
But a few days later a sleepless night found her staring out her window at the moon. A letter from Harold said the earliest he could get away was the coming Saturday. Violet's thoughts, like the waterwheel at the pencil factory, tumbled fast and furious. After the boys left to go fishing, she'd unburdened herself to Miss Cox.
She'd ruined her husband's life. Marriage had held Harold hostage to her fears, her headaches and spells of weakness. Harold had once been a great climber. He climbed monuments, statues, chimneys, and mountains. But his love for her was destroying him. He would be better off alone. If she died he would be free. What should she do?
Miss Cox, a sensible woman, had pointed out that there were plenty of opportunities for climbing in the Lake District.
"You have missed my point entirely," Violet cried. "I was speaking metaphorically."
Christine, listening on the other side of the door, hadn't entirely understood what her mother meant by "metaphorically" but she'd known even then it was important. After Violet's death she tried to explain this to Stephen.
"Mummy was saying that she'd lost Daddy and poor Coxie was trying to reassure her."
"How could she lose him?" Stephen asked, still not getting the metaphor business.
"She said that he was a man of action, who needed excitement and adventure."
"She told Coxie all this?"
"Yes but Coxie made the great mistake of taking Mummy seriously. She said, very sweetly and humbly: 'But if Mr. Spender wants action and adventure, might he not go fight in the war?'"
"And what did Mummy say to that?"
"She was absolutely furious. She shouted at Coxie: 'How dare you have the impertinence to answer me like that.' And then Mummy got out of bed, flew across the room and shook the old woman so hard her spectacles flew off and false teeth popped out. I had to run into the room to stop her."
"You never told me all this," Stephen said.
If the act of pitting the steel of an ice ax into the icy white rump of Dame Nature was a metaphor, Harold missed it. Coming upon his wife writing a poem, in a sea of papers and cross-outs, he saw a woman possessed. It worried him. He believed poetry, like music and art, had to be rationed. He made a point of leaving concerts at intervals, and never spent more than half an hour looking at pictures in the National Gallery. When he returned to the Lakes from London he took the children on a long hike, leaving Violet under a nurse's care.
The mist made it easier to believe they were so high up, the clouds were below them. The path became a knife-edge arête high in the Swiss Alps. Unless they were roped together, Harold told them, one careless step might send them plummeting to their deaths. Stephen, who suffered from nosebleeds and had a fear of heights, distracted himself by noticing how the scraggy lines of his father's neck collected at his collar like sedimentary layers of rock. With his snowy hair capping the summit of his head, his father seemed more mountain than man.
Why climb mountains? Harold asked them. Why seek to scale impossible heights, reflect on the Great Questions? Whence the spirit of adventure? After thirty years of public life, Harold had a parliamentarian's love of rhetorical questions and a Victorian notion of what constituted a manly pursuit. Climbing mountains was paramount among them.
That is what all must ponder, he would say, looking at their upturned faces before turning to narrow his gaze on some distant prospect. One's entire life can be spent asking why, he continued, as if speaking to himself, while pretending to whack ice steps at his feet and tighten the rope at his waist. As a man of action, Harold wasn't truly interested in why.
After Oxford, Harold had written for a string of Liberal newspapers and was a much-sought-after dinner party guest. He saw himself as a Liberal crusader. Good-humored rants against vested interests were a staple. He often found himself resigning his position on principle, before embarking on a Continental climbing holiday. Unusual for Fleet Street, Harold had a great many principles.
When war was declared Harold had just turned fifty. He took on the self-appointed duty of preparing the Sheringham Home Guard for a possible invasion, mustering a force of five thousand. He spent nights tramping up and down the bluff until he was nearly bayoneted by British soldiers on patrol. Still, it was hard for Harold not to compare his war with that of his elder brother, Alfred. In weekly Downing Street meetings with Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, Alfred, the editor of the Westminster Gazette, was kept abreast of the true conditions on the Western Front and prevailed upon not to publish any of it. Yet when Harold's idol, David Lloyd George, supplanted Asquith as prime minister, Harold had been left to sit in the lounge of the National Liberal Club waiting for a call that never came. The envelopes from his clipping service thinned. He would not have a good war.
That fall every day would bring news of another raid, and when they were over Violet would be hollowed out with terror. In October a package from Harrods arrived — three sets of matching brown corduroy knickerbockers, brown stockings, and brown mercerized cotton jerseys with blue cuffs and collars. Violet liked to dress her children like dolls, forcing her boys into stiff Eton collars, patent leather dancing pumps, and gaiters that cut into the backs of their knees.
But Michael now refused to wear such outfits and hated being kissed. Soon Stephen, too, would go to Gresham's and have his hair close cropped. Were the trenches going to swallow all her boys before the war ended? In the years that remained to her, Violet left it to Harold to deal with the war and the doctor to handle her health. She fussed over velveteen jackets or took to her bed, consumed by fears of going mad.
Harold's London of gas lamps and hansom cabs, frock coats, five-course meals, and the two-party system would not survive the war. After Violet's death, he became the one having to appear, hat in hand, before Granny Schuster, begging her to cover his overdrafts. He would travel and give dinner speeches on the prime ministers he had known, but it was his brother Alfred who was appointed to the Milner Mission in 1919, Alfred who would cover the Paris Peace Conference the same year. And it was Violet's brother George who would receive the Military Cross and the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, George Ernest Schuster who would oversee the family fortune that sustained them all.
Sometime between the summer of 1917 and his mother's death in 1921, Michael realized that both his parents were irrational. They'd had too many children. They couldn't keep servants or run an efficient household. Once he understood this, he began to sit out his father's speeches in stony silence. He walked glumly ahead during Harold's climbing performances on Hampstead Heath while Stephen, angling for the newly open seat of favorite son, egged Harold on. No longer his father's "little man," Michael became "the bear with the sore head." He had his own latchkey, coming and going as he pleased, not answering to anyone. To keep himself free of his family's entanglements, he used the language of scientific expertise, exaggerated for effect, to build a wall around himself.
Michael shared this detachment with his lab partner at Gresham's, an ungainly and freakishly pale boy named Wystan Auden. Wystan and Michael were the school scientists; their names were posted on the honors board side by side. In 1925 both would win science scholarships to Oxford. Michael's arrogance didn't put Wystan off; his knowledge of steam power engines sat nicely with Wystan's fascination with the beam engines, pithead gear, and water turbines used in mining ventures. Indeed, Wystan's friendship with Michael was not unlike his alliance with his elder brother, John, who left Cambridge the year Wystan and Michael began at Oxford. Where Michael and his brother Stephen would become perfect foils, apt to exaggerate their differences or use the existence of the other to define their own, Wystan and John, though nearly three years apart in age, had more in common.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Last Englishmen"
Copyright © 2018 Deborah Baker.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
PART I – To Live as on a Mountain,
1. The Lakes,
2. The Steamship and the Spinning Wheel,
3. Bengali Baboo,
4. The Thrust Fault,
6. The School of Art,
PART II – The Impersonal Eye,
7. Perfect Monsters,
8. Goddess Mother of the World,
9. I Spy,
10. The Moscow Agent,
11. In the Ice Mountains,
12. Taking a Hat off a Mouse,
13. The Truth about Love,
PART III – The Fall of the Gods,
14. Somewhere a Strange and Shrewd Tomorrow,
15. The Magnified Earth,
16. A Representative Indian,
17. An Infinite Ocean of Sorrow,
18. A Boy Falling Out of the Sky,
19. Incompatible Gods, Irreconcilable Differences,
20. Night Falls,