Friday 14 December 2018

The Last Englishmen: A sprawling epic of loyalty and love in a cold climate

History: The Last ­Englishmen, Deborah Baker, Chatto & Windus, hardback, 384 pages, €31.40

Rich cast of characters: Deborah Baker
Rich cast of characters: Deborah Baker
The Last Englishmen by Deborah Baker

Eilis O'Hanlon

While WH Auden and Stephen Spender were making waves as members of the literary group known as the "Thirties poets", their older brothers, respectively John and Michael, were in India, jockeying for a place on what would eventually become the first successful expedition to climb Mount Everest.

In the introduction to her new book detailing the swirling passions and politics of that period, Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted author Deborah Baker describes the first time she encountered the papers of John Bicknell Auden. She was looking for "a way to write about India during World War II". These men evidently suited her purposes admirably.

They were of a post-Great War generation struggling to understand its place in a changing world, as the British Empire dragged to its inevitable end and a rising tide of fascism in Europe challenged their youthful idealism.

Both found their way eventually to India, where they became embroiled in the febrile politics of independence, while also sharing the sequestered lives of other privileged Britishers of the time.

Michael Spender was a surveyor and mapmaker who would end up cataloguing more than two dozen of the highest peaks in the Himalayas. John Auden had written some poetry at university, but it was the mountains which defined him.

It was an age when nations strove to prove their superiority over one another by being first to surmount hitherto unimaginable challenges and he "seemed to believe that the higher one climbed, the purer grade of man one became".

After all, as Baker puts it: "Why climb Everest if not to assert the power of an Englishman over the power of nature?"

Both men even fell in love with the same woman, a bohemian artist by the name of Nancy Sharp, but it was Spender who won her in the end. Both divorced their spouses in order to marry one another, only for him to die in the final week of the war.

He'd been drawn back to Britain at the country's time of greatest need to join the RAF, knowing with every mission that "the maths and the numbers were against him".

Nancy would live for another five decades, teaching and painting. John Bicknell Auden married the granddaughter of a founding member of the Indian National Congress, and enjoyed a distinguished career as a geologist. Baker observes generously: "Though he never succeeded in being the first to climb the highest peaks, no other explorer of his time looked as closely at the mountains of the Himalayas and the rocks they were made of as John Auden."

With such a rich cast of characters, The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire couldn't help but be an intriguing proposition. Baker's prose style is rich and flowing, ample with descriptiveness, action, and sly humour. It's also brutally even-handed in its assessment of English rule in India as it edged towards freedom. Winston Churchill even wished that he could spare some bombers from the war to put this "foul race", who "breed like rabbits", in their place. More than three million Bengalis died in the wartime famine.

The only reservation is that, as historians increasingly take on the tools of the novelist, with conversations reproduced at length and verbatim, how is it possible to know what's true and what's merely speculation, embellishment?

The book begins with a list headed 'Cast of Characters'. This dramatis personae almost challenges the reader to engage with what follows exactly as one would a work of fiction. An extensive bibliography includes unpublished primary sources, including John Auden's private journals, and other notebooks and typescripts by various participants and observers to the events recounted in the narrative, some personally translated for the author. But acknowledgements are largely segregated to the notes at the end, rather than being incorporated into the text, so it's not immediately clear where the sources end and the book based on them begins.

That is problematic on many levels. Quoting directly from these original sources, with concurrent accreditation, enriched by some editorial commentary from the author to explain the provenance, would have been more satisfying. It would also have avoided some unnecessary confusion along the way. Many readers will surely start this book with the best and most enthusiastic of intentions, before sadly giving up somewhere along the journey, frustrated by its dawdling, nebulous longueurs.

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