Thursday 17 January 2013

Alfred Duggan

                                                   Alfred Duggan: 1903–1964

A cheeky young savage -obviously regarding anyone over the age of thirty as akin to Methuselah- recently remarked to me that the one piece of technology the old seem to have taken to with any enthusiasm is the Kindle.

He's quite right, of course, and despite occasional frustrations -particularly with the tendency of the earlier devices to freeze up with Rorschach like patterns on the screen- I like my Kindle. One of the particular pleasures (or risks, if money is tight) is the ability to spot an old favourite and, in the press of a button, to have downloaded it.

Having spotted that most of Alfred Duggan's historical fiction has been republished in the Kindle format, I've been rereading books on which I spent rather too much time in my early teens. Duggan, for those who aren't familiar with the name, was a popular historical novelist in the fifties, a notorious rake in his youth, but having converted to Catholicism, apparently settled down to a life of blameless domesticity and literary work. There's rather a good biographical essay here.

When I read Duggan as a teenager, I liked the combination of the attempt at historical accuracy coupled with a pellucid modern prose style. I also very much enjoyed the extensive deployment of a dry wit, seen most obviously in the titles of his books such as Family Favourites which treats of the sexually scandalous Roman Emperor, Elagabalus. Anyway, I can heartily recommend them as a thumping good read.

Returning to them after a long absence, I found myself wondering whether they are anything more than that, and, in particular, to what extent his Catholicism is apparent in the novels. For example, in the essay by John Derbyshire linked to above, it's claimed:

 ...there is little overt piety in the novels, other than what is required for mediæval scene-setting. Duggan's characters are, in fact, a very worldly lot. Whatever the quality of his faith, he did not impose it on his fictions.

At one level, that's true. Most of the leading characters are cynical warriors or civil leaders, and even in dealing with saints such as Thomas Beckett or Edward the Confessor, there is an appreciation of their weaknesses and secular motivation. And yet, the very air that the characters breathe, particularly in the mediaeval novels, is one where religion and the Church are treated with respect and of central importance, even if many of the individuals can't quite manage to live up to its demands. Religion, particularly Catholicism, is treated matter of factly, rather like a family which is sometimes inconvenient, but is never going to go away or which really you would want to go away. Beyond this, there is a strong sense of the struggle between civilization and chaos: that the good life is tentative and ephemeral, and has to be defended, even if such a defence is futile, against the encroachment of the barbarians. And yet the novels are never melancholy or nostalgic, if even many of the characters operate on the principle of 'après nous le déluge': our duty is to embody those higher values for as long as we can, and to make a good fighting end of it when we can't. More specifically, those values of civilization are focused in Romanitas, the civilization first of pagan Rome and then of the Roman Church (and Byzantium) as the exercise of power in the service of goodness, beauty and truth. (Even if the realities of that exercise are occasionally somewhat shabby.)

It's a shame that there doesn't seem to be much information publicly available about Mrs Duggan. As well as presumably having played a central role in keeping Alfred on the straight and narrow, the novels are stacked full of rather characterful  women. I suspect that slight erotic charge (nothing salacious, just a reminder of what men and women appreciate about each other's personality in a deep relationship) was part of what I enjoyed as teenager, and no bad thing either. As Derbyshire puts it,

Duggan speaks frankly about adult matters, but his books are free of salacity and profanity, and I would recommend them without reservation to intelligent young-teen readers of the present day.

Anyway, I can't help wondering if Mrs Duggan was the model for some of these formidable women.

I'd probably recommend Lord Geoffrey's Fancy as one of my favourites. And this has the considerable advantage of being also available as a free ebook here from the Internet Archive.


  1. Great to read some sort of appraisal of Alfred Duggan and even more surprising to find it, as there appears to be minimal information about him, as well as few reviews of his work. A good link to the Derbyshire page as well.

    Personally, I had no idea he was Catholic ( & presumably one of the reasons he has a mention here ) and I cannot say it ever showed in his books ( or certainly not the ones I have read ! ).

    Like you, I also devoured a lot of these in my teenage years. My Dad had a few of the old Faber editions, and I think he might have bought the NEL ones, both for himself, and I'd like to think for me too

    I actually borrowed 'Family Favourites' from him at Christmas, and have just re-read it. I'd agree its a great read , and deals with a thoroughly debauched life in a wonderful way, by giving the facts of the matter, but never describing any salacious behaviour in unnecessary detail: a wonderful achievement, and a thoroughly superb read.

    Looking through the list of his novels, I realise that as a teenager I probably read 5 or 6 of them. In the last few years I've bought some of them as they were re-published, so I can both try out new ones ( Lord Geoffrey's Fancy, Lady for Ransom, Winter Quarters, Little Emperors) and revel in the re-reads, particularly my favourite, Conscience of the King.

    I have to admit, I also pinched 'Count Bohemond' from my Dad last August, a cracking read !

    Best one for me, however, is still 'Conscience of the King' ( and in my old man's Faber & Faber edition, if I can ). Thoroughly anarchic, and completely within the spirit of Dark Ages Britain. I admit, though, a soft spot for Count Bohemond, and Lord Geoffry's Fancy.

    I have yet to read the recently acquired Cunning of the Dove, and will be looking out for the others that I have missed over the years.

    If you like Duggan, I would also recommend George Shipway. Another completely over-looked historical author, but one not to be missed. Rarer to find than Duggan, although his Imperial Governor ( the "memoir" of the Roman Governor during Boudicca's rebellion ) was re-published in the last 10 years and is one of the best books I've read in ages. I bought a second copy for Dad as well : re-paying debts !

    I'd also recommend Keith Robert's 'The Boat of Fate'. Another surprising discovery and an equally great read. Historical, yes, but really just a good novel :)

    Just to finish it off, I found the factual 'In the Shadow of the Sword' by Tom Holland, an intriguing, thought-provoking and well-written book about the evolution ( though he might say, creation ) of Christianity and Islam in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much, and discovered a lot too ! Early Christianity seems so much more...Christian ? Is that the word ? or maybe intense ? or less 'commercialised' if I'm allowed to use that word ? Who knows...I certainly don't :)

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! I haven't heard of George Shipway before and I'll check him out. Another one of my favourites from my teenage meanderings through the historical genre was Peter Green's 'The Sword of Pleasure' (about Sulla).

      I had a rather fun exchange with Tom Holland! I came away from it thinking he'd behaved extremely gracefully and promptly read the rest of his works. So I'd completely agree with your recommendation.

  2. I have enjoyed Duggan's books since I was a teenager, and I am now the grandmother of teenagers. One thing puzzles me: why is it impossible to learn the name od Alfred Duggan's wife? Apparently they were happily married for a number of years. We know almost too much about his brother's marital status. Does anyone have an answer?

  3. has it as Laura Hill. (But that's it! Would love to know more about her!)

    I hope you've been more successful in passing on a love of Duggan to the next (and next to next) generation than I was.