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The Dark Horse Of My Generation

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The Dark Horse of My Generation

In 1950 a publisher at Faber pleaded with Anthony Powell, then fiction editor at the Times Literary Supplement, that a new historical novel ought not to be overlooked for review “on the grounds of belonging to an obsolescent genre of literature.” Powell himself, as a novelist, was attracted to the far past (he was shortly to publish the first volume of his Dance to the Music of Time, haunted throughout by the shadows of historical romance). But Powell was surprised less by the implicit literary judgement than by the identity of the author under discussion: an old acquaintance, Alfred Duggan, “the last man on earth,” he thought, “to attempt an historical novel.” According to the most famous contemporary of either Duggan or Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Duggan was considered at Oxford to be “the dark horse of my generation,” “one of the least likely to succeed.”

Historical fiction in Britain, where the genre might reasonably claim to have been born, and where it retains a defiant place in popular, literary, and overlapping palettes, has a reputation as heady but divisive stuff, fitfully addictive, rarely respectable. The scarcely latent snobisme that associates the contemporary with the literary stood firm in post-war Britain as it does today, with a similar underlying force. Why search further afield when the present crackles with urgent conflict, political and cultural, ethical and artistic? If the answer lies in allegory — a utilitarian application of the past to clarify the problems of the present — is not the method both compromised and cumbersome? If the motivation is, by contrast, genuine historical curiosity, is not fiction tantamount to speculation, the very spice most sternly excluded from the scholar’s pot? As for the purely aesthetic claims of the craftsman, why try to observe and to sketch while hampered by the unnecessary handicap of elapsing, estranging time? Historical fiction is condemned for being torn between past and present, and as such doubly liable to date.

Alfred Duggan, whose work offers ready rejoinders to all of these objections, has admittedly spent the past few decades as a distinctly recherché taste. Most of his remaining partisans would accept the label of reactionary or contrarian as a badge of honour. The most fluent in recent years has been Allan Massie, himself a historical novelist as well as a critic and essayist, specialising as Duggan had in Rome’s decline and aftermath, as well as mastering a more painfully recent decadence in his novels set in Vichy France. Massie has praised Duggan while alluding to his long struggle with the bottle (alcoholism being also among the themes of Massie’s own oeuvre): “even in his drinking days . . . he was soaked in his material.” He commends Duggan’s “unmistakable ring of authority and authenticity,” his idiom in narrative, “deadpan . . . utterly convincing . . . splendidly flat’, and, most fundamentally, his solution to the perennial problem of period dialogue: ‘None of Duggan’s characters spoke English. Therefore he was free to have them speak in the language of his time.”

That time possessed a specific timbre that has not yet faded from general readerly recognition: both because of the cataclysmic historical events it encompassed, and because, above all, of one frightening novelistic genius who recorded and fictionalised them. Duggan, born in 1903, the same year as Waugh, died two years before him in 1964. (Waugh remarked that “It has been a year of deaths, beginning with Alfred Duggan . . . There has not been a fortnight without a funeral.”) Duggan’s cast of ingenuous protagonists, amoral beauties and cynical wits, as well as the hard-boiled, understated dialogue in which they all communicate, owes an all but acknowledged debt to Waugh’s characters, as well as more generally to the eventful and urbane galère among whom both novelists matured. (Among many other examples, the outstanding Wavian voice in Duggan is the Lady Clodia, whose commentary punctuates the account of the triumvir Lepidus’ career in Three’s Company (1958): “Isn’t this fun? There will be the most glorious crash in a moment.”)

Waugh’s one attempt at historical fiction, Helena, was published, like Duggan’s first novel Knight with Armour, in 1950, but the two works came into being independently. Helena, with which Waugh puzzled all his friends and readers by repeatedly describing it as “very beautiful,” “exquisite,” and his “masterpiece,” is worth reading in the sense that everything by him is. A life of Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, it is too puzzling a book to be classed as pure hagiography, and quite serious as satire without being at all amusing (a real achievement in a writer and man so congenitally, even sometimes disastrously funny). Waugh had the same instinctive answer as Duggan to the question of dialogue — that the language they themselves knew and spoke in an era of unsurpassed tragic mettle would do perfectly well. But where Duggan’s spare, or in Massie’s term “flat,” style is right for his convincingly medieval canvas, Waugh’s portrait of a girlish saint-empress is mannered and anachronistic. As historical fiction, Waugh’s achievement cannot touch Duggan’s. But it was, in part, thanks to Waugh that Duggan developed at all.

Duggan features in the consciousness of most readers and exegetes of Waugh less as a literary figure in his own right than as a usefully emblematic model of depravity in what had by the 1980s become known, under televisual influence, as “the Brideshead Generation.” In his Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage, published in 1984, Martin Stannard wrote Duggan off as “an old crony and in part the model for Sebastian Flyte.” Stannard blamed what he saw as Waugh’s “absurd over-estimation” of Duggan’s writing on what was being widely, predictably, and wrongly invoked at the time as Waugh’s fatal flaw. This was identified as snobbery in general, and more specifically sycophancy towards those whom Waugh’s politically motivated detractors imagined he perceived as his social superiors. By 1992, when Stannard finished the second volume of his life of Waugh, his depiction of Waugh and Duggan’s social and professional relationship was more sophisticated — he dropped the ill-informed Sebastian claim — but still damning towards the less celebrated of the pair. He argued that “the whole relationship . . . was an act of pietas”:

It was immensely satisfying for Waugh to watch this former wastrel . . . settling into Catholic domesticity and earning his living by the humble trade of letters. . . . Cured of drink and extravagance, Duggan perhaps seemed a dull but admirable character to one cured of neither, and Waugh politely sidestepped further invitations.

By rejecting the reality and the equality of the friendship under discussion, Stannard avoids an alternative that seems to him beyond the pale — that Waugh took both Duggan and historical fiction itself seriously. Like the man from Faber, he has recoiled before the “obsolescent genre.” But his yoking of the social to the literary assessment is a useful one, for Duggan’s life and his achievement are indeed most productively examined together.

Tom Shippey, the authority on medieval literature and J.R.R. Tolkien, has pointed out that in its span, its personnel, and its economic freefall, Alfred Duggan’s life exactly reflected that of the twentieth-century British Empire. Given the justice of this observation, it is especially delicious that, as Powell’s biographer Michael Barber says, Duggan possessed “not one drop of English blood.” The eldest of three children (Alfred, Hubert, and Marcella) born outside Buenos Aires in 1903, 1904 and 1907 to Alfredo Huberto Duggan and Grace, née Hinds, Alfred Leo Duggan possessed a recent heredity that encompassed three continents, with a light tincture of British nationality, mostly by way of Ireland, suspended in its depths. Duggan’s background was thus as thoroughly unstraightforward as it was splendidly moneyed.

His mother Grace Hinds, who has been described in the traditional shorthand as an American heiress, was the daughter of Joe Hinds, a Civil War soldier, diplomat, and indifferently successful steamboat merchant, and Lucia Trillia, variously noted as Argentine, Uruguayan and, obscurely, “a former British subject.” Patchily educated and somewhat vague about practicalities, Grace was fluent and magnetic, with conventional, elongated beauty that exactly matched the majestic standard of her time and ever-upward-spiralling circles. The Hindses and Trillias were thus actually more enterprising than rich, and Grace stumbled on more luscious pastures while travelling in South America with her favourite maternal uncle in the 1890s.

Alfredo Huberto Duggan, of Buenos Aires, was, like Grace, the product of the commingling of the Southern United States and South America proper, Argentine-born but brought up in Tennessee. Unlike her, though, he was the son of a European, Thomas Duggan, an Irishman straight from Ireland. The family, observant Catholics, were far from upper class in British or American terms, but a combination of old Duggan’s business sense and his wife’s fortune left the two of them multimillionaires, with nearly twenty estancias or ranches.

Such riches would be something of a consolation for Grace, as her new husband, who had seemed to knock back drink with a gaucho’s dash when they met, soon proved to be chronically, unamusingly dipsomaniacal. Alfredo was fixed up with a diplomatic posting as honorary attaché at the Argentine Legation in London (by his canny father-in-law? to straighten him up? to offer Grace a more pulsing metropolis?) in 1905. The move to Great Britain was a social thrill for Grace but did not lead to any improvement in her husband’s disposition or industry. Alfredo lasted ten years en poste before his work’s amenities and his own fallibility finished him off altogether, still in his early thirties. Unmissed by his widow and children, he left his colossal fortune to Grace and his besetting weakness to his eldest son, Alfred.

Grace was now an heiress indeed; her portrait in widowhood, by the society painter Philip de Laszlo, was scarcely dry before she and her estancias found a new beneficiary. George Nathaniel Curzon, Earl Curzon of Kedleston at the time he first encountered Grace, the former Viceroy of India, had been teased in rhyme at Balliol College, Oxford for considering himself “a very superior person.” He had married one American heiress already and produced three daughters but no son and heir prior to his first wife’s death in 1906. After his marriage to Grace in 1917, he sought to become prime minister to only to discover that his fellow Conservatives preferred Stanley Baldwin. (Arthur Balfour joked that “Curzon has lost the hope of glory but he has the means of Grace.”) The estancias were redirected towards Lord and Lady Curzon’s purchase of the spectacularly fortified and moated Bodiam Castle in Sussex, which, with its adjoining manor, would have a crucial and beneficent role to play in the life and writing of Alfred Duggan.

Curzon has become a byword for pomposity; his life and career encapsulate the hubris of the British Empire at its apogee. His reputation as a politician is mixed at best, but as a man he is at least partially redeemed by his excellent record as a stepfather. Alfredo’s children, with their delinquent father and scatty mother, had been running more or less wild; Curzon gave the boys the education that had served him so well. They were sent to his old prep school, Wixenford, and to Eton, where Curzon’s youthful beauty had made him the favourite, and ruined the career, of the schoolmaster and writer Oscar Browning. Eton took some arranging given the short notice and the Duggan boys’ Catholicism, but Grace’s charm, as much as Curzon’s eminence, strong-armed the headmaster, Dr Alington, into surrender.

It is from Eton, in 1920, that the first scrap of Alfred’s own words emerges, writing home from school to congratulate his step-sister Cimmie Curzon on her engagement to a certain Captain Oswald Mosley, MP:

I was delighted to get Marcella’s letter telling me all about your engagement; she could not have written a more glowing account if Captain Mosley had been an apostle! He’s the youngest MP in the House now, isn’t he? Is he a Tory or a Bolsh? Anyway, when he is Premier you will invite me to lunch at Downing Street, so that I can write a garbled account of the conversation to the Daily Herald!’

It is a short but revealing impression of this excitable, complacent, cavalier spirit. Letters from boarding school are a proverbially deceptive form, but this one rings true. We see the vestiges of Alfred’s Catholic upbringing (he means “apostle” in the Christian, not the Cantabrigian sense) giving way to the Anglicanism, worldly and unassertive, of his mother and stepfather. In political matters this seventeen-year-old maintains a frivolous non-partisanship, anticipating both the hedonistically apolitical atmosphere of the decade to come and the iron divisions that would follow. Young Alfred is jokily, but not unjustifiably confident that any young M.P. shrewd enough to marry into his family is bound to make it to the top. (It is worth pointing out that Lord Curzon himself disapproved of Cimmie’s choice.) Perhaps most interesting, Alfred seems already to entertain professional ambition as a writer, or at least a journalist.

Not long after congratulating Cimmie, Alfred left Eton when his liaison with a girl in Windsor was discovered. Despite their conventional public-school education, both Duggan brothers would in this respect end up being precocious by English standards, for Hubert lost his virginity not long afterwards in Argentina. Alfred’s housemaster had under his charge not only this young lothario but Harold Acton. It is commonly forgotten that in Brideshead Revisited Anthony Blanche, whose shockingly advanced improprieties involve women as well as men, lives with his mother and stepfather, “in the Argentine.” On the whole Blanche is usually deemed a composite of Acton and Brian Howard, but it seems fair to conclude that there is something of the Duggan boys’ bizarre upbringing in him as well. Stannard’s comparison of Alfred to Sebastian Flyte might have been criminally inexact; much more to the mark is a character like Peter Pastmaster, the amiably sophisticated, youthfully debauched alcoholic young nobleman whose mother maintains her social position with the profits of Argentine brothels.

Curzon continued to underline Alfred’s position as his favorite and all-but-heir by sending him to Balliol, his old Oxford college (Hubert would go to Christ Church, the smarter choice, but one for Curzon of less personal significance). Here Alfred emerged as the “full-blooded rake of the Restoration” as Waugh put it, an image that his many Oxford friends would recall long after it had ceased to apply. The word “rake” was also used in reference to Alfred by another contemporary, Peter Quennell, the journalist and biographer now better known for his many sins (and for founding the magazine History Today) than for his equally numerous books. Rakishness implies not just heterosexual promiscuity, but a sort of conspicuous, hearty, red-blooded image unusual in the aesthetic set to which Alfred belonged. This was the tribe of the Hypocrites Club, who took as their fork-tongued motto Pindar’s advice that “water is best.”

Despite any incongruity, Alfred did not just run with this crowd, but led it. He was the richest, the least accountable, and the coldest among them. He had a Rolls Royce and a chauffeur, a “string of hunters;” he was, as Quennell (whose envy is always palpable) tells us, a member of the notorious Forty-Three night club in Soho. His initiation into the mysteries of the female sex separated him from his contemporaries who were homosexual whether by preference or, faute de mieux, from shyness and lack of opportunity. His brother Hubert had a horror of the fashionable homosexuality of the aesthetic set; Alfred (like Anthony Powell) regarded the tendency with amused indulgence without experimenting with it. He did, of course, no work at all at Oxford; he was sent down, rather as at Eton, for his too flagrant nocturnal truancy from Balliol, reprieved because his stepfather was Chancellor of the university, then, in 1925, for a second and final time. He departed partly because Curzon now refused to settle his debts to “the Randolph Hotel, the tarts and the night club.”

Yet this Prince Hal narrative is not the whole story. Waugh testifies that Curzon himself — a demanding judge  — was one of “very few” to perceive Alfred’s intellectual potential in spite of everything, and his elder step-son was perhaps neither as depraved nor as dandiacally bored as he seemed. Unlike his brother, he stuck at Oxford while he could, and made lasting friends there, including among dons. His history tutor, Kenneth Bell, considered that Alfred had prevented him from losing his Balliol Fellowship by hiding him under a bed after a college feast and its ensuing puerilities. Quennell’s recollection that Alfred, during tutorials, “would hold up a blank sheet and rapidly improvise half a dozen learned paragraphs” suggests a lively mind. Many anecdotes of Duggan at university are silly; all are drunken, but most are generous as well, and none cruel.

Here another of Waugh’s remarks about his friend should be borne in mind: that “even in the time of his dissipation there was always a gravitas in him, a dignity and courtesy which transcended his weakness.” There was nothing in Duggan of the hooliganism which has become (partly because of Waugh himself, partly because of twenty-first century Conservative stereotypes) an Oxonian archetype. And it is worth pointing out that the “weakness” referred to — alcoholism — had killed his father. But even more surprising than his distaste for boorish antics at the age of twenty is what Waugh refers to as his “Marxism and atheism.” This assertion is echoed rather than corroborated by other writers. Though youthful and comfortably circumstanced socialism was and remains hardly unknown, it is tempting to wonder about how either man then understood these terms, and with what level of seriousness they were employed. Certainly the schoolboy Alfred seems no “Bolsh,” but there are reasons to think that later in life he was a man of the left, no doubt to a degree Waugh may have been reluctant to acknowledge.

Curzon died a disappointed marquess not long after Alfred left Balliol in 1925. Though the Duggan boys were sure of their own, much larger inheritances, he left them both £500 “as a proof of my affection.” (Marcella received a villa in Thanet). Most of Curzon’s estate went to Grace. Before his death he had urged that Alfred be sent abroad: “Unless we save him now, Gracie, it will be too late.” This was arranged, in the form of a peculiar first job collecting specimens for the Natural History Museum in the Galapagos Islands and West Indies. In 1927 Alfred visited Mount Athos with Robert Byron, among several other Hypocrites turned would-be contemplatives; he was one of the rich young patrons in the background of the trip that produced Robert Byron’s first work on Byzantium, The Station, the following year.

The money Duggan had inherited proved no match for his heedlessness; nor was the economic weather propitious. He burnt through his fortune at about the same rate at which his mother rid herself of Curzon’s, with the result that by 1931 they were obliged to move in together at Bodiam Manor. Alfred’s personal conduct was not improved by foreign travel as Curzon had hoped. His brother Hubert married unhappily, became a Guards officer and then one of the smart young anti-Appeasement Tories known as the “Glamour Boys,” and seduced a number of famous beauties. Alfred remained an unemployed demi-mondain bachelor.

When Waugh entered the Catholic Church in 1930, he was determined to take his lapsed friend back with him. It was not in fact a long or arduous path; Alfred seems to have expressed his first leanings in that direction in about 1929. He accompanied Waugh on a Balkans cruise for well-born Catholics in 1933, and tiptoed into occasional work for the Tablet around the same time. The fundamental problem remained not Alfred’s convictions or even his joblessness but his drinking. The notionally comic anecdotes in which Alfred features throughout the Thirties, tales of standing up his family, wearying his friends and disappearing into the night, suggest that those who cared about him most regarded him with a sense of weary resignation. They did not, however, as Stannard alleges, drop him socially as a “burnt-out case.”

In 1935 Duggan took part in an expedition to Istanbul conducted by the University of St Andrew’s to excavate the palace of Constantine. He got to know Syria and Palestine in similarly archaeological contexts around this time, when the state of his pockets meant that his main available currency was genuine interest and industry, not hard cash or social cachet. Throughout his life this would remain the work of which he was most proud.

Often dismissed as a gang of sybarites and gadflies, Duggan’s generation was one that foresaw the disaster that would overtake it in middle age. Alfred, perhaps assisted by Hubert, who like the other Glamour Boys was prescient in his hostility to Nazi Germany, prepared early for getting into uniform. His choice to join the London Irish Rifles as a private was only superficially curious, at a deeper level wholly characteristic. He asserted his identity, his Irish Catholic heritage, and his London upbringing while eschewing the British officer class which had embraced him for his money but in which he had never been entirely at ease. According to Waugh, who mocked his friend’s regiment as “a force raised entirely among the race gangs of Battersea,” the regimental chaplain tried to get this well-spoken recruit a softer billet as his batman:

[Alfred] said he was very sorry but he couldn’t afford it; he paid out his entire wages as it was to his corporal to clean his uniform & couldn’t undertake anything more.”

Duggan, who sorely lacked training and was, as usual, in atrocious health, should not have been sent into action with the Rifles until at least 1942. Instead he made use of the raising of an Independent Company in 1940 to join a force of volunteer proto-Commandos being dispatched against the Germans in Norway. He had spent the Great War as a child in a neutral Legation, and had lost his father to the bottle not the bullet; guilt as much as courage may have heightened his appetite for danger.

The London volunteers of the Independent Company belonged to “Scissorforce,” the first British soldiers to see action in Norway. In three days’ fighting they at first successfully ambushed advancing Germans before giving way amid Luftwaffe strafing and specialist mountain troops. Alfred collapsed from physical overexertion while retreating towards the sea. When in 1941 he was considered fit enough to leave hospital, invalided out of the army, he found a job in an aeroplane factory. His social conscience and his renascent belief in justification by works functioned now in happy alliance. No more outrageous bacchic exploits are reported; nor is his reaction to his brother Hubert’s famous deathbed reconciliation to the Church in 1943, contrived by Waugh himself, and universally acknowledged as the inspiration for the ending of Brideshead. (It is worth pointing out that Grace, who was without strong religious views, urged Hubert toward repentance, while his sister Marcella, raised a Catholic, played devil’s advocate.)

It seems quite likely that Alfred voted Labour in 1945. At any rate he happily signed up for an ex-serviceman’s apprenticeship that was an Attlee government initiative, retraining as a cowman in Cambridge. But it was not his fate ever to attain a tertiary qualification. In 1946 Grace summoned him back to her side at Bodiam in Sussex. The castle now belonged to the National Trust, but the terms of Curzon’s will allowed them to go on living in the manor; and it was there in the library that Alfred conceived the story of Roger de Bodeham, second son of the manor’s first Norman lord, a typical participant in the First Crusade.

The seriousness of Duggan’s somewhat arrested literary ambitions have been dismissed on the strength of two ultimately irreconcilable assumptions: first, that Knight with Armour was a drying-out-cure, insisted upon by, and written under the influence of, Waugh; second, that the novel was a fustian oddity, an eccentric diversion born of lonely hours in the Bodiam library where Alfred slouched, forgotten by his former boozing companions. There is probably some truth in both of these; Waugh had encouraged his friend’s rarely advertised but sincere desire to write since at least the early Thirties, and Alfred had indeed profited from the enjoyment of a partly medieval inventory of books. But the important facts are these: Waugh did not know of the novel until it was published; by the time of its completion, with the help of a doctor, Alfred was at last permanently teetotal; he found an absorbing and novel delight in hard work; and, with what expectations we cannot know, he submitted the manuscript to Faber on his own initiative.

Knight with Armour follows Roger de Bodeham, a young knight of studied ordinariness, literal-minded, dogged, unflinchingly of his time. Duggan’s reader needs an especially strong stomach for Roger’s small but squalid part in the sack of Antioch. In its faithfulness to the interior world of its period, up to its startlingly abrupt conclusion, the novel possesses a bleak, arresting, paradoxical modernity, and ultimately Roger’s sheer ability to endure what is happening around him amounts to a kind of heroism. Duggan’s writing for the Tablet now took off as it never had in the Thirties. (Among other things he gave The Fellowship of the Ring what was then an unwontedly positive review in 1954: “It is a near thing, but Professor Tolkien just pulls it off.”) His ever more prodigious output soon expanded to biography and history, often with younger readers in mind.

In 1951 Duggan’s second and third novels, Conscience of the King and The Little Emperors, were published: connected works, each, at least in this writer’s opinion, tangibly superior to his first. A diptych on the aftermath of Roman Britain, they provide a plausible and ingenious interpretation of that obscure period. The Little Emperors is crafted around the increasingly dysfunctional and brief reigns of successive delusional usurpers (“Marcus Imperator Semper Augustus”), while Conscience of the King progresses through the “misfortunes” of the Germano-British renegade Cerdic’s various family members (invariably murder at his hands). The protagonist of Emperors, a Roman prefect unhappily called Felix, is, like Roger de Bodeham, a self-important but hapless pawn. His Roman police state is reminiscent of another school contemporary’s most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published two years earlier; while Duggan’s resolution, though surprisingly merciful, is exemplary in its poetic justice. His bitter reflections on the subject of taxation in late antiquity suggest that his socialism on the wane, perhaps unsurprisingly now that he subsisted on earned income.

Conscience of the King, Duggan’s zestful earliest dive into the first person singular, presents the smug memoirs of a successful warlord with only the afterlife to fear: “I shall certainly burn in Hell forever and ever. But it was fun while it lasted.” The novel plays with the demise of literacy; Cerdic’s security in writing his blood-stained account is assured by the fact that nobody else in his kingdom can read and write. Duggan provides in passing a compressed interpretation of Arthurian legend, told from the Saxon camp:

Artorius was a very interesting figure . . . I will set down the little that I know about his end . . . His followers grew discontented, and at last one of his captains raised a sedition against him; I have heard that the rebel was also the lover of the leader’s wife . . . but I always doubt that sort of story.

This cynical reading of Arthuriana would find its unlikely apotheosis in the 2004 film featuring a polka-woaded Keira Knightley.

Lady for Ransom, which appeared in 1953, returns to the landscape of the Crusades, expanding upon a suggestive anecdote in Steven Runciman’s study The First Crusade concerning the exploits of one Roussel de Ballieul, a treacherous but charming Norman in Byzantine service. The narrator, another Roger, is very definitely an observer rather than a protagonist. Duggan’s real innovation is to position as the hero of the novel neither Roger nor Roussel but Roussel’s unbeautiful, indomitable wife Matilda. The young narrator’s relation to her is admiring and mostly filial. Some biographical context might be identified in Alfred’s marriage that year to Laura Hill, an Oxford graduate and Liberal Party loyalist in her late forties, about whose looks Waugh and Cyril Connolly were as catty as Roger is about Matilda’s. The Duggans soon adopted a son, John, and went to live in the Welsh Marches.

In Leopards and Lilies (1954), Duggan returns to third-person narration with a particular chronological pay-off in mind, swooping forward in time in an epilogue of cruelly balanced irony. One of his two forays into the comparatively recent thirteenth century, this novel continues its predecessor’s engagement with the place of a noblewoman in the medieval world, in this case England riven by baronial strife under King John. The anti-heroine, Margaret FitzGerold has many of the virtues of her predecessor Matilda de Ballieul — intelligence, enterprise, courage — and the same unfortunate encumbrance, namely, a husband forced on her more or less at sword-point. But whereas Matilda resists the temptation to betray the ineffectual Roussel, Margaret turns on her more capable husband, the mercenary Falkes de Brealte, (albeit in the interest of her young son by a previous marriage), and is harshly punished for so doing. One might suspect Duggan of drawing, in the context of this severe verdict, upon the possibly warmer affection and admiration he had felt for his stepfather Curzon than for either of his blood parents.

Duggan’s next book, another Roman novel and, for me, his best since the pair of 1951, is his most psychologically compelling portrait of a somewhat second-string, yet nonetheless genuine historical figure (Cerdic’s historical identity being too little-documented to count). Three’s Company (1958) tells an excellent story hiding in plain sight in Plutarch and Shakespeare: that of Lepidus, the “slight unmeritable” third man of Rome’s Second Triumvirate, remembered, if at all, as the drunkard on Sextus Pompey’s galley in Antony & Cleopatra inanely puzzling over Egyptian crocodiles. Whether despite or because of his own alcoholic history, Duggan supplies Lepidus with other failings, arguably more dangerous in a politician. This Lepidus is the latest incarnation of Roger de Bodeham and the prefect Felix, a preening stumbler in the dark, proud, stiff-necked, initially decent in a limited way, fatally unconscious of his own mediocrity.

Family Favourites (1960), about the decadent court of the Emperor Elagabalus, is in some ways Duggan’s most confessional novel, in every sense of the adjective. Its narrator, a stodgy Gallic praetorian, is destined to end up in chilly exile not far from Hadrian’s Wall, a Celtic retirement like Duggan’s own. During the action this imperial bodyguard is the half-horrified, increasingly enchanted witness to a court of refined oriental depravity, without ever, he assures us, sampling the delights on offer. Here Duggan seems to be evoking his Oxford friends, whose canoodlings at the Hypocrites’ Club had so horrified his more conventional brother Hubert.

The only serious disservice Waugh did Duggan was intended as a tribute, when he introduced his friend’s rather plodding final novel, Count Bohemond (1964). Waugh’s preface maintained that Duggan’s quality and technique never varied: “His literary style remained constant . . . as crisp and clear in this posthumous novel as in his first. Most writers come to maturity after experiments they regret. There is no groping in Alfred’s work.” The impression given, and doubtless disseminated to many discriminating readers drawn by Waugh’s name, is of a solid but formulaic writer. In fact Duggan both groped and evolved — he was at his best on the march in terra incognita, vulnerable to stagnation when too comfortable.

Like many authors Duggan wrote about rascals and misfits with more ease than he did saints. But to my mind his single best novel is a superb meditation, limber, original, and convincing, on heroism itself. Lord Geoffrey’s Fancy (1962) is set in the later thirteenth century, half a century on from Leopards and Lilies and later than any other Duggan novel, but its atmosphere feels far earlier, the genuine stuff of high medieval romance. In an essay on the historical novel published in 1957, Duggan divided the genre into two “branches” — those modelled after Horace Walpole, romances of “knight-errantry and necromancy” in which “our ancestors . . . are not a bit like us”; and those in the tradition of Scott, “remarkable adventures of ordinary men . . . who happened to live in a different kind of civilization.” He located Robert Graves and himself in the second category, and this is what he delivers in Lord Geoffrey’s Fancy: a profound look at the consequences of flawed humans sincerely trying to live by the demands of the chivalric code.

The result is a preoccupation with the appearance rather than the performance of heroism: “Sir Geoffrey in love with his own prowess . . . little Jeanne in love with her own beauty . . . each utterly satisfied in his own person.” It is this very incongruity which allows Duggan to present readers with his first genuine, if accidental hero: Sir William, a follower of Geoffrey who underestimates rather than inflates his own qualities. William’s half-Greek wife Melisande is also Duggan’s cleverest and most likeable female character, doing much of her husband’s thinking for him and seeing through Geoffrey’s vanity. This sudden and unlooked-for bildungsroman, set against the poetic backdrop of knightly decline with all its finery, is Duggan’s happiest creation.

The majority of Duggan’s novels demonstrate innovation in their structure and characterisation, and succeed accordingly; the few more narrowly centred on pious defences of well-known historical figures tend to be less interesting. The sequel Duggan had in mind when he died, on Bohemond of Antioch’s nephew Tancred, could have gone either way; Tancred’s pale outline in Count Bohemond is hardly propitious, but the historical Tancred was such a scoundrel that he could easily have become a memorable figure not unlike Conscience of the King’s Cerdic, who tells us: “My ambition was not inordinate. I did not want a wide kingdom, only an absolute one.” In terms of literary standing, this is exactly what Duggan still deserves.

Minoo Dinshaw is the author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman.

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