Friday, 30 June 2017

Book of the Month: The Windsor Faction (DJ Taylor)

D.J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction imagines a scenario in the 1930s, as the war in Europe approaches, which is different from the history. Edward VIII has not abdicated. His American lover, Wallis Simpson, has died of cancer in 1937, and Edward has assumed throne. The stammering younger brother with his wife and ‘girls’ has been dispatched to Sandringham. Hitler, in the meanwhile, has assumed control of Germany and has started occupying sovereign nations on the dubious grounds that he is protecting the interests of the German minorities in these nations. He has also not left anyone in doubt about what he intends to do to the Jews. Kristallnacht has happened. The British government, still led by Neville Chamberlain, is deeply uneasy about the intention of the Germans, and has been making disapproving noises about the aggressive German tendencies. The German army has gathered behind the Maginot Line, and many in Britain feel that the Germans are going to invade France, which would make war inevitable. In fact the war has already begun, officially, but both sides are waiting for the other to make the first move. The British are waiting to see whether the Germans would cross the Maginot Line.

Not everyone in Britain, though, is in favour of the war, or thinks that war with Germany would be in the British national and international interests. They are concerned that a protracted European war, as this one is bound to turn out to be, would be the death-knell of the Empire. “It’d be impossible to hold on to India,” Captain Ramsay, one of the few real-life- characters (Ramsay was a Tory MP from 1933 to 1945, the novel informs the reader at the end; and, fiercely anti-War and anti-Semite, was interned during the war) that play a pivotal role in the novel, says. The political faction that is against the war, the so-called pacifists, comprises Back-bench Tories, some of whom fought in the Great War; right wing intellectuals; isolationists in the American Embassy who believe that America should not get herself embroiled in the European conflict; and nut-cases who believe that the war is a world-wide conspiracy of Jews, and the only community that stands to benefit from this is of the profiteering Jews. The anti-war lobby suspects, and the suspicion lifts its spirits, that the King, Edward VIII, is against the war, and is sympathetic to their position: a negotiated peace with the Germans, in a neutral territory, such as Ireland, should be attempted. Germans, on their part, are giving coded signals that they would be willing to negotiate, but would not give back the territory that they have appropriated.

The Windsor Faction is the story of the frenetic months that lead to Second World War, in its alternative reality. Taylor has chosen to tell the story from the point of view of a fictional character, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, who, unwittingly, gets involved in the cloak-and-dagger game. As the novel opens, Cynthia is in Ceylon, where her parents made a tidy fortune. Cynthia returns to England as the drums of the war in Europe begin to sound. In London she finds herself a job in a literary rag called Duration. In the office she meets Anthea Carey, who, it seems, is not what she appears to be. Cynthia also begins an affair with Tyler Kent (another real life character, who apparently worked in the American Embassy and was also interned during the war because of his anti-war activities), a clerk in the American Embassy. Captain Ramsay, Tyler Kent, and Bannister (a fictional character), another Tory backbencher MP who is anti-war (as sinister, though not as unhinged, as Captain Ramsay) are all in cahoots, and, it would seem, stop at nothing to stop the war unleashed on Britain by the Jews. The Bannisters are family friends of the Kirkpatricks, having made their ill-deserved fortune in the colonies, and to whose son both sets of parents once hoped Cynthia would marry (although it did not happen as said son perished in a freak car accident when he took Cynthia out for a drive in Kandy, though not before, in the good old English fashion, he had had clumsy sex with her). Tyler Kent, who works as a clerk in the American Embassy, is smuggling out telegrams of the president, into the hands of Ramsay. MI5, needless to say, are aware of these shenanigans and are keeping these characters who, they have a strong reason to believe, are up to no good, under surveillance. MI5 are also keeping a close eye on the king, who, they rightly suspect, is against the war and might act in a manner that might compromise the official position of the British government, not to mention the country’s security. It’s all jolly good fun, and, although the novel does not trigger a lava-flow of adrenaline through your arteries, it keeps you riveted as it rattles along at a comfortable pace. If the end seems a bit anti-climactic it is also plausible.

Reading The Windsor Faction is a strange experience, in the main, I think, because the reader is not sure whether Taylor wants to write a political noir thriller or a slapstick social comedy. (Perhaps Taylor himself isn’t, either). There is no settled tone to the narrative voice (this is not a criticism). Indeed the opening pages of the novel, set in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) are very reminiscent of the comedy of Evelyn Waugh, who is mentioned more than once in the ‘diaries’ of the gay bon vivant, Beverly Nichols—another real life character, according to the ‘author’s note’; the real Beverly Nichols, Taylor informs, was a prolific author, journalist and librettist—although the tone becomes much more sombre and dark once the action shifts to London, only to slide, every now and then, into slapstick.

Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the main protagonist of the novel, is a pleasant enough character, not unduly encumbered by anything by way of personality. To the extent that Cynthia is able to make up her mind, she is pro-war. She does play a vital role in unravelling the plans of the anti-war faction (you expect no less from the main protagonist of the novel), but the reader gets the feeling that Cynthia does this not so much out of string political convictions as because of her weak character that makes her susceptible to the manipulations and machinations of other, strong-willed, characters. While this is not at odds with how Cynthia is portrayed, it has the effect of the character not making a lasting impression on your mind. Cynthia, not to put too fine a point on it, is dull. The supporting characters, Beverly Nichols and Captain Ramsay, for example, are far more interesting—and for that reason entertaining—that Cynthia. Tayler’s depiction of Edward is humane enough. Taylor desists from portraying Edward as a caricature and does not ‘give’ him anti-Semite tendencies, though ‘the king’ comes across as an empty suit.

Taylor excels in depicting for the reader the London in the 1930s, as Europe stands on the cusp of war (dark, gloomy, grubby, uncertain, fearful), which, in the end, is the most persuasive portion of this novel about the ‘phoney war’.