Richard Usborne

The Ghost of Dornford Yates

Dornford Yates


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‘Dornford Yates’ was the pen-name of novelist William Mercer, 1885–1960. Of all the authors whose fiction has got about my wits, none has tempted me so clamorously to find out about his factual life. Where was, and what was the real name of, Gracedieu, the dream ‘House That Berry Built’ in the western foothills of the Pyrenees? How many Rolls Royces did William, later Captain, later Major Mercer own? Why had the marriage of Boy and lovely American Adèle of the books broken up? The disappearance of Adèle left Boy free to marry his lovely, child-like, widowed cousin Jill, Duchess of Padua. Who was she in Mercer’s life?

And so on. The prime Dornford Yates characters, those inter-related five of (in Mr Smithers’ words) ‘the high-class orphans’ co-operative called White Ladies’, were so vivid, and the clues (see under ‘William Mercer’ in the post-Second World War years of Who’s Who) so teasing. For instance, Who’s Who showed that William Mercer had m. an American lady, Bettine, (‘whom he divorced’) and they had had a son, Richard: that Mercer had re-m., this time an English lady, a Miss Bowie: that his address was ‘Cockade’ in Les Eux Bonnes, Basses Pyrénées: that he was a member of the Cavalry Club in London; that he had served in both World Wars. And I had heard… well, one did hear things: about a Frenchman named Ollivier in Pau and what Bettine’s maid had told Mercer when he came back to Pau from London: about Miss Bowie being a beauty, but crippled by polio: about ‘Cockade’ being set on a hill, 93 steps up from the road. Yes one heard things.

Tom Sharpe, the novelist, who had been an addict of the Yates books and has adapted at least one of the thrillers for the BBC, pursued clues about Mercer and published, in one of those Times ‘Saturday Review’ pages in 1961, a photograph of Mercer as a schoolboy wearing the Harrow boater, and some sad and not-too-savoury findings about the Mercer/Bettine break-up and the confidante Thérèse, who was first Bettine’s maid, then Mercer’s witness against Bettine, then an enemy of Mercer himself. One felt sorry for Bettine, ‘whom he divorced’. (Does a gentleman spell it out that way?)

Mr Smithers has done an excellent job, both of literary analysis and of revelation of the contents of many hitherto dark biographical corners. He is a writer admirably suited to his subject. He writes with style. His sympathies are Conservative. He was once a solicitor and writes specially well about the Law, as did Dornford Yates. Mercer himself had spent a year as pupil in a big firm of solicitors in Bedford Row before being called to the Bar. Mr Smithers lives not all that far from the Deal and Walmer area which was the breeding ground of the Dornford/Yates/Wall/Mercer/Munro (‘Saki’ was his first cousin) clans. He has always been a great reader and collector of Dornford Yates’s books and he has loved the White Ladies lot:

The master creation of them all is, of course, Berry. It is more than fifty years since I first encountered him, and the number of times I have read all of his doings and his disquisitions is beyond counting. He remains the only character in English fiction who can still make me laugh aloud … Berry is old England … He is bone-idle, but he is no lily of the field. He is a thread in the cord on which the pearls of England and Englishness are strung. He gives employment to many, he is a conscientious trustee, a level-headed junior member of a bench of magistrates and a support to his vicar. There were Berries in plenty in King Edward’s day, and in those of the first years of the following reign, but only one is amongst the immortals.

I have learnt much from Mr Smithers’ book. (I will try to keep ‘Dornford Yates’ for the writer, ‘Mercer’ for the man and ‘Boy Pleydell’ for the Mercer/Yates character in the books.) Mercer earned a good deal of money and inherited more. But he never owned a Rolls (the number of Rolls Royces in his books is prodigious.) He was devoted to his mother, but not to his father. Although he placed White Ladies and its surrounding villages and scenery lovingly in the New Forest, he had only once been in the New Forest, for a holiday in a horse-drawn caravan. His Anthony Lyveden (1921) and Valerie French (1923) novels may be significant of a mental breakdown of sorts he had himself temporarily suffered. Between the writing of those two books he had been persuaded, by an article in the Spectator, that his prose style could do with more gravitas: and, finding in H W Fowler’s The King’s English a regretful note that ‘the systematic use of the colon has died out with the decay of formal periods’, he decided to increase his use of colons and formal periods. We know the result: some of his thrillers, especially when Richard Chandos has a hand in them, are so full of gravitas, colons and formal periods that it is difficult to keep a straight face to match.

Mercer’s solicitor father seems to have committed suicide (isn’t that what ‘walked under a tram on the Embankment’ means?). A solicitor great-uncle Mercer did commit suicide after his partner was given eight years penal servitude at the age of seventy-six and the firm failed with fraud to the tune of £70,000. Yates’s Falcon of Scotland Yard was based on Chief Inspector Wensley of ditto. There is also a character in some novel that I have missed, Mrs Drinkabeer Stoat. I have always been reduced to wonderment and giggles by Yates’s most purposeful invention of names – euphonious for nice people and places, cacophonous for nasty people and places. How could I have missed Mrs Drinkabeer Stoat?

These are the things Mercer Yates loved and/or admired: his mother, Harrow, Oxford, Anthony Hope (of Harrow, Oxford and the Bar), ‘Saki’, Winston Churchill, Edward VII, the aristocracy, the Portuguese, the Law, the Rolls Royce, the good old days, his dogs. He thought ‘Ann’ his best short story and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon the best novel published in England between the wars. He regretted the passing of flogging and hanging. These are the things he detested: Epstein, suffragettes, Bernard Shaw, Lloyd George, clerihews, criticism, being laughed at, the French, the Jews (but his lawyer in Southern Rhodesia was Benjamin Disraeli Goldberg of Umtali).

He was a jealous man and had a very quick temper. He did not use a literary agent but he kept his publishers on a tight rein with tight contracts. He owned a favourite landscape painting which had a real time-piece behind its clock-tower. In his will he required that a named jeweller should dismantle this picture-clock and ‘destroy it with precise instructions’. And his budgerigar (‘for the purpose of identification, my budgerigar has blue legs and blue feet’) was to be taken to a named veterinary surgeon, ‘painlessly put down and interred in a specified place to a depth of not less than one foot’. All legacies to his son Richard in earlier wills he revoked in his last. So many of the Yates stories concern exacting wills drawn up, or contested, by old Forsyth of Lincoln’s Inn that one is not surprised that Mercer’s own last testament was wilful.

Mr Smithers has missed (unless he has wordlessly dismissed) an item of early Yates writing in a book published by Mills & Boon in 1913. What I Know is the strangely titled ‘Reminiscences of Five Years Personal Attendance Upon His Late Majesty King Edward VII’, by a Mr C W Stamper who was in charge of the ever-growing fleet of royal motorcars from 1905 to the King’s death in 1910. It is a fat, solid book of 364 antique-wove pages of text, with an extra thirty-two pages advertising Mills & Boon books (for example, The Pocket Disraeli, cloth 2/-, paper 1/-: The Aviator’s Companion, 2/6: Eve, Spinster, Anon. 6/-. ‘A brilliant Society novel. The REAL thing.’). In the Foreword Mr Stamper expresses his gratitude to ‘Mr Dornford Yates, but for whose tireless assistance these memories might never have been published.’

And a fascinating book What I Know is, not only for its reverent reporting of hundreds of journeys, with dates and distances, on which Mr Stamper had travelled, up front with the chauffeurs and with the King behind, in England and on the Continent, but for the traces of Dornford Yates in the text. The geiger-counter of a trained mind sends up Yates bleeps, cautious, strong and very strong, with delightful frequency.

Yates’s stories had been appearing in the Windsor Magazine since 1911, but his first book, a collection, The Brother of Daphne, was published in 1914. His contribution to Mr Stamper’s book must have been one of his earliest excursions into print. He does not refer to it in either of those retrospective, introspective and self-satisfied family albums, As Berry and I were Saying (1952) and B-Berry and I Look Back (1958). Let me elaborate about Mr Stamper and What I Know.

In 1905 it was arranged that the royal cars should be driven by Metropolitan Police constables, chosen by the Commissioner. The Queen had a Wolseley. Stamper was manager of the Testing, Repairs and Garage Department of the Lacre Motor Car Co, in Poland Street, agents for Wolseley. Lacres were now requested to send someone down to Buckingham Palace to instruct the new chauffeurs in the management of their cars. Lacres sent Stamper and, after a short period of two-or-three-days-a-week attendance at the Palace, he was asked by the Crown Equerry ‘to enter the King’s service, as His Majesty’s motor expert and engineer and to take charge of the royal cars at once’. He drove the Equerry to Poland Street to see the Managing Director and Lacre dutifully released him at once. He was in the Royal Mews and on the job by noon. Almost immediately (no time to change) he was sitting in front with the chauffeur in a forty horse power Mercedes to drive round and take His Majesty ‘with some of his gentlemen’ to Sandown Park in time for the first race. When the car came to a standstill at the Terrace Entrance to the Palace,

I stepped off the floorboard and uncovered … His Majesty came down a few steps and spoke to me … Everything that happened when I was in His Majesty’s service I remember. I can close my eyes and see him lunching by the wayside near Biarritz, see him walking in the hot sun at Marienbad, see him sitting in his room at the Palace with Caesar [his terrier] at his side. But, not altogether unnaturally, this, my first impression of His Majesty, stands out the sharpest and clearest of them all.
He smiled as he stood there, leaning easily against a pillar, with one elbow on the pedestal and a large cigar in his hand, and for the first time I felt his great personality. For there was a wonderful charm about him…
I had the honour to be constantly in attendance upon His Majesty for five years – indeed up to the time of his death – and I came to know him and his ways. He was a great man and they were great ways.
At once good-natured and dignified … He had a wide sympathy and a sunny, generous nature … Resolute and strong-willed, he was a man who formed powerful opinions and to his opinions he would stick with all the determination in the world, unless and until he was shown that he was wrong, when he would instantly give way in the most frank and handsome manner imaginable … He was a King – the King, but he was a man too – a great-hearted gentleman. His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man.’
‘So you are the new engineer,’ said the King…

That ‘uncovered’, intransitive, for ‘took my hat off: that ‘he was a great man and they were great ways’; that Shakespeare quote (we have ‘fleeting the time carelessly’ a few pages later)… surely these are Yates bleeps of the geiger. And:

Nothing could have been in better taste than the King’s motor equipage. Well appointed and stylish it was, but not at all ostentatious. That was his doing. By circumstance and display, when and where they became his dignity, the King set store. Pomp out of place he could not endure…

that inverted syntax… ‘By circumstance and display … the King set store’… ‘Pomp … he could not endure’, and, later again:

By good manners His Majesty set great store. His own were beyond reproach. To everyone the King always showed the pink of courtesy. For all his polish, his politeness was never profuse; it was always just right. Indeed, for easy grace he had no equal. Even to me, when I was off duty, he always raised his hat – taking it right off his head – whether we were at home or abroad.

Surely that is the handwriting of Dornford Yates.

But for all the pink of his courtesy, the King could lash out at incompetence. In Scotland in 1908 he was riding back from the butts on a pony led by a pony-boy:

Without any warning, the pony stepped upon a piece of treacherous ground, and the next moment the animal was in the bog up to his belly. His Majesty was as unprepared for this contingency as the pony, and the latter’s sudden plunge very naturally unseated him. Fortunately he was thrown onto firm ground. Beyond a shaking he suffered no injury, but he was justly indignant at the pony-boy’s carelessness, rated him fiercely, and laid his stick about the fellow’s shoulders. Considering that the only thing he had to do was to pilot the King in this way, the pony-boy deserved a good deal more punishment than he got, for the accident was due to his negligence and nothing else. Incidentally, the pony-boy was not a boy at all, but a full-grown man with a wife and family.

Shades of Sir Andrew Plague, who laid about a bad servant in I-forget-which novel! Shades of Mercer himself, chastising, with a hunting crop on the steps of the English Club in Pau, and breaking the arm of, the ‘sale Juif!’ Frenchman (Ollivier) who was pursuing Bettine with dishonourable intentions! Shades of Mercer bawling out the clerk in his Bank in Pau! Shades of Mercer beating his French servant for letting the sun strike uncurtained on a favourite watercolour! (In court le Capitaine Mercer is said to have pleaded shellshock recurrent from the First World War.)

Again or, as the later Yates would have written, ‘More.’:

As often as they greeted the King, his grandchildren always kissed His Majesty’s hand before kissing him in the ordinary way. They always addressed him as ‘Sir’, and so did the Prince of Wales.

I had always understood that Mercer’s son Richard was required to call his father ‘Sir’, and Smithers’ book confirms that his father required him to kiss his mother’s hand when saying Good morning and Goodnight.

And… Yates’s tribute to a fellow-writer? The king was, this time, shooting with Mr Arthur Sassoon at Castle Grant:

Whilst the second drive was in progress, a lady drove up in a pony-carriage. She had apparently come to watch the shooting, and see what she could of the King, and I was presently told that it was Miss Marie Corelli. As he entered the car, I drew His Majesty’s attention to her, and told him who she was. He thanked me for letting him know, and, as we passed and she bowed, he not only raised his hat but bowed very graciously in return. Miss Corelli seemed very pleased.

And, finally, is this Yates’s first show of his knowledge and admiration of the late Duke of Wellington (Berry refers to him as ‘Arthur’)?

The reflection that, while at Biarritz, he could not go out for a drive without covering ground which had been made famous by some incident of the Peninsular War was ever to the King most interesting. I do not believe there was a village for miles which had not figured in the great campaign. Cannon had rumbled along the lanes we traversed, brigades had forded the rivers we crossed. Heights we climbed had been scaled and held and captured, and meadows we lunched in had been trampled by cavalry or galloped over by the Duke and his officers in the wake of the hounds that had come from England. Here and there peasants who still lived could remember the fall of San Sebastian, the passage of the Nive, the defeat of Soult at Orthez. And one I was told of, who had more than once seen the hounds in full cry streaming across country, with the Duke of Wellington, in his blue hunting coat, following hard behind, easily distinguishable from the rest of the field…

Blood Royal, and Period Stuff! I have picked out very few of the purely Yatesian plums in the pudding of engineer Stamper’s text in What I Know. You must find it and read it, and then perhaps re-read Yates’s Lower Than Vermin, which is a tuck of drums in honour of English kings, queens and their bobbing courtiers.

I had just finished writing the above when, in the PHS Diary of the Times, this morning, Friday, February 26th, this appears:

Yates and Co.

Has Lord Montagu of Beaulieu discovered a hitherto unsuspected work of Dornford Yates, the creator of Berry and Co? In Home ]ames: The Chauffeur in the Golden Age of Motoring, published earlier this month, Montagu asserts that Yates helped write the memoirs of Edward VII’s chauffeur, C W Stamper.
Yet Jack Smithers, whose biography of Dornford Yates is published by Hodder and Stoughton on Monday, warns me not to believe a word of it. In 1913, when Stamper’s sensationally entitled but otherwise bland What I Know was published, Cecil William Mercer, who adopted the pen-name Dornford Yates, was ‘still a no-account, out-of-the-way, underemployed barrister with no more than a spectator’s knowledge of cars, and only a couple of short stories published in the Windsor Magazine.’
Smithers adds that if Mercer had known the Palace, even through the tradesmen’s entrance, ‘he was such a social climber that we should never have heard the last of it.’
Lord Montagu unfortunately cannot yet support his assertion, which was based on research by his co-author, Patrick Macnaghten, who died last August. But yesterday he commented: ‘It is not the sort of thing we could possibly make up’.

Stamper wasn’t a chauffeur. He was an engineer, a sort of Master of the Royal Motorcars and in charge of the royal chauffeurs. It was routine in early days to have two servants in front ‘on’ the motorcar and there is an early Yates short story of Berry and Co driving in a London pea-soup fog to a fancy dress ball with chauffeur and footman in or on the front seats of the Rolls. King Edward liked Stamper always to be there on journeys, as OC routes, rugs and luncheon baskets, with the chauffeur of the day under his eye and orders. As to Mr Smithers’ assertion that Mercer ‘was such a social climber that we should never have heard the last of any connection he may have had with the Palace’. I submit that, being the snob he was, he could conceivably not have wished to publicise so lowly a connection as ghost-writer to a Palace servant. But Yates/Mercer’s reverence for King Edward VII is instanced by Mr Smithers in his book, quoting:

He [King Edward VII] was worshipped because he was worshipful: loved because he was lovable: however well you felt, the sight of him made you feel better than you had felt before … So long as he lived, Germany dared not make war…

It occurs to me too that Yates/Mercer always made for the Atlantic side of southern France, driving via Abbeville, Rouen, Chartres, Poitiers, Bordeaux and the Landes to Biarritz and Pau. Biarritz and Pau were King Edward’s favourites. Perhaps this job on the Stamper book predisposed Mercer to go in that direction, rather than to the Mediterranean, later.

I wish Mr Smithers had tackled and solved for me the problem of the novels of that husband-and-wife team, A M and C M Williamson. From 1904 onwards they were writing romantic stories about upper-class holiday travel by motor car – at first steam-driven with uniformed engineers, later petrol-driven with good-looking chauffeurs, probably gentlemen in disguise – in Europe and America. Their last novel, published in 1921, is titled Berry Goes to Monte Carlo. It’s about an amusing bachelor, Sir Berrian Borrowdale, Bart, offering facilities for six paying (25 guineas per week, inclusive) guests, to, at and back from Monte. As far as I can remember, acceptances were received from, amongst others, two pretty, rich American girls, and Lady Borrowdale, Berry’s mother, an adequate chaperone for such pg’s, had to start calling herself ‘The Dowager’ at the happy ending. Now Yates’s Berry Pleydell had been in print since 1911 and the collection of stories Berry and Co was published in 1920. Surely there was a battle of books and Berries? I could trace none when I casually researched the problem. What did go on?

The second point is perhaps a quibble. Mr Smithers quotes Cyril Connolly’s ‘famous’ piece in 1935 in the New Statesman:

Sometimes, at great garden parties, literary luncheons, or in the quiet of an exclusive gunroom, a laugh rings out. The sad formal faces for a moment relax and a smaller group is formed within the larger. They are admirers of Dornford Yates who have found out each other. We are badly organised, we know little about ourselves and next to nothing about our hero, but we appreciate fine writing when we come across it, and a wit that is ageless united to a courtesy that is extinct.

I suspect that Mr Smithers takes this seriously. I know, because I spoke of it with Connolly in the hubbub of a boozy party, that he wrote it with his tongue in his cheek. This is a position of the tongue that I notice often in my own mouth when I write about Dornford Yates, and I can spot occasions in this book when Mr Smithers’ own tongue isn’t exactly aligned to his palate.

I commend this book to anybody who has been fascinated by the works of ‘Dornford Yates’, especially by those two late autobiographical volumes, B-Berry And I Look Back and As B-Berry And I Were Saying. In these the ‘I’ character is Boy Pleydell, married to darling Jill, and with her, Daphne, Berry and Jonah giving him their best and asking him to tell them stones, about his (=Mercer’s) life at the Bar, as the author of the ‘Dornford Yates’ books and as a sage judge of the good world that has gone and the bad world that succeeded it when the English turned Winston Churchill out in 1945.

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