Fair Stood the Wind for France – H E Bates

Apart from Bertie Plays the Blues, I can’t remember the last modern novel I read. I’ve found myself mostly back in the 19th century with occasional forays into the early 20th. I also haven’t read any non-fiction for some time, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was the last, over a month ago. Reading the many Persephone titles written during WWI & WWII has spoiled me for modern fictional recreations of those times. I love reading a book where the author didn’t know how the war would end. It gives the story such tension & immediacy, the same kind of immediacy I get from reading diaries & letters of the period.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is by H E Bates, probably better known these days for his Darling Buds Of May novels about the Larkin family. It’s the story of John Franklin, a bomber pilot & his crew, forced to land in Occupied France on the way home from a raid. The camaraderie of the crew is quickly established as a routine flight home almost turns to tragedy when an air-screw comes loose & they have to make an emergency landing. Franklin lands in a marsh & while the others are uninjured, his arm is badly damaged. They set off to make their way south to Spain & home. When their food runs out, & Franklin’s injury is slowing them down, they realise they will have to ask for help. They come to a mill where a young woman doesn’t hesitate to take them in, feed them & hide them until her father can arrange for their escape. Franklin realises how dangerous their presence is. If the Germans find them, the airmen would be taken to a prison camp, the family would be shot.

At first, there is distrust on both sides. The airmen can’t be sure that the family will not betray them to the Germans & the family must rely on the airmen to do as they’re told & take no risks. The young woman, Françoise, & Franklin soon become close. She arranges for a doctor to see his arm & the scene where they go to the village to see him is full of tension. Françoise waits for Franklin in the church & he finds her there, praying for all of them,

‘I had faith that you will get away safely, and I know that it can happen. I have prayed very hard for that.’
He did not know what to say. He felt small because of her simplicity and the great assurance behind the simplicity. She did not speak for a moment or two either. He knelt there looking at her sideways, watching her black hair curl against her face, and the lips firmly and quietly set in the shadow of her hands. As he knelt watching her the feeling of being watched and followed by someone no longer meant anything. It slipped away and seemed ridiculous. The hard tangle of events was smoothed away, too, with his fear.

The decision is made that the crew will try to escape but Franklin will have to stay until his wound has healed. These weeks of summer when Franklin’s love for Françoise grows & the knowledge that, if he survives, he will have to leave her, are beautifully portrayed. Françoise is a resourceful young woman, fishing to supplement her family’s poor diet, chatting to the German sentry on the bridge over the stream, all the time planning Franklin’s escape. Franklin & Françoise make the most of their time together as the German patrols increase & the danger they are all in becomes palpable. As summer ends, Franklin finds himself longing for home,

The rain woke in him, as nothing else had woken in him, all his feeling for England. It was a longing deeper, at that moment, than his feelings for the girl; deeper than the mere desire for escape; deeper than the war, the things the war had done, and the desire for the war to be over. As he stood there all the memory of rain in England washed down through his blood and steadily increased the ache of homesickness until he was suddenly and utterly tired of the mill, the house, the river, and the flat French plain, tired of the smell of France, of speaking and thinking another language and, above all, of the complications. He felt all the Englishness of himself washed bare to the surface, clean and clear and simple as the rain.

This is a very understated novel.The terror of living under Occupation, the arbitrary nature of justice when 100 people can be taken hostage & 50 of them shot because a labour gang killed a German overseer. The fear that every visitor to the mill could be a spy. All this is conveyed very simply & unsensationally yet the atmosphere of long, hot summer days is always undercut with tension. The change of pace when Franklin & Françoise start on their journey is startling. I read the last half of the book in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down. I loved this book & I’d recommend it to anyone who has read other novels & memoirs of the period.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Fair Stood the Wind For France available for purchase at Anglophile Books. I love the dustjacket on that copy, it’s just beautiful

13 thoughts on “Fair Stood the Wind for France – H E Bates

  1. I have been SO bad lately buying new books but I think I need this one too! I've only read Feast of July, but I also have Love for Lydia as well. He was hugely prolific–thanks for the reminder of his work! Love this cover by the way!

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  2. Well, this is my favourite period, as you know! I seem to remember another blogger reading and really loving this a while ago…? I've not read any H E Bates – in my head he's just associated with the somewhat hokey TV series of Darling Buds, but I'll definitely keep an eye out for this now.

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  3. Dani, you really do need this book, you know. The cover is the same on the latest Penguin Modern Classics edition, it just has different typeface for the title. I haven't read any of his other novels but I think I have some of his short stories somewhere. Frances, I hope you get hold of a copy, it was a great read. Simon, yes, I read a rave review on Reading Matters & that made me get the book down. I've only had it sitting there 5 years or so!

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  4. Oh, this sounds so wonderful, Lyn. I don't know the work of H.E. Bates, in fact I don't know the work of many British writers writing during this period. I've never gotten my hands on the books. That's my excuse.

    I love that period in history as well.

    I am going to have to look a bit harder to get my hands on these writers. Simon at STUCK IN A BOOK reads these kinds of books as well but I can never find them at my library.

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  5. It's a beautiful book, Yvette, I think you'd enjoy it. Bates is probably best known these days for the Darling Buds of May books about a bucolic but wily English family. They were made into a TV series with David Jason (Inspector Frost), Pam Ferris & a very young Catherine Zeta-Jones. I haven't read the books or seen the series so I don't know how good/accurate they are. I'd like to try the books at least.

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  6. I went through a stage where I read a huge number of H E Bates books but I could never get on with the Larkin books and I have to confess that the TV series really wasn't my cup of tea either!
    I loved Fair Stood the Wind For France, though, partly helped I suspect because my copy belonged to my mum and is in a special wartime edition using a different quality of paper. Very atmospheric!

    Hope that your cats are doing okay!

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  7. Liz, the cats are very well & running the house as if they had always lived here. We were in the garden this morning when I took a break from the housework & I took some photos. I hope to take more tomorrow when I do some gardening so I'll post the pictures if they're any good.

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  8. I wonder about the title. I know the poem Agincourt, by Michael Drayton, but don't understand why H.E. Bates chose this quote.
    I also wonder why the pilot mentions several times that he hopes they have crash landed in Occupied France, not Vichy. Why is this?
    Would really appreciate getting info.
    Thanks.

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  9. Liz,
    I have to questions about this wonderful book, one of my all time favorites.
    First, why did the pilot hope to have landed in occupied France rather than Vichy? He states this wish several times.
    Second, I don't understand the title. I know it's a quote from the Michael Drayton poem Agincourt, but can't understand the relationship to this novel other than the massive odds for survival that the pilot was facing in France. Isn't Fair Stood the Wind more of a naval description? Why is it suitable for the story? Perhaps the boat at the end?
    Would love to have information to understand these questions.
    Thanks.
    Mara

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  10. Hi Mara. I read the book a couple of years ago so I'm afraid I can't answer your questions. I assume he wanted to land in occupied France because he hoped to get help from the locals. Vichy was collaborating with Germany so he was probably less likely to get help there. I'm glad you like the book.

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  11. I have read this wonderful book perhaps 5 times since I first read it as a boy some 55 years ago. I never take it off the shelf without experiencing a frisson of anxiety , because although it is a consummate love story, it is also darkly tragic, and although it is compelling it does not make for comfortable reading. It is one of the most finely crafted works that I can think of , with exemplary characterisation of all those who have a part to play in the rescue of the crew, and it is quite clear to me that, since it was written in 1944 before there was widespread knowledge of the situation in occupied France, the author who was based in England plainly had intimate knowledge about the circumstances of, and work of, the resistance . Disturbing though the book is in many ways, I recommend it without hesitation to all who are interested in novels about human nature

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  12. Yes, it's beautifully written. I don't know anything about Bates's life so maybe he did have some inside knowledge of the situation in Europe. A certain amount must have been known before the war ended. I know I'll read it again one day.

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