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.