Saturday, June 20, 2015

FANFARONADE - Ivo Pakenham

Fanfaronade (1934) is a well-written and distinctive timeslip novel, the only published book of Ivo Pakenham. Although there seems to have been just one edition, at least two bindings are known, in scarlet and black. It starts in contemporary times as a brother and sister are driven through a forest road in Autumn to a 14th century chateau. The young man is deeply interested in medieval history, the editor or author of a number of acclaimed works on the period, and is gently ribbed for living in the past (there is probably much of the author himself in this). He contemplates a book one day on the strange history and symbolism of playing cards.

While exploring the castle he misses his step in a stone passage and awakes to find he has entered a medieval world where he is the young Duke of an independent domain embroiled in wars, plots and feuds, forever fighting to remain free from greater powers. The period is vividly evoked, with an eye for telling detail. In the gorgeousness of the scenes and the intricacies of the court there is some affinity with such works as E R Eddison’s Zimiamvia fantasies, Baron Corvo’s Don Tarquinio, or Leslie Barringer’s Burgundian novels.

The dustjacket description says:

“In Fanfaronade Mr. Ivo Pakenham has written a first novel which is almost startlingly different. Not content with this, he has also succeeded in combining an amazingly intimate knowledge of medieval history with a rare ability to clothe its dry bones in a richly-woven mantle of romance.

The chief thread of the tale is a mystical throwback which links our days with those of the fifteenth century. The hero himself is unconscious of his metamorphosis, for it is only at the last that he is vouchsafed the vision of his past which is unknown to all those around him. This intriguing standpoint should be welcomed by the large public which is interested in such problems.

The author has painted for us a magnificent picture with a wealth of colour which should entrance even the non-historical reader. On his canvas courtiers, priests and lovers, banquets, tournaments and pageantry glow against a dark background of treachery and witchcraft, politics and war. The dramatic interest of the plot is so great that unless the reader simply cannot bear the suspense and looks at the end, it will keep him anxious for " what is coming next " until the last page is turned.

There is about Mr. Pakenham's writing a beauty and fineness that mark him out as being destined for big things.”

Alas, no other work of fiction by Ivo Pakenham is known. The book is co-dedicated to the author’s mother (“who did not live to see it published”) and to Maurice Lincoln (“fellow author”) with thanks for their “kindly sympathy and helpful criticism” which helped ensure the book was finished. Lincoln was the author of four novels in the Twenties and Thirties, including the fantasy The Man from Up There (1928).

There is an epigraph, giving the source of the book’s title: “So much by way of fanfaronade before the showman pulls the strings”, from Paul Foster’s Daughter, vol 1, by Dutton Cook, the largely forgotten Victorian journalist and author of about a dozen novels, and books about the theatre. This is followed by the author’s foreword, signed London, July 1934, which explains that “many months of intensive preliminary reading were necessary before this book could be started at all”, and lists the history books he used as sources.

The author admits: “I have quite frankly, for the purposes of my story, emphasised the colour and splendour of the Middle Ages, but I hope that I have not shown myself altogether unaware of the other side of the tapestry – of those loose threads of squalor, discomfort and superstition which were such an integral part of a brilliant period.”

He also explains the approach he has taken to the difficult question of dialogue in historical fiction, too often marred by “godwottery”: “To use modern language seems to me to be a slovenly way of working, while that of the “cloak and sword” school is unquestionably worse…All I have tried to do, therefore is to endeavour to catch the cadence and intonation of fifteenth-century speech…”. In this he is quite nicely successful, achieving a fine compromise.

The reference to the recent passing of his mother enables us to identify the author from amongst a number of a similar name in his family. He was Ivo Robert Raymond Lygon Pakenham, born 4 December 1903, the son of Capt Robert Edward Michael Pakenham, born 28 July 1874, Royal Munster Fusiliers, who served in the Boer War and the Great War, and died of wounds 17 January 1915, and his wife Nancye Fowler, died 19 March 1934. His book was published in September 1934, just six months after his mother had died.

I was helped in this identification by a relation of the author, Katherine Pakenham, who kindly gave me a few further details. As in the protagonist in the novel, the author had a sister, Emilie Estelle Rosemary Pakenham (1907-1932). He never spoke of his book, which was unknown to his wider family, and this seemed unusual because Ivo was “a flamboyant character”: “we're still baffled why he should have kept the book's existence so quiet, or indeed why there were no successors,” she told me. However, he devoted a lot of time to the genealogy of his family and emblazoned an elaborate family tree: Fanfaronade demonstrates a lively interest in medieval heraldry.

Ivo Pakenham lived in Kensington and was an antiques dealer, described as “very knowledgeable”. He died in the 1980s in a nursing home on the south coast. His one work of literature certainly deserves to find a discerning readership.


  1. I read Fanfaronade as a boy purely by chance, as an unsold book at a jumble sale. I was only 14 and books were a bit of a rarity in my house. But this got to me. I think the timeslip aspect drew me in as I doubt I would have weathered the medievalism without it being seen through the eyes of a character from the 20th century. I was very impressed by the richness of it all. I'm 64 now and haven't seen the book since but have still retained the memory. I had often wondered if there was any more by the author. Now I know. Thanks to you for your research. The truth of the authorship is actually mysterious. A single accomplished novel that the author never spoke about. It is almost as though he, like his protagonist had had a strange experience that he got out of his system by writing it out.

  2. Thank you for your evocative note about what the book has meant to you. It does indeed seem to have an aura of mystery about it.