Thursday, December 8, 2016
All Night At Mr Stanyhurst's - Hugh Edwards, introduced by Ian Fleming
In its issue for May 2, 2008, the Times Literary Supplement ran a feature entitled ‘James Bond’s TLS’ by Andrew Lycett, looking at Ian Fleming's book collecting interests. This noted that he had championed a “little-known 1933 novel, All Night at Mr Stanyhurst’s, by Hugh Edwards, which he caused to be republished by Jonathan Cape.” The TLS described it as a “whimsical book” about “a corrupt eighteenth-century rake” and involving “a nautical adventure centred on a shipwreck.”
In his introduction to the 1963 edition of All Night at Mr Stanyhurst’s (which appeared with his name considerably larger than the author’s) Fleming says: “An essential item in my ‘Desert Island’ library would be the Times Literary Supplement, dropped to me each Friday by a well-trained albatross.” As I have remarked elsewhere, the usual image of Ian Fleming in an evening suit, with smoke spiralling from a cigarette in an elegant holder, doesn’t quite suggest a furtive forager amongst old tomes. But in fact he was a keen bibliophile, and both founded and largely funded the journal The Book Collector.
The title of Hugh Edwards’ book refers to the telling of a story all through one stormy night to the genteel dandy of the title, in the company of his pert young ward and a worldly priest. The tale is told by a sailor, one of the few survivors from a shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. He describes how the few who made it to the shore were then faced with a gruelling trek through inhospitable country to the nearest habitation.
The novel is indeed highly distinctive, and has both a strange atmosphere and a supernatural element. The disaster, we learn, could have been caused by the malefic influence of a plundered Indian treasure amongst its cargo: The Canopy of Heaven, a jewelled cloth set about with many legends. However, it is not so much the plot that makes the book so accomplished, as the author's style: elegant, assured, steeped in its period and setting, rich in nuances.
It is an original and unusual work. The nearest comparison I can make is to Robert Nichols’ Under the Yew (1928), also about an 18th century rake, or to E.H. Visiak’s romance of sea-witchery, Medusa (1929), but these are only very distant cousins. The Edwards book is spicier and has a few lightly sensuous passages which probably appealed to Fleming. There is also something of the tone, as well as the historical verisimilitude, of the Patrick O’Brian naval books.
In his introduction, Fleming quotes the critic James Agate’s praise for the book: “I will maintain that here is probably a little masterpiece and certainly a tour de force. So far as my reading goes, it is the best long story or short novel since Conrad.” Agate sent a copy of the book to Max Beerbohm, who replied that he had read it twice with the liveliest pleasure.
The book, says Fleming, had “rave reviews” on publication, but despite that, Cape told him, it took four years to exhaust the edition of fifteen hundred copies. A second edition in the ‘New Library’ series took seven years to sell a further three thousand copies. In fact, this is not at all a bad record for an unknown author with an unusual book – contrast it with the fate of David Lindsay’s books, for example. But one can see that to the bestselling Fleming, it must have looked like much less than the book’s due.
Hugh Edwards was the author of four other books, Sangoree (1932), Crack of Doom (1934), Helen Between Cupids (1935) and Macaroni (1938), all from Cape except the last, which was published by Geoffrey Bles. All Night at Mr Stanyhurst’s was also turned into a radio play by a friend of the author, Commander E.J. King-Bull (a name you could scarcely make up with plausibility) and broadcast on the cultural BBC Third Programme on 14 March 1954, with three repeats that year.
Fleming tells us that Edwards “was born in Gibraltar in 1878 of a naval family, was educated privately and at Sandhurst, whence he joined the West India Regiment and saw service mostly in the West Indies and West Africa. After twelve years in the army, he was invalided out and retired to his sister’s cottage in East Prawle in Devon.” Here he “set about writing professionally, but it was some twenty years before Cape accepted his first novel.”
In the “tiny fisherman’s cottage…he lived the life of an eighteenth-century recluse, confining himself to one attic in which there was nothing but a large bed and hundreds of books.” There “he lived the remote life of his imagination for many years, reading, writing and composing albums of illustrated nonsense rhymes for the numerous nephews and nieces and cousins who came to stay.” There was also an unfinished, perhaps lost, autobiography.
After the last of the books was published, says Fleming, “silence! Hobbies: painting, polo, bridge and chess.” Hugh Edwards died in 1952 at the age of 73. There are many elements of autobiography in his books, not only in their settings but also in the characters and their manners and attitudes, and Fleming suggests also in the poignancies of the stories, too. But, he concludes, in a fine epitaph, “these and other secrets of this strange, and in some curious sense ghostly figure have gone to his grave with him and will, I fancy, never be disturbed.”