I have written in the past about historical fiction, including a passing mention of Alfred Duggan, but I thought today I’d slow down and take a look at his work.
I first encountered Alfred Duggan when I picked up a copy of Count Bohemond at a yard sale back in California. In fact, I think either my wife got it for me or pointed it out to me, knowing that I was fascinated by Bohemond. I was equally fascinated by the novel, which is strange to the modern reader of historical fiction in a way that’s hard to describe.
I mean, I’m assuming that since you’re reading my blog you’ve read a modern historical novel or two — your Bernard Cornwells or what have you. The literary equivalent of a thin coating of mud and grime on everything. But that’s … not quite what Duggan is like. Let me give you an example.
It was late before Tancred returned to his own pavilion, bot Bohemond had persuaded him against further revenge. That boy could always be guided by an appeal to honour. It was just that his honourable thirst for vengeance was stronger sometimes than his other honourable sentiments. After hearing the advice of an older and wiser man he would always do the right thing. But how that boy enjoyed his emotions, how he wallowed in the luxurious depths of his honour! He must be the centre of attention. Probably he had been just as happy exchanging the Kiss of Peace with Count Baldwin before a crowd of admiring spectators as he would have been, if things had turned out a little differently, kneeling on Baldwin’s chest to hack off his head.
I thought that combination of matter-of-fact description and dry humour was just the character of Bohemond, the kind of ruthless scumbag that comes out of a particularly nasty set of territorial conflicts to become Prince of Antioch. But actually, it’s just how Duggan writes — the same … restraint? … is present in all his novels.
I think this is probably what Evelyn Waugh was referring to when he said:
They are there to be studied by all whose taste is not debauched by modern excesses; lucid, plausible stories, humorous, wry and exact. A particular palate is required for their savour.
Now, the other thing that Waugh pointed out about Duggan’s work was that it’s all grounded within a context of firm Christian faith. So, for instance, we’re supposed to be very moved at the end of Count Bohemond when we hear that
The 24th of December 1099 was the first Christmas Eve for more than 450 years on which free, armed Christians might celebrate the Nativity in Bethlehem.
I think it’s notable that the action of the novel follows Bohemond, which means that it skips the actual conquest of Jerusalem so you don’t get all the, y’know, wholesale slaughter of civilians. That’s not to say that Duggan portrays Christians as good guys all the time — we see that Bohemond is a flawed character, sincerely pious but self-interested. Same is true of the characters in his other books. It’s just weird in the 21st century to see a version of the Norman Conquest that presents to the Normans not only as the good guys but as self-evidently the good guys.
Also, although Duggan loved military history, castles, weapons and so on he writes fight scenes in that same slightly detached style, completely different from the modern trend. What’s more, in some of his books, like Winter Quarters, his protagonists just lose battle after battle. If that’s what happened, that’s what happened.
Oh, another thing! Duggan’s father was an Irish-Argentinian diplomat who died when Duggan was very young; his mother than married Lord Curzon. Which means that Duggan’s stepfather owned, among other places, Bodiam Castle — and the first scene of Duggan’s first novel is set there! Oh Bodiam, will I ever escape you?
(I imagine it to this tune):
Anyway, I like Alfred Duggan a lot, and not just because he published his first novel at 47 after spending the first half of his life just boozing and partying. I affect bemusement at how different his style is from the modern trend, but it is, like the man said, clear and perceptive. I personally have a love for Count Bohemond and Knight With Armour because they’re about the First Crusade, but if you like ancient history you could check out Winter Quarters; I still haven’t read Conscience of the King but I probably should.