The English Air by D.E. Stevenson might just be my new favourite DES book. It might even surpass the Mrs Tim books in my affections. No, that’s ridiculous, I love Mrs Tim too dearly see her supplanted even by this book. But The English Air is excellent and is even better than Sarah Morris Remembers, another of my favourite DES books and one which, with its WWII-era setting and Germanic hero, shares many similarities with The English Air.
Franz von Heiden arrives in England in the summer of 1938 to stay with his English cousins. The product of a “mixed” marriage, Franz’s English mother died when he was a small boy and he was raised by his strict German father, now a prominent member of the Nazi party. A reserved young man in his early twenties, Franz has come to England to improve his English (he is a talented linguist) and learn about the English character and culture. He is not precisely a spy but there is the expectation that whatever he learns will be useful to the Reich in judging the mood and examining the weaknesses of the English people.
Fritz’s early confusion about English culture was delightful. The English sense of humour is beyond him and the casual use of understatement makes it difficult for him to judge what is meant seriously and what is meant in jest:
Franz sighed. It was so difficult. What were these people really like inside? They made fun of everything, they insulted each other…and laughed; they reviled their superior officers and criticised their government and its administration. To Franz they were like people from another planet and the more he saw of them the more incompetent he was to understand them.
His English cousins and their friends seem so young and foolish. It takes a while for Franz to see and respect their strength and loyalty, traits hidden beneath their carefree exteriors. In the Germany where Franz has grown up, no one is carefree. His attempts to tell his new friends about life in Germany, about the Wandervögel, for instance, only make him see more clearly the things that bother him about his homeland, things he has been too afraid to admit even to himself:
These feelings of doubt and vague discontent were far below the surface, and indeed, if the truth were told, Franz had never before acknowledged them to himself. It was only now, when he looked back and saw it all in perspective, that he knew his own mind. He realised, as he spoke, and described the Wandervögel outings in glowing terms, that Roy and Harry were made of different stuff – he had been faintly disgusted, but they would be horrified; he had been a trifle bored, but they would be bored to death.
Far from home, Franz initially feels defensive of his country but, when he finds people willing to believe his exaggerate descriptions of the wonders of the Reich, his own loyalty starts to falter. He falls in love with his cousin Wynne and, having agreed with her uncle not to tell her immediately of his feelings, finds a job and sets to work in London. The tensions between his homeland and the country he has come to love trouble him; no one, with the possible exception of Mr Chamberlain, is more ecstatic over the outcome of the Munich Crisis – or more devastated when he realises that Germany has no intention of abiding by the terms of the agreement.
When Germany does violate the Munich agreement, Franz (now anglicised to Frank) is horrified. He rushes back to Germany, intent on getting his beloved great-aunt Anna and party-member father out of the country. Things do not go according to plan but, for once!, D.E. Stevenson surprised me with an ending that felt well-paced rather than abrupt.
One of the most charming aspects of the book was Franz’s relationship with his delightful cousin Sophie, Wynne’s mother. Years before, Sophie and Franz’s mother had grown up together and been best friends. When Franz’s parents were married, his mother moved to Germany, the First World War began and the two women lost contact. By the time the war had ended and communication was possible again, Franz’s mother had died. Sophie and Franz are immediately sympathetic to one another because of this bond; Sophie provides Franz with a link to his long-dead mother and he provides Sophie with a connection to the best friend lost to her by marriage and a world war. By virtue of her age and the times she has lived through, Sophie is more serious than her children and, at first, a more natural companion for the sober-minded Franz. Their early conversations as Frank stumbles to make out the English character are wonderful, particularly when they descend into the kind of domestic details that D.E. Stevenson did so well. I especially loved this conversation about Sophie’s reading material; you can practically see D.E.S. winking her eye at her readers:
“What have you been doing all day, Cousin Sophie?”
“I was very lazy. I got a new book from the library and I’ve been reading all afternoon.”
“It is very interesting?” Frank inquired.
“Yes…no,” said Sophie in a doubtful tone. “I mean you wouldn’t like it, dear. It isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but it’s the sort of book I like. It’s about nice people and it ends properly – she marries the right man and they live happily ever after.”
“Have you looked at the end?”
“Of course not, but Elaine Elkington’s books are all like that. You can trust her to end it all happily – such a comfort! Some of the books nowadays begin quite nicely and cheerfully and then, half way through, they go all wrong and make you miserable. You’ve begun to like the people by that time, so it isn’t fair.”
Published in 1940, it is refreshing to see how fair and positive a portrait D.E.S. paints of her German protagonist. There is no question that Franz (or Frank) is the main character. Wynne is nice and good but as bland as most of D.E.S.’s heroines and firmly in the background for most of the story. Instead, we see everything through Franz’s eyes; it is his outsider perspective and the moral challenges he faces when his allegiances begin to shift that makes this book so engaging and enjoyable. Franz’s struggles – both humourous and serious – make him a far more intelligent and compelling focus than I am used to in D.E. Stevenson’s novels. She can write a good gentle, mindless romance (and goodness knows she wrote enough of those) but when she adds some intelligence the books reach a whole new, wonderful level.