Re-reading To the Dark Tower in 1975, when Arrow reissued it in paperback (it had first been published in 1946 when he was twenty-three), Francis King was ‘pleasantly surprised’—as well he might be. He recorded this reaction in his 1993 memoir Yesterday Came Suddenly, but he had little else to say about the book. By then he had published a further seventeen or so novels, as well as poetry, short stories, reviews and a lot else; and he had pursued a career that took him around the world. You could forgive his finding a lot more to talk about in a book about himself; but his first novel is more than just an item on a distinguished resume.
Roughly drafted during his first year as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, To the Dark Tower was mainly written in the evenings, at a small folding table in his bedroom, when, as a pacifist during the late months of the Second World War, he was spending his days doing hard physical work on a smallholding in Essex. By the time he went back to Oxford, after the war, it had been published.
Here and in subsequent novels, one of King’s main topics is the passion that simmers under the surface of English self-restraint during an era of bowler-hatted conformity and creeping suburbia. Late in the book, there is a scene in which the central character Hugh Weir and his friend Croft go for a walk in the New Forest. This great park was once created as hunting land for William the Conqueror but is now crawling with hikers and picnickers and has been subjected to the conventions of the suburban crowd, there for the day in their cheap automobiles:
Not too far: that was the great thing. Keep to the paths and picnic where others had left their picnic paper. And in case the solitude and the silence should suddenly become intolerable and one had to escape, two or three hundred yards away were parked the Morrises and the Austins and the Hillmans.
This may look like the beginnings of a complaint about the rising lower classes, perhaps similar in tone to the closing pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). But class was not a topic that particularly interested King. Indeed, as his career developed, he often gave his fiction overseas settings in order to escape the unspoken imperative of his era, that an English writer must concern himself primarily with questions of class. His international career for the British Council (Italy, Greece, Finland, Japan) provided some of the rich settings for these escapes from the British prison of class.
The New Forest picnickers who stay close to their cars and stick to the designated footpaths represent a small-mindedness and cool-heartedness that is to be deplored in English life. There is a dash of Lawrence in King’s work, perhaps more than a dash of Forster. He takes from the former the impulse to overcome inhibition, and from the latter the need for human connectedness. General Sir Hugh Weir’s masculine inhibitions have made him self-consciously rigid in both body and emotion—he does read books, but his assessments of what he reads are not made according to aesthetic criteria: ‘I have begun to re-read A Farewell to Arms. That is a virile book’—and yet he is a restless spirit, amenable to romantic inspiration. For such a more open-minded spirit, a dream may even take shape to the extent of becoming a plan: a sexual encounter, say, or a trip up the Amazon. But he needs help to make the leap, and he is inclined to resist, or unable to recognise, the helping hand. One such, at first, is Croft; another, Shirley Forsdike, who mistakenly thinks that René Descartes said ‘I feel, therefore I am’.
The suppression of emotional intensity is an obvious topic for a gay writer from the immediate post-war period, regardless of whether he makes gayness explicit as his central topic. (I think of Somerset Maugham and Terence Rattigan.) As the first novel of a gay writer during the period of continued illegality, To the Dark Tower has its points of interest, even if the theme of same-sex love or desire is not yet central, as it would be in some of King’s later books. Hugh Weir’s friend S.N.G., a writer, seems to be a homosexual of the old sort. His poetry is brutal but, from Hugh’s viewpoint, his private life seems to be conducted with discreet but not secret gentility: ‘So cautiously amorous, inviting young writers to meet his mother or giving them dinner at his Club’. In old age he is attended by Simpson, who began his service as gardener’s boy, then became chauffeur, and is now nurse-maid; but he obviously means more to his employer in an unnamed private role.
By contrast, as a heterosexual, Hugh is at least free to be open in his forays into human contact. He has seen the world. Even at seventeen, he went to Paris with S.N.G. and two other friends:
For his school-friends, on that visit to Paris, it had been sufficient to drink absinthe in a Montmartre café where the sexes danced together—women mooning round in each others’ arms, men swaying together. But to him this had merely seemed trivial: he had outgrown his adolescence.
So he buys off his virginity in the arms of a whore. Not for him the pose of cultured decadence that convinces his friends they are alive to the world. (But the whore still calls him ‘petit garçon’.)
In the carnage he witnesses among the trenches of the First World War, as he writes in his diary, ‘it had seemed to me that here was a brotherhood to be proud of—the brotherhood of Slayer and Slain. Those soldiers were nearer than lovers, their hate was more noble than any love. I saw then the need for suffering and death’. Something of the same thrill arises again, later, when he and S.N.G. travel together to Nazi Berlin and see ‘the virile youth goose-stepping through the streets’. He had thought this spirit had vanished from the civilised world, but here it is again: ‘A virile barbarism, pagan, not effete, strong, ruthlessly strong, ascetic—I had found what I imagined no longer existed’. He finds himself wishing for another war even as he sees ‘S.N.G.’s eyes closing in distaste’, not taken in by the surface glamour of the scene. Nazism is evidently more acceptable to the homosocial sensibility of the soldier than to the homosexual desire of the writer.
Where Hugh is unrestrained is in his advocacy of high standards of masculinity: he causes the death of his own son, Dennis, in a test of the boy’s virility and daring.
But he loved his Father, oh yes, he loved him. And in the innocently erotic dreams of childhood he and Father no longer wrestled, but lay silent and motionless together, all conflict gone; and Dennis’s face rested on his chest; and his arms encircled him in a snare of love.
When Hugh makes friends with the younger man Croft, he sees qualities in him that he would have appreciated in Dennis. And yet these turn out not to be the ones he had demanded of the boy when he was alive. Croft is good at cooking, housework and embroidery. Hugh writes: ‘It is only the bowler-hatted multitudes, afraid of being thought effeminate, who cry out: “That’s not a man’s job”. The true, the virile, man usurps a woman’s household function without shame’. So masculinity can have a third dimension, after all.
S.N.G. sees Hugh as a god who has responsibilities to those who worship him. If nothing else, he must live up to his own life-long refusal to join the cowed conformists. It is, crucially, S.N.G. who pushes him to respond to Shirley’s desperation—a response that proves, in the end, of equal benefit to his own unrecognised needs.
Hugh, or rather the General (as he becomes), has been a ‘hero’ in public life, even if he is not exactly a hero to the novel. His past has been spent ‘leading impossible expeditions, heroically showing young boys how to die’; for which he has been rewarded with mentions and medals. As a young man of action in public, he also achieved a good deal of action in private, sowing his wild oats, before settling down to married life, fatherhood and widower-hood. Yet in later life he finds himself hero-worshipped still, by a much younger woman in whom he has no interest and whom he therefore resists. In the end it is Shirley’s dogged pursuit of Hugh that comes closest to equalling any heroism he exhibited in his early life.
Francis King went on writing fiction to the end of his life, even while juggling the duties and distractions of a major figure in the nation’s literary life. He was drama critic of the Sunday Telegraph, chairman of the Society of Authors, president of International PEN, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature... In the 1970s, he co-founded with Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy the Writers Action Group, which was to campaign for Public Lending Right. He was given the conventional honours of an officially recognised literary figure: the OBE in 1979, CBE in 1985.
His novels often included autobiographical themes or events. In this book, for instance, a preoccupation with the deaths of fathers is taken from the author’s own life: King’s father, who worked in the Indian Intelligence Bureau, died of tuberculosis when the boy was only thirteen. But he was never confessional, always circumspect. Despite the themes I have been outlining, in this early fiction and even towards the end of his career, he always seems to be holding something back. Perhaps that is how he most clearly differs, not only from Lawrence and Forster, but also from nearer contemporaries such as Angus Wilson. Perhaps his gradual entry into the Establishment accounts for this ultimate limitation on his fiction.