This month, my bedtime reading has been mostly Dornford Yates and it’s the Berry books which I’ve been re-reading. In spite of all the criticisms of the books which I’m about to make, there always will be re-reads. This must be the clue as to what makes a best-selling author, as Yates was between the wars. There are ten (?) Berry books plus a later compilation volume. They concern the adventures of the Pleydell family.
Berry (Bertram) Pleydell is head of the family and the funny one (how funny he really is depends upon your mood). He’s highly loquacious and likely to launch into long, fantastical speeches at any moment. He is married to the beautiful Daphne, whom he occasionally refers to as ‘my hag’. Daphne is for me the most normal of the female characters in any of the books; she occasionally occupies herself with mundane matters such as housekeeping. She puts up with a lot from Berry but it’s clear they are a devoted couple. The Brother of Daphne is Boy Pleydell, who narrates the stories. They have two cousins: Jonathan and Jill Mansel. Jonathan, ‘Jonah’, is a tough character who also features in the Chandos yarns, a real man of action. I have a letter written by Dornford Yates to a fan in which he says, ‘No, I don’t think Jonathan Mansel will ever marry.’ (Boy does, twice.) Hmm, if you ask me, there’s a touch of Ralph and Ted in Jonah’s relationship with his servant, Carson. Jill is a worrying enigma. She is ageless; she’s like a fairy tale princess with her golden hair and ‘great, gray eyes’. She is completely artless. Artless? To me she seems positively simple and it’s a mystery what she does with herself all day. The efforts of the entire family to protect Jill not only from harm but from the slightest distress or anxiety lead one to think that she must be somewhat lacking. There are dogs but no children.
The Pleydells and Mansels live together for much of the year at White Ladies, in the county of Hampshire. Their ancestral home is a lovely old house, built on the site of a former nunnery. It is full of valuable paintings, silver and fine furniture and is surrounded by beautiful grounds and gardens, the whole maintained by an army of servants, gardeners and chauffeurs. The books are plotless, consisting of a series of stories in which the White Ladies folk always come off best. They get burgled more often than seems probable. Rather like the Abbey Girls, they often find treasure relating to the former nunnery. Boy’s romances feature in almost every story and they are worth discussing. When Boy isn’t referring to his latest amour as ‘my lady’, he is calling her ‘a child’, as in ‘a child looked up at me’. These creatures (they are like no woman who ever existed) are always slim. They have rosy finger tips which have to be kissed. Above all, they have tiny little feet, always encased in weeny, dainty little slippers above their elegant, silk stocking-clad ankles. In one story, a dog runs off with one of ‘my lady’s’ shoes and Boy says he would have been glad to have the trophy himself. You have to wonder.
The books are full of lyrical descriptions of an olde England, unchanging and described in purple prose. The following quote is very long but gives you the flavour of Yates’ style.
The fresh familiar scent hung for a smokeless incense, breathing high ritual and redolent of pious mystery. No circumstance of worship was unobserved. With one consent birds, beasts and insects made not a sound. The precious pall of silence lay like a phantom cloud, unruffled. Nature was on her knees. The car fled on. Out of the priestless sanctuary, up over the crest of the rise, into the kiss of the sunlight we sailed, and so on to a blue-brown moor, all splashed and dappled with the brilliant yellow of the gorse in bloom and rolling away into the hazy distance like an untroubled sea. So for a mile it flowed, a lazy pomp of purple, gold-flecked and glowing. Then came soft cliffs of swelling woodland, rising to stay its course with gentle dignity--walls that uplifted eyes found but the dwindled edge of a far mightier flood that stretched and tossed, a leafy waste of billows, flaunting more living shades of green than painters dream of, laced here and there with gold and, once in a long while, shot with crimson, rising and falling with Atlantic grandeur, till the eye faltered, and the proud rich waves seemed to be breaking on the rosy sky. And over all the sun lay dying, his crimson ebb of life staining the firmament with splendour, his mighty heart turning the dance of Death to a triumphant progress, where Blood and Flame rode by with clouds for chargers, and Earth and Sky themselves shouldered the litter of their passing King. An exclamation of wonder broke from Adèle, and Jill cried to me to stop. "Just for a minute, Boy, so that she can see it properly." Obediently I slowed to a standstill. Then I backed the great car and swung up a side track for the length of a cricket-pitch. The few cubits thus added to our stature extended the prospect appreciably.
Sometimes the writing is positively opaque. Make of this what you will.
The wanton breeze, caught in the maze of tufted pinnacles, filtered its chastened way, a pensive organist, learned to draw grave litanies from the boughs and reverently voice the air of sanctity.
While writing of this imagined England, Yates was actually living in France. The ‘great car’ referred to is of course a Rolls. The Pleydells have two and, in spite of the chauffeurs, Boy and Jonah do most of the driving themselves. All Yates’ books, not just the Berry ones, make frequent mention of large, expensive and above all fast cars. Nothing pleases Yates more than letting a ‘great car’ rip on the open road, as fast as possible and regardless of danger to the occupants or other road users.
Dornford Yates (William Mercer) was not a nice man and in his books makes no secret of his dislikes. These include: Jews, foreigners (especially Germans), nouveaux riches, vulgar upstarts, badly dressed people and members of the lower orders who don’t know their place. So he creates a fantasy world in which all such people can be outwitted, put down, worsted or talked into submission by Berry. In one incident, a couple of villains have cornered Boy in his own garage when Berry strolls in. Instead of just shooting the pair, the goons stand listening while Berry launches into a long, insulting speech. All such criminals are cowards with no loyalty to each other and so stand no chance against stalwart types like Boy and Jonah. Politicians are cowards, too. "Have you ever heard," said Jonah, "of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Alien Enemies?" Adèle shook her head. "I think you must have," said Jonah. "Some people call it the British Nation. It's been going for years."
Why on earth do I still read these books? I started on them when I was very young indeed, so there is the ease of long familiarity. Whatever his faults, Yates could, as my mother said (Yates is a family habit), ‘tell a story’. And when the mood takes you, it’s pleasant to go for a ride in a Rolls through beautiful countryside, without a care in the world except whether or not you will win that desirable item at the auction you’re off to. I’d say Dornford Yates was a guilty pleasure, if I didn’t think you should read what you like without any guilt.
The Berry books
The Brother of Daphne, 1914
The Courts of Idleness, 1920
Berry & Co., 1920
Jonah & Co., 1922
Adele and Co., 1931
And Berry Came Too, 1936
The House that Berry Built, 1945
The Berry Scene, 1947
As Berry and I Were Saying, 1952
B-Berry and I Look Back, 1958
The last two are semi-autobiographical. The characters also appear in a few of the other novels. I have a full set of the books: a very few with the original pictorial dustwrappers as above, some from the two uniform editions, most with no dustwrapper. For nice pictures of the original covers, see here. There were some paperback reissues a few years ago. I got Berry and Co. free shortly after buying my Kindle, but the free version has disappeared from Amazon. That book is available from Project Gutenberg, along with Jonah & Co., The Brother of Daphne and Anthony Lyveden. The last one is a strange choice, one of the few I shall never read again.