The James Bond Files
The Disagreeable Dornford Yates:
By O.F. Snelling
Beginning in 1980, O.F. Snelling wrote a number of articles for the Antiquarian Book Monthly Review. (Note 1) One of these was his essay on “Clubland” writer Dornford Yates for a series on Unappreciated Authors.
While only obliquely related to James Bond – Yates was one of the writers Snelling and others point to as an obvious literary ancestor to Ian Fleming – we offer here Snelling’s own neglected writing as part of these archives. Other observations by Snelling on Yates can be found in his correspondence with Ron Payne, posted in The James Bond Files section of this website.
To include the present subject in a series generally devoted to authors I feel are not fully appreciated at the present time would, at first glance, appear to be quite inappropriate. After all, Dornford Yates was a best-selling writer for something like forty years. His books were devoured in their hundreds and thousands during his career, and the watertight contracts he negotiated with his long-suffering publishers made sure that none of those books ever went out of print while he was still alive.
And yet it was only a few years back, when I became utterly exasperated at finding none of his titles on the very same library shelves which had once sported dozens, that I wrote to the publishing house of Ward, Lock and Co., famous for its association with the renowned Mrs. Beeton, and a firm more recently devoted to things like Do-It-Yourself manuals rather than to sensational novels and the slick tales which had once richly and meatily regaled train-travellers in its monthly periodical, The Windsor Magazine.
I requested their current catalogue. In it I found very little fiction at all. Indeed, Dornford Yates, a name which had once been their mainstay, if not exactly their pride and joy, was now represented only by the very last book he ever wrote.
This, somewhat to my surprise, was priced at the moderate figure of 75p. I naturally assumed it to be a paperback reprint, and I sent off for it immediately. But when the book arrived I found that it was the first – and only? – printing of the original hardback, published in 1958, and complete with dust-wrapper, on whose front flap was clearly printed the retail price of 15 shillings.
That – almost unbelievably today – was the average price of most new books a quarter of a century ago. Ward, Lock and Co., possibly in an effort to rid themselves of stock which had now become an embarrassment, had ignored the rampant march of inflation and were selling off Dornford Yates at the decimal equivalent of the sum his books had been priced at when he died!
Cecil William Mercer, which was the real name of the man who adopted the nom-de-plume of Dornford Yates, was something of an enigma all his life, and he remains so to this day. He was an extremely private person, to the extent that he shunned personal publicity as much as he possibly could.
He did allow a somewhat idealised portrait of himself on the backs of the wrappers of some of his books, mainly in order to help promote their sales, but nobody who had known the mundane Willie Mercer would ever have recognized him as being the real-life Dornford Yates. The biographical information he supplied about himself was sparse.
Even so, he was a scrupulous and meticulous correspondent, always answering those myriad readers who sent him "fanletters." But while he was always ready to discuss his books and his characters, he gave away very little about himself and his replies were always signed "Dornford Yates".
Further, and to add to the riddle, although he had an enormous and devoted following in the years between the two big wars and for more than ten years afterwards, no attempt was ever made to film any of his romances or his thrillers while he lived although his eminent contemporaries in much the same field, like John Buchan, Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Leslie Charteris, and E. Phillips Oppenheim were all translated to the screen, and sold to the stage. Although in his old age he expressed wonderment at this seeming neglect and oversight, he was so precise and particular a man, and looked upon his written works as so sacrosanct, that he probably wanted no Hollywood illiterates monkeying about with his plots and prose in so-called adaptations, and discouraged all overtures in that direction. This was unlike some of the other authors, who gladly grabbed the money and ran.
Those people who reviewed his books were both laudatory and scathing at times, but he remained quite aloof from these opinions ostensibly, at any rate. He was quite content to know that his writings were not ignored by the book pages of the press. He was also rather proud of the fact that to his knowledge he was acquainted with no other authors, and he certainly never met a reviewer.
Few commentators have discussed the man in print, simply because they knew so little about him. Apart from Cyril Connolly's brief but oft-quoted eulogy, wherein he said that we know " . . . next to nothing about our hero, but we appreciate fine writing when we come across it, and a wit that is ageless united to a courtesy that is extinct", it is difficult to trace very much literary criticism of Dornford Yates.
I think I can see what he means, but what other sort of criticism can any contemporary observer employ? For all this, Mercer still comes across in his biography as a very odd fish indeed. Born in 1885 at Walmer in Kent, the boy who was to grow up to become Dornford Yates writer of fiction, showed an early interest in literature. He was well-versed in the classics, but his favourite reading was the work of people like Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Hope, and Arthur Conan Doyle, all authors of romance and tales of adventure.
The drama, too, held great fascination for this quiet and impressionable youth, and he was stage-struck from an early age. But he had marked persistence. The flamboyance of Oscar Asche and Matheson Lang, with whom he became acquainted, appealed to him greatly. That of an extrovert self-publicist like Bernard Shaw, with his socialist message and call for equality, was always inclined to send him slightly apoplectic. Indeed, in later life, one of his wife's regular chores, on welcoming the very infrequent visitors to their home, was to forewarn them all never to use that gentleman's name in the presence of her husband!
Willie Mercer was educated at the public school of Harrow and at University College, Oxford. Very reserved, extremely reticent, and never a good mixer or the most popular of young men, he was nevertheless inordinately proud of being elected the President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. The insufferable snob in him showed early. While he was prone to boast of that honour he would also tend to suggest that he had been educated at a somewhat more prestigious college.
He was set to the law as a profession, and in the early years of the century he slogged away unhappily as a fledgling barrister. As a very humble junior he hated much of the routine work, but he loved the ritual, the colour, and the drama of the courtroom.
It is no doubt a fact that he was privileged to be a modest and silent "fly on the wall" witness of many great cases and causes célèbres of the period. It is from his own report alone that we are told that he had much to do with the sensational Dr. Crippen murder trial of 1910, and I have no doubt at all that he was on the spot. But I have studied the verbatim reports of this case in the Famous Trials series, in which the names of all legal representatives for both the prosecution and the defence are clearly documented, and no where have I seen the name of C.W. Mercer mentioned. It was a most humble capacity, indeed, I should imagine. Something like tea-boy on a building site perhaps? In later years his somewhat tenuous connection with well-known crooks and murderers became something of a party-piece with him, and he was inclined to set himself up as an oracle and pundit of certain criminological matters. Things were always very black or very white with Mercer. With regard to Crippen, for instance, time and the observances of many of those who were closely connected with the case have now left the impression that the little man, while undoubtedly guilty, was a mild and unfortunate individual caught up in a web of circumstances. Mercer makes him appear the blackest and most double-dyed of criminal types, which was far from the case. One of the author's canniest knacks, as a master of the written word, was an ability – while never deviating from the actual facts in what he said – to give a quite different impression of the truth.
The young lawyer's very earliest light contributions to periodicals were clearly influenced by Hope's Polly Dialogues. But war intervened before he could establish himself properly in the scribbling trade. During hostilities, when he served in the Army, most of his time was spent well away from the action, in Egypt, although with his rabid patriotism he would have preferred to be in the thick of things, killing Germans. He was a green young officer, unlike his cousin, Hector Hugh Munro, the famous "Saki", who joined up in the ranks at the age of 45 and was killed in 1916.
Mercer was sufficiently proud of his stint in uniform to retain his captaincy as a permanent title when he returned to civilian life, as have many other commissioned temporary soldiers have loved to do. (Incidentally, why don't privates and corporals tack their former rank on to their names, later on – or even humble second-lieutenants, for that matter? Obviously, it has a lot to do with pride, prestige, and possibly some snobbery. Mercer was never found lacking in all three.)
Forsaking his wig and gown and throwing himself wholeheartedly into fiction, Willie – or Bill, as he now preferred to be known – rapidly became extremely successful with light and frothy short stories concerning well-to-do upper crust heroes and heroines with unlikely adventures and even more unlikely names. These were published in Ward, Lock's monthly magazine, The Windsor, and it was only a matter of time before they were issued by the same house in book form.
He had met a ravishingly beautiful but small-time musical comedy actress named Bettine Edwards, who had had a tiny part in his friend Oscar Asche’s long-running success Chu Chin Chow. They were married in 1919 and went to live at the Villa Marylandt Pau, in the Basses Pyrenees, after skirting about for a suitable home. He was to reside in this area for most of the remainder of his life, ever "the Englishman abroad". He made no serious attempt to learn the French language properly, or even to adapt himself to another mode of living.
The early 1920s found Mercer a popular best-seller with his fictional but very real Pleydell family, the famous Berry and Co., who were Boy, Adele, Daphne, Jill, and Jonah Mansel, complete with family tree in all the books in which they appear, rather like the Forsytes, to establish their exact relationship. Many readers have identified the author so closely with his engaging characters that one time they were actually believed to be living people. Mercer himself became so absorbed with those he had created that it is no exaggeration to state that he almost believed in them himself. It was now that he began to retire more and more from the harsh world of mass unemployment and strike-torn postwar existence and retreated into a fantasy world all of his own.
His wife was young, vivacious, and gregarious; she made an effort to mix with the French and to enter their social life, but he had no time or desire for such frivolities. Hard at work most of the time in his study, it was accepted throughout the household that he must on no account be disturbed.
Even Smithers, who is biased in his favour, can see that Bettine's comfortable but somewhat monastic life was not an enviable one. "Should Bettine desire to share the room with him, as she often did, she was welcome enough on the clear understanding that she sat quietly and got on with her knitting or with whatever other female task happened to be engaging her attention." A chauvinist pig? That term had not yet been coined, but Mercer might have been proud of it, rather than otherwise, "They did not go much together into society. For a young woman of active habit it became thoroughly boring." (Note 2)
Inspired by the success of writers like John Buchan and Sapper, with their adventurous protagonists Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond, Mercer now lifted his already-successful character Jonah Mansel from the perennial summer’s day existence of high life in vast country estates and teased him up with one Richard William Chandos, a sort of foil and second-string hero with the Boswell-Dr. Watson talent of narrating the exciting experiences of the pair in search of crooks and murderers in the environment of an eternally Schloss-dotted Austria, bearing hidden treasure in deep and dark wells or secret and almost impenetrable compartments and dungeons, and in sinister houses in the hills and mountains of Pyrenean southern France. Ward, Look and Co. didn't like this idea at all and felt that the cobbler should stick to his last, so the author Dornford Yates shifted temporarily to Hodder and Stoughton, a house which specialized in such sensational fiction. But although his work sold very well he was never particularly happy with them. One gleans that he encountered editors and sub-editors almost as autocratic as he was. They raised his hackles, first of all, by not sending him any galley-proofs, this resulted in an entire resetting of some 40 pages of the page-proofs he did see. That didn't endear him to his new colleagues.
But it was with Hodder's that he began in 1927 the series of very entertaining and readable adventure yarns, totally different from anything he had set his hand to previously, for which he will probably be remembered in years to come. After the initial Blind Corner, he followed it with Perishable Goods, Blood Royal, and Fire Below.
Throughout the 1930s he consolidated his position with alternative Berry books, and his original publishers were only too glad to welcome him back into the fold. Eventually, they bought the rights of the Chandos tales from Hodder's and continued to reprint them and to publish new blood-and-thunder yarns. He was a great money maker, despite his insistence upon keeping everything he had written available to his vast public. At least 20 years after his first book was published he made sure of the following being printed in heavy capitals, and dated, on his wrappers: NO BOOK WRITTEN BY DORNFORD YATES IS NOW OUT OF PRINT OR UNOBTAINABLE.
Although Mercer was obviously very strong for King and Country, and he exalted England as the finest of all lands, even to the extent of dedicating one of his books to “London, the greatest city in the world”, he took very good care not to have to live in it once he had made sufficient money to reside in comfort elsewhere. That he was a martyr to rheumatism may have been the primary cause for his seeking a warmer climate, but it was never much fun for Bettine. Pau was always his main stamping-ground, where he could lord it over a household of faithful servants who "knew their place” and were not too uppity to show open dissatisfaction.
He was never a particularly pleasant person. He was so despised and tyrannical that on one occasion he actually took a whip to one of his employees and flogged him for leaving the curtains undrawn and allowing the sun to fall upon one of his favourite pictures! That landed him in court, but he got away with it.
Mercer also once waylaid and assaulted a certain wealthy gigolo-type who had been rash enough to pay too fond attention to his long-suffering wife. He beat the man with a riding-crop and broke his arm. And if Bettine decided to sing, which she was fond of doing, he was inclined to put the shutters up in order that nobody outside might be attracted by her warbling. The Man of Property, indeed. Soames Forsyth had nothing on Cecil William Mercer when it came to conserving his personal possessions.
Life had become intolerable for Bettine by the end of the 1920s, and she left him. In due course he met up with a beautiful but unfortunate young girl named Elisabeth Bowie, who had been stricken with what was known at that time as infantile paralysis, and which we now refer to as polio. Her legs were so wasted that she could hardly walk. To his credit, he idolized this young lady, who eventually became his second and extremely subservient and dutiful wife. But from the outset he rechristened her Jill, the name of the most engaging and desirable fictional character of his fantasy life and "Jill" she remained for the rest of their life together.
He divorced Bettine, promising her £500 a year for life if she did not defend the action, since any scandal connected with the illustrious name of Dornford Yates would have been adverse to his reputation. At that time, £500 was a very considerable sum, and she acquiesced. She had nothing of her own. As the years passed, Mercer reduced this allowance considerably, and she supported herself. When she died, in her 80s, she was not exactly reduced to penury but was in relatively straitened circumstances.
Mercer was a very wealthy man when he began building the dream home for "Jill" and himself, which has become well-known in what is perhaps the most famous of all his many books, The House That Berry Built. This story is half fact and half fiction. Although it carries a sub-plot, with many dark deeds and much derring-do it is also a pretty true-to-life account of the enormous dwelling he erected on the side of a mountain, not 20 miles from Pau, and with a view quite out of this world from its spacious front terrace actually pillared with relics from the old Waterloo Bridge when it was pulled down and rebuilt just before the Second World War. A little bit of old London preserved forever in the faraway comfort of the Basses Pyrenees?
Although he built the place in Cockade – but called Gracedieu in the novel – primarily for his beloved "Jill", the plateau on which it was erected was hewn out of the side of the mountain, and much of its front foundations were formed by an enormous wall some forty feet high, with no fewer than 93 steps up from the road to his terrace and front door. His disabled wife was thus a virtual prisoner there for a great deal of the time unless he chose to accompany her out anywhere and then back. He was taking absolutely no chances, said the wits of Pau, of another usurper coming along and trying to steal his most treasured property, but there could have been considerable truth in this, subconsciously, in his choice of architectural design.
Strangely, Elisabeth Mercer does not appear to have viewed her virtual incarceration as a deprivation. She did not look upon herself as a "damsel in distress", to be rescued by a Jonah Mansel or a Richard Chandos from an imperious villain. How long this state of affairs in incredible luxury might have lasted it is difficult to conjecture. Pleasantly, one hopes, but war broke out at the start of their idyll.
Mercer and his wife moved out hurriedly, leaving "Gracedieu" in the care of the servants as the Nazis moved in in 1940. He was one of those on the "wanted list" by what he had always referred to as "the Boche". His observations about the German people in general had never exactly been complimentary in any of his books.
From the Pau area, through Spain via Hendaye and eventually to San Sebastian, the refugees drove, with countless others who blocked the roads, and on to the more hospitable country of Portugal. Franco's regime, while infinitely preferable to Mercer than a left-wing one, was far too sympathetic towards Germany for his liking.
As Captain Mercer, he volunteered for service, at the now rather advanced age of 55, but the War Office wanted none of him. But one of his old friends from his Oxford days had been Ellis Robins, now commanding the Royal Rhodesia Regiment as Lord Robins in distant Africa. Strings were pulled, and the "old boy network" went into action. The upshot was the writer and his wife eventually shipped themselves to the dark continent and he found himself back in uniform in a sinecure as Major Mercer.
His writing continued all through hostilities, with more romance and more derring-do. Shoal Water, Period Stuff, and An Eye for a Tooth are three of the books which delighted his world-wide audience during the war years.
Complete and utter frustration followed on his return to the beloved Cockade, when peace arrived. Not only had he never forgiven the French for its capitulation in 1940, and the subsequent disruption of his pleasant existence, but the newly-found independence and égalité among the local servant class was not at all to his taste. God was not in his heaven, and all was not right with the world, any more.
Elizabeth, too, had by this time become completely aligned with her husband's smug and self-interested views. Writing a long letter about their feelings on returning to Cockade after the war, she refers to "our house and the servants. The latter had completely changed. The servants are RED, and we were to find they were apparently heading the local black market, though we didn't get anything, and it was a bitter blow and disillusionment to Bill."
I'll bet it was. I am inclined to think that it was as much the fact that the returning privileged "émigrés" received no share of the under-cover goodies available which outraged the Mercers, as anything else. Had the servants turned over their ill-gotten gain accumulated under the eyes of the watchful incumbent Nazis, to their employers, who had, after all been living in relative comfort in far Africa rather than to the humble village folk who had been obliged to stick it out as best they could under the Germans for five years, perhaps Elisabeth might have viewed them only as upstart pinkoes, rather than out-and-out Bolsheviks?
The Mercers hastily quitted the scene for good, and "The House That Berry Built” was eventually sold, for about a third of what it had cost to erect.
The idea of returning to live in Britain, with a Labour Government, was absolutely out of the question. Life under characters like Ernest Bevin and Aneurin Bevan, statesmen who were drawn compositely by Dornford Yates in a later 1950 political novel, Lower Than Vermin, as Erny Balch, was quite inconceivable.
That millions of people eventually led fuller and happier lives, by courtesy of that austerity period of immediate postwar Britain and the emergence of the Welfare State, and that the subsequent conservative Government, which in course of time replaced the Labour one, under Mercer's former hero, Winston Churchill, and had now become so liberal in attitude that Mercer was inclined to view the old Prime Minister as RED, probably merited observation but not consideration.
He looked towards Rhodesia for salvation. "Jill" would have preferred somewhere like Jamaica, but Mercer had already bought extensive land at Umtali, as a sort of insurance, also on the side of a mountain. There he recreated the fictional "Gracedieu" and the Cockade of sad memory by building Sacradown, a replica, as far as he could make it at his now somewhat advanced age, supervising a task which entailed the excavation and leveling of a considerable portion of the real estate he had purchased.
Here, for the remainder of his life, he resided in comfort, mellowing to some extent but still lording it over the local populace. Here also, at that stage of the world's history, he had little cause to report to anybody that "the natives are restless." He still span out his fiction with enjoyment, but his last few books, so different in content and attitude from his earlier bestsellers sold far less than the ones which had made his name.
He died in 1960, still the anachronism he had perhaps always been, and now almost forgotten by his former public, many members of which were now also dying off. But right to the end he still traveled regularly into town, simply to have his cigarette-lighter topped up with petrol at a local shop!
Mercer never lived long enough to encounter Harold Wilson, Ian Smith, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the emergence of men he would have called “black upstarts", and Zimbabwe. Had he done so I feel sure he would have quickly deserted Sacradown and retreated to some far off South Sea island, or even, perhaps to Jamaica, a land at which his beloved "Jill" had gazed fondly. But how happy would he have been there now?
There has been some small awakening of interest in the works of Dornford Yates in recent years, rather for their relation to social history, perhaps as much as anything else. Although printed in very large numbers during his lifetime, most of them have now disappeared. While, as collectors' items, they might be termed scarce, there has been little indication, so far, in exaggerated prices being either offered or asked for them.
They are both archetypal and archaic, in their way. From volume to volume, the characters move and speak in a never-never-land of Mercer's own imagination – or at the most, in an age and in places very far removed from the mundane and everyday world that most of us know, despite the fact that they were lapped up with absorption by a readership of genteel romantics who believed that if this was not life as it is it was as it should be.
His people don't leave a room: they withdraw from it; they are not then outside that room: they are without it; they seldom actually eat breakfast: they break their fast; they dine very frequently, of course, and always bathe before the meal and never take a bath – putting on the old full glad-rags for the meal match and they sup rather than partake of supper. They never ate on chairs, but always upon them.
His sympathetic characters almost always tend to use the same sort of expressions, whether they be from the courteous aristocracy the monied and privilege upper classes, or the quiet and subservient status of butlers, chauffeurs, valets, footmen, or Scotland Yard detectives, all perfectly happy in their calling and ready to lay down their lives for the superior beings to whom they muster.
Most of his unsympathetic characters and arrant villains are ill-educated and foul-mouthed. The oaths they ejaculate are never actually printed. Dornford Yates always used the very convenient dash, thus – , or the even more appropriate spondee – –. You can therefore formulate your own idea of what horrible terms were actually said, depending upon your extent of your familiarity with impolite language. No readers are therefore offended. The low-life villains bear names like Goat, Lousy, Mangey, Sloper, and Sweaty – all very descriptive and, except for one of those, “all imply hygienic defects”, as Smithers there has taken pains to point out.
Such people sneer, smoke cheap cigarettes. and use slang terns like “Sez you!” and "Be your age!" – surely out-dated expressions which had already come and gone in the very earliest days of the arrival here of American talking pictures, and which the author apparently imagined everyone of their type still employed many years after they were no longer used.
All Germans are gross; all Jews, without exception, are sly, odious, and frequently quite dishonest, although, to be fair, one of Mercer's executors was named Benjamin Disraeli Goldberg, which does suggest that he had undoubtedly mellowed a trifle towards them. Most Britons are honest and upright, but the poorer classes are only noble if they know their place and are inclined to touch their forelocks to the gentry or crawl in the direction of the orificium fundamental. The slightest deviation from this depiction and they become incorrigible malcontents and so, in the course of things, villains.
Cecil William Mercer was a Colonel Blimp of the most outrageous kind. He was the very personification of that character's worst attributes and none of his better ones.
Withal – and how easy it is to lapse into "Yatesese" when writing about the man – for all his infuriating prejudices, his snobbery, and his eternal self-satisfaction – the books he wrote are masterpieces of plot, sustained narrative, and riveting dialogue. One can laugh openly at them, squirm in embarrassment, and fume with exasperation at his smug superiority, but it is difficult to discard them.
Dornford Yates will have his renaissance, even as did the prolific Frank Richards and the oh, so rare Amanda Ros. (Note 3)
1 – Published in Oxford, The Antiquarian Book Monthly Review (original title, ABMR) is a journal intended for those in the book trade dealing with out-of-print books and books dealing with the history of books. Snelling’s piece on Yates must have appeared sometime during or after 1982 as he cites A. J. Smithers’ biography which first appeared in that year. (See Note 2.) While a number of booksellers have print copies of back issues in their catalogues, I was unable to find a bibliography indicating articles or authors included in these issues.
One source for print copies is the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.
The text used for this electronic publication came from a typed copy of the article Snelling provided Ron Payne in hopes Ron could find an American publisher for the essay. This copy did not include the original title, so we do not know how it was headed for its first appearance, nor if there were any editorial changes in the magazine.
2 – A. J. Smithers’ Dornford Yates – A Biography was published by Hodder and Stoughton, London in 1982. A 2nd edition was published as a trade paperback and marked Centenary Edition in 1985 with some corrections and no illustrations.
3 – Modern readers can find free online versions of some Yates titles at:
While scholarship on Yates remains thin, “Great War Fiction: Dornford Yates and the Uses of Facetiousness” (a paper given at the conference on the First World War and Popular Culture at the University of Newcastle, March-April, 2006) is posted here.
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