The English Air by D. E. Stevenson (1940)

This novel by Edinburgh-born writer D. E. Stevenson (her father’s cousin was Robert Louis Stevenson) centres upon the story of Franz (‘Frank’) Von Heiden, the son of a Nazi official and an English woman, and is set in the run-up to, and early days of the Second World War. Ostensibly in England on a private visit to meet his mother’s relatives, we learn that the real reasons behind Franz’s trip are rather less benign, having in fact been sent by his father in an unofficial capacity to report back on British reactions to German policy, with the simple instruction to ‘put his finger on the pulse of the people’. This he manages to do in the end, though not in the manner his father intends. Certainly there is little hint of the espionage thriller here, (and no suggestion that it is intended as such). Rather, Franz is cast as something of a naïf; intelligent but innocent of the malicious intent really afoot in Germany, ultimately embarked not on a quest for wartime intelligence (of any kind), but rather personal identity.

Initially at a loss to comprehend the subtleties of English life (‘What were these people really like inside? They made fun of everything…’), he is taken under the wing of Wynne Braithwaite (daughter of Mrs Sophie Braithwaite, who is a cousin – lest we forget – of Franz’s mother, Elsie), who helps to shepherd him through the various quirks and mores of middle-class English life and culture, such as he finds it. Needless to say, the ‘education of Franz’ culminates in the pair falling in love, though circumstances threaten to thwart their burgeoning romance, such is the main dramatic impetus behind the novel. Franz is eventually obliged to come clean about the original reasons for his visit, by which time his experience has given him cause and moral courage to jettison the Nazi ideology in which he has been steeped (‘You can’t hate people when you understand them’). Of course he errs badly in trusting to the benign motives of the German leadership, and when events bear this out (namely Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia) he is personally devastated,  returning to Germany and undertaking convert work as a Resistance broadcaster, before finally resolving to atone by going to fight in Finland.

Perhaps inevitably, Stevenson is tempted towards some generalisations about ‘national character’: Germans are characterised by ‘thoroughness and industry’, while the English temperament is marked by self-effacement and wariness towards authority. Such stereotyping aside, there is a certain redeeming humour (one hesitates to say pathos) in Franz’s efforts to ingratiate himself with his English hosts (‘There are many things that I do not understand…’). The contrasts between England and Germany are very much of their time, boiling down to a basic opposition of liberal democracy versus totalitarianism, while notions of ‘common humanity’ (‘there is kindness in German hearts too’, etc.) are couched in somewhat sentimental terms. That said, the effort at evoking the English national spirit in the early days of the war (‘no excitement, no glitter, no bombast […] just a solid and dogged determination’), along with the various domestic preparations carried out by ordinary men and women, testify to a certain singular mindset which would clearly have resonated with audiences at the time.

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