When Claire wrote ‘The English Air by D.E. Stevenson might just be my new favourite DES book’ a year or so ago I sat up and took notice, because I knew that she loved the author and that she had read a great many of her books.
The book was out of print, used copies were horrible expensive, but I was delighted when a search of my library catalogue found a copy. And then I was both sad and cross when I clicked on it to find ‘no copy available’ – experience has taught me that’s library-speak for ‘we’ve lost it.’
Fortunately Open Library came to my rescue and now I have read the book. I’m not quite sure its my favourite of her books – I have a weakness for her more sentimental stories – but I can say that it is a book with wonderful qualities, that it is a book without – or at least with less of – her weaknesses, and that it is a book I would love to add to my shelves if only some kind publisher would bring it back into print.
Not long before the outbreak of World War I a bright young Englishwoman met a quiet young German. He took her home as his bride, they had a son, and they named him Franz. Franz’s mother lost touch with her friends and family in England during the was and she died not long after it ended, leaving Franz to be brought up by his strict German father, not knowing his English family at all.
The story begins in the summer of 1938. Franz has just turned twenty years old, he is a quiet and serious-minded young man, and he has invited himself to stay with his English relations. He wants to improve his English, and to learn more about the country and his culture.
Franz’s relationship with his cousins, and the lessons he learns about the English, are drawn quite beautifully. He was baffled at first by English irony and understatement, and he had no idea what to take seriously and what to take as a joke. But he was quick to learn, and he came to appreciate the strong bonds and the sense of community that underpinned so many seemingly casual ways.
This part of the story was lovely to read. Of course families and village communities are one of the authors greatest strengths, but what I appreciated here was that she told her story through characters without the faintest hint of a stereotype.
Wynne was the same age as Franz, and she was a genuinely nice, warm, bright girl; a true English rose. She drew Franz into her circle of friends without a moment’s hesitation, and the friendship between them grew into love. It was a relationship that might echo that of Franz’s parents.
Sophie was Wynne’s mother; a widow who was a wonderful mixture of scattiness and practicality. She and Franz’s mother had been close; she was pleased to see that her son had grown up so well, and she appreciated talking with him and sharing memories as much as he appreciated hearing about his mother and being drawn into her family.
And Dane was Franz’s uncle. He had concerns – he worked in military intelligence and he knew that Franz’s father had risen high in the Nazi party – but he was prepared to watch and wait. Because he liked the young man, who was respectful, who was interested, who was always prepared to listen and think.
Franz never lost his love for his German homeland,but in time he began to question some of the policies that the leader he respected was putting in place. The Munich agreement came to him as a profound relief, allowing him to continue to love both his countries; but when it was broken he was devastated.
He was relieved that he had taken Dane’s advice to wait before acting on his feelings for Wynne.
He knew that he had to act, and act he did.
The story played out beautifully, moving between Franz and his English family. It grew naturally from the characters I had come to like and to care about; it caught the times, the early days of the war, perfectly; and though it wasn’t entirely predictable it was entirely right. Even better – maybe because ‘The English Air’ was written and published while was still raging – the ending was uncontrived and natural. And that’s not always the case with D E Stevenson’s novel ….
I was a little disappointed that Wynne wasn’t a stronger presence in the story, but having Franz in the foreground was wonderful. He really was such an interesting character, and it was lovely to watch him learn and grow as he faced challenges big and small. That he, his situation, his divided loyalties were set out with such empathy and understanding are what make this story so special.
And the lightness of touch and the perfectly wrought English backdrop make it so very readable …