Fair Stood the Wind for France by H. E. Bates

First published in 1944, Fair Stood the Wind for France was written in the midst of WW2, a time when its author – the British writer H. E. Bates – could not have known precisely how or when the conflict would end. A fascinating point considering the subject matter at hand. Described by some as one of the finest novels about the war, Fair Stood is in fact much broader than this description suggests. Amongst its many themes, the book touches on the need to trust others in times of uncertainty, the blossoming of young love in the most dangerous of situations, and the pain of loss as it continues to reverberate over time.

As the novel opens, John Franklin, an English pilot, is forced to crash-land his Wellington bomber in Occupied France following a fault with the plane. While the four sergeants in the crew are largely unhurt, Franklin (or Frankie as he is known to his friends) sustains a terrible injury, leaving his arm badly wounded and in need of attention.

Fearful for their safety in enemy-occupied territory, the men know they must get away from the wreckage before it is discovered. After travelling by night, they come across a couple of isolated farmhouses. At the first farm, the occupant is too frightened by the sight of an airman to be able to help, but at the second the crew strike lucky – the owner and his family will hide the men in their mill, providing food and shelter until they can leave safely.

Franklin knows he is taking an enormous risk by staying with the householders – the penalty for harbouring British serviceman is death by firing squad – but his condition means there is little choice. He must place his trust in the allies, a requirement made easier by the reassurance of Françoise, the calmly resolute daughter of the family.

He did not say any more. The strain of things, of walking without food and sleep, of his wound and the loss of blood, of the final moments of wondering if the girl could be trusted, and now of relief, came rushing up through his body in a spasm of cold weakness, faint and stupid. He checked it and held it down. And in that moment he looked at the girl, alert and dark and supremely assured, in the doorway. Her black eyes had not flickered for a moment since he had first surprised her among the hens. But now there was a faint smile of her face, her lips not quite parted, and she looked like the calmest, surest person he had ever known. (p. 41)

In time, identity papers are arranged for the crew members who subsequently depart in pairs in the hope of making it across the border to Spain. Franklin, however, is forced to remain behind, significantly impaired by his infected arm which is deteriorating by the day. A trusted doctor attempts to treat the wound, but the situation is serious, meaning drastic action may be necessary to save the pilot’s life.

Eventually, Franklin is nursed back to health by Francoise; her combination of faith and serenity proves to be his saving grace. Somewhat inevitably, Franklin finds himself falling in love with this remarkable girl whose trust in a positive outcome is strong and unwavering.

His feeling for her was as clear as the square blue light of afternoon sun through the window. It was as serene and permanent as the sunlight. Beside it all the rest of him now seemed sick and tangled and hollow. (p.101)

As the Germans begin to close in on the local community, the situation at the mill house becomes more perilous. Franklin knows the time is nearing when he must go, but will he be able to make it to across the border without being caught? And perhaps more importantly, how will he ever be able to say goodbye to Françoise when the prospect of life without her seems utterly meaningless?

I loved this novel for its combination of tension, gentleness and strong sense of humanity. Alongside the moments of affection between Franklin and Françoise there are scenes of real jeopardy, particularly as the story reaches its denouement.

Bates never shies aware from showing us the true horrors of war, both for servicemen involved in the conflict and for others left behind – particularly those in the occupied territories. (It will probably come as no surprise to hear that the residents of the farm are touched by tragedy during the course of the novel.) Thankfully these devastating traumas are tempered by illustrations of the more positive sides of humanity, the generosity and compassion shown by Françoise and her family who selflessly put their lives at risk to help the airmen in peril. The loyal relationship between Franklin and his trusty right-hand man, the gung-ho O’Connor, is also very nicely portrayed.

Finally, a few words about Bates’ prose which is simply beautiful – almost lyrical at times. I’ll finish with a quote from the beginning of the novel, a passage that sets the tone from the start: a sense of grace and serenity amidst the violence of war.

The moon was going down a little now, and the great glare that had lain over the snow-peaks had already diminished and was touched with amber. In this weak and more beautiful light the distances northward became shorter. France seemed for some time longer a country of placid yellow patterns smoothed out of sight by both wings of the aircraft, and then there were more mountains on the port side, not very high but sharp with abrupt shadow where the lowering angle of the moon struck them. (pp.7-8)

This was a re-read for me, as prep for my January book group. I’m looking forward to hearing what the others thought of it when we meet tomorrow night.

Kim and Annabel have also written about this novel – just click on the links to read their reviews.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is published by Penguin; personal copy.

45 thoughts on “Fair Stood the Wind for France by H. E. Bates

  1. Brian Joseph

    This sounds good. It seems that a lot of books delve into the details of conflict in World War II but are weak in character and themes. Books that are stronger in character and themes sometimes are weak in the details. Based on your description, it sounds like you get both here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s a very perceptive observation, Brian. There are characters here that the reader can really identify with and invest in over the duration of the story. I guess that one of the reasons why I selected it for my book group. We have some readers who like character-driven fiction and others who crave a decent amount of plot. so hopefully this novel will satisfy both of these requirements!

      Reply
  2. Lucy

    This sounds so good I paused reading halfway so I could open another tab and order it. The attraction of something written during the events was too strong to resist!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s the thing that really struck me on this second reading – the fact that the novel was written at such a critical point in history adds an extra frisson of interest and excitement. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for authors such as Bates to be writing about the war at that time when the outcome of the campaign was still so uncertain.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a lovely review, Jacqui, and like Lucy I almost feel compelled to buy this straight away. I’ve never read Bates, and I think I’m probably unreasonably biased against him because of certain TV adaptations. But this sounds superb. Adding it to the wishlist… :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great, Karen. I’m really pleased to hear that. Like you, I’ve never been tempted by The Darling Buds of May (probably for the same reason), but Fair Stood seems to be a very different type of story altogether. I think you’d like it.

      P.S. You can think of this as a very late contribution to your 1944 Club, like three months too late. ;)

      Reply
  4. Nat

    Ooh, I just bought this last year! It caught my eye mainly because my Granddad flew in Wellington bombers during the war, but it’s good to hear that it is worth reading for its own merits; I’m really looking forward to it now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Amazing to hear that your Grandfather flew in a Wellington bomber during the war! How thrilling and frightening an experience that must have been for him and his fellow airmen. Well, given that background, I think you’ll really enjoy the book. It’s so compelling and beautifully written that it’s hard not to get completely caught up in the story.

      Reply
  5. Grier

    I’m drawn to books written during the war, when the outcome isn’t yet known, and am glad to learn about this novel. I imagine it was popular when it was published as it shows the humanity found in many places, a contrast to the dreadful aspects of war. I haven’t yet read Bates and will look for this one after my break from book buying is over.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. It’s one of the things that prompted me to read Mollie Panter-Downes wartime stories last year, the feeling of something being played out in the midst of all that turmoil and uncertainty. I think there’s a very strong chance that you’ll enjoy the Bates, particularly given the focus and the author’s prose style. As you say, one to bear in mind when you’re able to buy books again.

      Reply
  6. Jonathan

    I’ve read short stories and essays by Bates but so far I haven’t read any novels by him. He is a great writer though isn’t he?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. This was my first, but hopefully not my last. I actually had a look for a review of this at your blog but couldn’t see it, only pieces relating to some of the other books you’ve mentioned above. That explains why I wasn’t able to find it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Juliana. I think you’d enjoy it too, it definitely feels like your kind of book. That last quote is lovely, isn’t it? Bates writes so beautifully about the landscape, as well as the people who inhabit it.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    This sounds wonderful. I have long been aware of this novel and H E Bates but never the author, and it’s a long time since I heard of the book from anyone. I do love books written during the war, there is an added poignancy isn’t there, in the author not knowing then, what we do now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. That palpable sense of uncertainty about the future really struck me on this second reading. As you say, there’s a degree of poignancy alongside the jeopardy which makes the story all the more compelling. I think you’d love this, Ali. It’s totally up your street.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s so beautifully written. I know that seems an odd thing to say about a novel with a wartime setting, but there’s so much more to this story than the tensions between the Nazis and the Allies. There’s a strong sense of humanity running through the novel, a quality typified by Francoise and her family. It’s their grace and selflessness which make help make this story such a touching read.

      Reply
  8. Liz

    It’s a real coincidence to read your review because just last week I added this book to my ‘must re-read sometime’ list – I have moved it nearer the top as a result!! :)

    Reply
  9. kimbofo

    Thanks for the link, Jacqui. This remains one of my favourite novels of all time. Bates’ granddaughter (?) emailed me after my review was published thanking me for keeping his work in the public’s eye, which I thought very sweet.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how lovely! That’s so nice of her. I’m sure you’ve done a fantastic jog in championing this novel, especially as it remains such a favourite.

      Reply
  10. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    A lovely review, and thank you for the link. One of my favourite novels, as it was my Mum’s too. Until re-reading it last year, I had never realised either that he wrote it during the war, which certainly added to the poignancy of the situation and the generosity of Francoise’s family was so touching.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Annabel. There’s a lot of love for this novel, for sure. The emotions come through so clearly don’t they? I particularly like the fact that Franklin comes across as a rounded, nuanced character, so we feel his frustrations and concerns alongside his burgeoning affection for Francoise.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. Yes, I can’t imagine what it must have been to be writing about the war back then in the midst of so much uncertainty. At my book group last night we were wondering if Bates knew someone who had experienced a situation like Franklin’s, as the portal of the details and emotions felt so authentic.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s very compelling, both emotionally and narratively, which gives the novel a relatively broad appeal. I’ve never read any of the Larkin books, probably on account of the trailers for the TV series which looked a bit twee! That said, there’s no danger of this one falling into the same trap. It’s beautifully written, in a heartfelt, sensitive way, with enough bite to give it a real sense of depth.

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    I’ve always wanted to read this but it’s still on my wish list. I’m so glad you wrote about it. It sounds as wonderful as I thought it would be. His writing is lovely.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I feel sure you sure you would love this. There are times when it seems a little reminiscent of James Salter’s The Hunters, another gripping story beautifully told.

      Reply
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  14. Frank Prem

    H E Bates has been one of my direct inspirations as a writer. His mastery of the craft helped shape the way I do my own poetry.

    Great book and a fine review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I can understand why this writer would be an influence on others as his prose is so beautifully judged. This was my first Bates, but I’d like to try another at some point. Do you have a favourite you would recommend?

      Reply
      1. Frank Prem

        Jacqui, his most well known set of stories is probably the group of 4 books that became a TV series in the Uk – The Darling buds of May – a rustic and joyous series. Start with that title if you read them.

        Otherwise I’ve found most of his work (short stories) to be a bitter-sweet melancholy, with not a lot to choose between them – I mean that in a good way.

        There is a character ‘Uncle Silas’ that pops up from time to time in the books – a delightful old seducer worth looking out for.

        they’re consistently good and a few of them live permanently on my shelves as a reminder of how much influence they had on me when I was just starting to write (along with Damon Runyan (Guys and Dolls) and Giovannino (Don Camillo).Guareschi

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks very much, Frank – that’s very helpful indeed. Uncle Silas sounds like an interesting character, definitely one to look out for. As for the stories, I’m rather partial to bittersweet melancholy, so they may well suit me very nicely!

          Reply

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