A Hero Of The Times: “The Saint” In 1930s Britain
Leslie Charteris’ famous hero Simon Templar, 'the Saint', first appeared in 1928, and the Saint narratives are still being published today. Templar is a benevolent vigilante, a modern knight-errant who fights crime outside the law, and a rollicking piratical adventurer who craves excitement and follows his own moral code. Charteris wrote novels, novellas and short stories featuring the Saint up to 1963, after which further Saint narratives were for a number of years written by other authors in varying degrees of collaboration with him. The Saint has also appeared in films, radio programs and comic strips, but his best-known non-literature appearance is the 1960s television series 'The Saint', starring Sir Roger Moore – a program popular all over the world that generated a new wave of enthusiasm for Charteris’ work.
The Saint sums up his vigilantism late in his career:
I never robbed anyone who wasn’t a thief or a blackguard, although they might have been clever enough to stay within the law. I’ve killed people too, but never anyone the world wasn’t a safer place without…my name seemed to stand for a kind of justice, and I haven’t changed (Charteris 1965b, p. 175)
He is also always interested in accruing wealth for himself. As late as 1962 he is still combining 'natural impulse and lofty objective…with sound business practice' (Charteris 1962, p. 93). But he robs only those who deserve it, and donates part of his gains to charity. Money, while important, is secondary to his vigilante and knight-errant missions. As he says in Follow the Saint (1939), 'I like money as much as anybody else…But that’s a sideline. I also deliver justice' (Charteris 1966, p. 87).
Charteris’ hero does not stay the same during his long career. Different forms of the character appear in different periods, a phenomenon closely related to Charteris’ personal experiences and circumstances. The Saint of the 1930s, when Charteris lived in Britain, is an upper class, wealthy Englishman; by the 1940s, after Charteris moved permanently to the United States, Templar has morphed into a capable, street-wise American, working for the US Government as a counter-espionage agent. In the 1950s, when Charteris enjoyed an international lifestyle and travelled a great deal, the Saint is in effect an international playboy, wealthy and well-travelled, who maintains, if in less intense form, his crime-fighting credo and ideals of justice. In the 1930s the 'first' English Saint was introduced with a bright, explosive creativity that entranced readers of the day, and that decade is Charteris’ primary literary period. This paper will argue that widespread perceptions of those believed to be responsible for the political, economic and social problems of the time, and the contemporaneous nature of British society, created an ideological environment highly conducive to the popularity of a fictional vigilante hero like Templar.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Depression. There were 2.8 million British unemployed by August 1931, with 'many more…on short time, or unemployed but not on the register' (Thorpe 1992, p. 62), and unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-32 (Stevenson & Cook 2013, loc. 399). While there was considerable regional variation in unemployment and much of the decade saw growing living standards and increasing levels of prosperity (Stevenson & Cook 2013, loc. 445-464), in the early years in particular Depression-related problems and the way the National government approached them caused a great deal of social and political unrest – among the middle and upper classes as well as the working class, with an increase in Leftist sentiment and the birth of the British Union of Fascists (Graves & Hodge 1965, Chapter 15). Indeed, the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wrote:
…after 1931, many of us felt that the disease was more deep-rooted [than in the past]. It had become evident that the structure of capitalist society in its old form had broken down, not only in Britain but all over Europe and even in the United States. The whole system had to be reassessed. Perhaps it could not survive at all… (cited in Branson & Heinemann 1971, p. 6)
The social protest literature of the 1930s focused on the suffering of ordinary people. Three prominent examples are Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933), George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and his The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), the latter becoming one of the best-known books of the period. A strong anti-war movement also developed, highlighted by prominent literary works such as Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and many others. Antipathy in particular developed towards those believed to be war-profiteering arms merchants and industrialists, a perception strongly evidenced in the 1934 best-seller Merchants of Death. This book convincingly argues that major arms suppliers developed monopolistic and extremely lucrative positions within national economies by claiming special, patriotic relationships with governments of the countries in which they operated. In the interwar period widespread antipathy to such figures helped generate a general popular distaste for wealthy businessmen or government officials (Grandy 2014, Chapter Two), and 'profiteers', often seen as the nouveaux riches of the 1920s, could include industrialists and speculators (McKibbin 1998, pp. 54).
Many, especially much of the educated younger generation which included the young Leslie Charteris, felt that society’s problems, including the catastrophe of the Great War, had come about because useless elected governments had pandered to incompetent old men within the upper, traditional governing class (Harvey 1998, p. 152; Orwell 1959, p. 140; Goldring 1932, p. 46). The British upper class has been defined broadly by Ross McKibbin as:
the members of the extended royal family and senior functionaries of the court, the old aristocracy, the political elites attached to the peerage by birth, marriage, or social affiliation, a good part of the gentry, many of the very wealthy and a few who were none of these but who had achieved rapid social ascent one way or another (McKibbin 1998, p. 2).
The Oxford History of England notes that the 'political governing class was largely drawn from a few hereditary families. Most of its members were educated at Eton, and some others at Harrow. Nearly all went to Oxford or Cambridge' (Taylor 1976, p. 171).
Charteris’ 1930 narratives contain many direct and indirect references to the circumstances and perceptions of the period. Wealthy, powerful upper class figures in the form of senior government officials and business magnates are often depicted as ruthless criminals or war-mongering arms dealers whom the Saint targets and brings down. They appear, for example, in 'The Simon Templar Foundation', 'The Higher Finance' and 'The Art of Alibi' (all novellas in The Misfortunes of Mr Teal, 1934), 'The High Fence' and 'The Case of the Frightened Innkeeper' (novellas in The Saint Goes On, 1934), the novella 'The Unlicensed Victuallers' (in The Ace of Knaves, 1937), as well as in a number of the 1930s short stories. In Prelude for War (1938), weak, foolish and corrupt upper class characters are manipulated by a sinister arms dealer. In the early novels The Last Hero and Knight Templar (both 1930), a malevolent, grotesque and immensely wealthy arms merchant of vaguely eastern European origin tries to foment international conflict.
For the Saint the whole upper level of society, including aristocrats, public school men, politicians, senior government bureaucrats and powerful and ruthless corporate businessmen is riddled with incompetence and corruption that runs the gamut from useless stupidity to criminality, war-mongering fascism and utter evil. He is not alone in this; reflecting the times, a number of other popular thrillers in the 1930s feature harsh, manipulative international capitalists as evildoers. Sir Magnus in Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale (1936) and the industrialist Krogh in his England Made Me (1935) are malevolent figures, and the menacing Simon Groom in Eric Ambler’s The Dark Frontier (1936) represents an arms industry seeking profit before everything.
In Charteris’ 1930s short story collections, while the Saint usually hoists con men by their own petard, he not infrequently also turns the tables on wealthy and exploitative tycoons. Some short stories, in the two collections The Brighter Buccaneer (1933) and Boodle (1934), are focussed on the exploitation of vulnerable people by unscrupulous upper class figures. Even if such opponents are not indisputably criminal, they are obnoxious and morally corrupt, and defending ordinary, often working class people against them fitted comfortably with contemporaneous perceptions. Probably the best example is the story 'The Sleepless Knight', published in Boodle. Here a fat, super-rich pillar of the community, who has mercilessly exploited the drivers he employs in his road transport company, is forced by the Saint to drive a simulator continuously with a whiplash descending on his back every time he makes a driving error.
In the 1930s narratives the Saint and the narrator highlight stupidity and humbug in upper class figures in a cutting and often resentful way that was part of a wider attitude of the time. The works of Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and P.G. Wodehouse, for example, in various ways savagely satirise the shallowness and unpleasantness of the upper class. In Saint fiction, public schools and public school sporting values, often associated with that class, are especially deprecated. Many odious villains, such as Junior Inspector Desmond Pryke in the above-mentioned novella 'The High Fence', are mockingly associated with public school behaviour and values, and in the 1934 short story 'The Noble Sportsman', the Saint cuttingly ridicules the concept of the 'sportsman' (Charteris 1939, p. 162). Merciless mockery is probably most evident in and The Misfortunes of Mr Teal and The Saint Goes On – in the former the Saint describes the aristocratic (and criminal) senior civil servant Sir Hugo Renway, as 'an over-fed, mincing, nerve-ridden, gas-choked, splay-footed, priggish, yellow-bellied, pompous great official sausage' (Charteris 1936, p. 311). But the theme permeates most of Charteris’ 1930s fiction. In Prelude for War, the Saint describes to his partner Patricia a wealthy, privileged house-party group who have just escaped from a fire that destroyed the house. The tone is acrimonious, almost angry, as the Saint ruthlessly categorises and caricatures the members of the group as useless, air-headed time-wasters typical of the conservative and military ruling class:
Lady Sangore, the typical army officer’s wife, with her husband the typical army officer. Lady Valerie Woodchester, the bright young Society floozie, of the fearfully county huntin’-shootin’-an’-fishin’ Woodchesters. Captain Whoosis of the Buffoon Guards, her dashing male equivalent…Comrade Fairweather, the nebulous sort of modern country squire, probably Something in the City in his spare time, and one of the bedrocks of the Conservative Party. A perfectly representative collection of English ladies and gentlemen of what we humorously call the Upper Classes (Charteris 1938, p. 37).
In addition to the issues discussed earlier, Britain was faced with a range of major concerns in the 1930s – in particular, the abdication of the popular Edward VIII in 1936, the rise of Hitler, the activities of Ghandi in India and the Spanish Civil War. Notions of decline and foreboding are seen in Charteris’ fiction of the period, inherent in the Saint’s many scornful comments about politicians and bureaucrats, and in comments, usually asides by the narrator or the Saint, about the inconvenience and unfairness endured by a long-suffering population through inadequate institutions, inefficient administration or decrepit infrastructure. This is especially sharp in Prelude for War, published late in the decade when the shadow of war and Britain’s lack of preparedness were becoming increasingly evident. In the novel Templar often complains about waste and inefficiency, ranging from issues such as police resources misspent on trivial issues like pubs that sell alcohol outside opening hours to more serious problems.
Earlier, however, an especially powerful, heartfelt and telling paragraph appears in 'The Green Goods Man', a short story in The Brighter Buccaneer. It relates to a disguise the Saint has adopted in order to bring down a confidence man. The Saint appears as
'an under-nourished, under-exercised, middle-aged man without hopes or ambitions, permanently worried, crushed out of pleasure by the wanton taxation which goes to see that the paladins of Whitehall are never deprived of an afternoon’s golf, utterly resigned to the purposelessness of his existence, scraping and pinching through fifty weeks in the year in order to let himself be stodgily swindled at the seaside for a fortnight in August, solemnly discussing the antics of politicians as if they really mattered and honestly believing that their cow-like utterances might do something to alleviate his burdens, holding a crumbling country together with his own dour stoicism and the stoicism of millions of his own kind…' (Charteris 1951, p. 203).
A particular betrayal is the powerlessness and pathetic ignorance of the ordinary people who 'solemnly discuss' politicians’ irrelevant antics and who are the true force stoically maintaining a 'crumbling country'. The passage justifies and legitimises the need for action by a superior but benevolent and caring champion – action to alleviate the horrific circumstances of the people, action such as that taken by the Saint in the absence of action by those who should be taking it: the rulers and the politicians.
The difficult social and political environment of 1930s Britain is a major factor in Simon Templar’s heroism. The Saint presents as an ideological palliative for the frustration and helplessness of the ordinary person. A character like Templar, a valiant warrior who fights and destroys the enemies of society, helps the poor through his donations to charity and protects ordinary people from abuse, provides a clear and comforting reaffirmation in an imaginary, simple black-and-white world of straight-forward values that transcends complexities and uncertainties. The Saint is a leader who does the right thing by the community; he is good, his enemies are bad, society is redeemed and people are helped by his actions. His outspoken criticism of incompetent authorities, foolish and bumbling upper class figures and their frequent depiction in the novels as criminals whom he brings to justice made him especially popular. He both confirmed negative perceptions of the nation’s leadership and offered solutions by cutting through – irrespective of the law – what were seen as failed processes, legal bottlenecks and irrelevant conventions. He was able to do 'what needed to be done', an ability underscored by his direct action, mocking impudence and bright, clever badinage that conveys an impression of supreme control.
While he does target crime rather than, for example, the alleviation of poverty, his direct action underscores the perception that the doddering, uncaring old men of government have failed. It is notable that in three 1930s novels Templar’s vigilante activities go beyond bringing criminals to justice and address national issues, ultimately preserving the security of the nation and preventing an outbreak of war. Justice and positive national outcomes through such vigilante action provided a strongly satisfying contrast with the real-life incompetence of a discredited older generation and a leadership that had neither prevented war nor maintained a stable and prosperous society. His commitment to justice and fairness, at a time when this was perceived to be lacking, helps override any reader concerns about him using violence and breaking the law, a process strengthened by the especially abhorrent nature of some of the criminals that he pursues and the type of crimes they commit. Independent action also appealed to contemporaneous middle-class values of achievement and self-reliance; Templar’s not infrequent comments about police time being wasted on enforcement of petty laws undoubtedly struck a chord with such readers. And the way the Saint’s companions in the early novels accept his orders has a crisp, military tone that conveys an aura of no-nonsense efficiency to a generation all too familiar with military service.
There is a seeming paradox between the Saint’s standing and his deprecation of the English upper class. The 1930s Simon Templar is undeniably – by virtue of his appearance, speech and manner, independent wealth and general circumstances – part of that class. Indeed, it is hard to see how the background of the Saint could have been other than in the public schools he so derides. The paradox is resolved in that the Saint, through his beneficial actions, cleanses and revalidates for readers the traditional moral responsibility of the upper class at a time when, in the real world, it was perceived to have failed in this role. The aristocratic criminals defeated, mocked and humiliated by the Saint, like the real-life governing class perceived as incompetent and uncaring, have acted dishonourably. They have abnegated their responsibility by not behaving the way men of their station in life are supposed to behave – administering society paternalistically and wisely, promoting prosperity through legitimate business enterprise, taking responsibility for those below their station. Their downfall at the hands of the equally upper class Templar revalidates the importance and centrality of that class – represented by Templar – when it does what it is supposed to do. The Saint is no revolutionary. No matter how repugnantly his enemies are presented in the narratives or how much he is depicted as deprecating them, the texts convey that the problem lies ultimately with them as individuals, not with the social order. This is a key ideological message in Charteris’ 1930s work.
The upper class Templar’s heroic reaffirmation of traditional leadership is predicated on the nature of the political and social response to the Depression in Britain. Inequalities of wealth and opportunity were such that, as Taylor has noted, perceptions of 'poverty in the midst of plenty' generated 'a new element in the Labour Party: the left-wing intellectual' (Taylor 1976, p. 347). Yet it was always unlikely that there would be an extreme response, as in Germany. There had been no calamitous defeat to generate grievances; and the impact of the Depression, while terrible, was neither as severe nor as prolonged as in Germany and the United States, nor was it exacerbated through being preceded by a spectacular boom (Thorpe 1992, p. 64). Despite the publicity they attracted, there was never any mass backing for the extremist British Union of Fascists or the British communists; the latter were, 'for the vast majority, a political irrelevance', and 'the same was true, broadly, of…the British Union of Fascists' (Thorpe 1992, pp. 49-50). Stevenson & Cook note that the importance of rising living standards for those in work, uncertainty about what action to take, geographical dispersal and isolation of the most depressed areas, the provision of unemployment relief and the conservatism of British society constrained political extremism (2013, Chapter 14), and in his analysis of the reasons why a mass Marxist, proletarian movement did not occur in Britain, McKibbin notes that both the Crown and parliament possessed an ideological hegemony. The acceptability of this to the working class 'underwrote the existing status-order and preserved the country’s institutions and class-system more or less intact' (McKibbin 1990, p. 17).
In his study of the English people, Stephen Haseler argues that the role of the Crown, combined with working class deference and an established belief in inequality on the part of the rulers, has historically limited the idea of political authority resting with the people, as it does in the United States: 'class hierarchies simply couldn’t allow the national culture to be anything else than an expression and celebration of the culture of its ruling classes' (Haseler 1996, p. 69). In the 1930s, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the perceived shortcomings of the authorities and of traditional leadership, it seems clear that strong feeling did not focus on revolutionary change or abolition of the traditional governing class, but rather on issues of justice, fairness and competence in government. The passage quoted earlier from the short story 'The Green Goods Man', with its down-at-heel protagonist personifying the nation, emphasises the idea of 'dour stoicism' – the acceptance of hardship by the British people for the sake of the nation. There was no challenge to the existing social and political system, reflecting the predominance of apathy and fatalism over revolutionary sentiment (Stevenson & Cook 2013, loc. 7377). Acceptance facilitated tolerance of the existing order, inhibited political extremism, and ultimately legitimised support for reform through less radical solutions – like the fictional corrective actions of Simon Templar.
The Saint is handsome and powerful, wealthy, knowledgeable and sophisticated. He always has seemingly unlimited time and resources available for anything he needs to do. His partner Patricia Holm and his companions are always available at his call regardless of time or expense. The epitome of urbanity and refinement, he can move easily in the highest social circles. These qualities, and his large, private mansion hidden away near Weybridge in one of the most exclusive parts of England, with its idyllic setting, spacious luxury, fortress-like nature and secret spaces imparts a feeling of strength, wealth and cleverness, of preparedness and capability that can be relied on. Such emotions are validated for the reader by the way Charteris located his plots in genuine, familiar locations, with carefully enunciated detail of streets, landmarks and geographical features, and are accentuated by the feeling of intimacy generated by Charteris’ frequent descriptions of Templar’s innermost thoughts. In stark contrast to the harsh criminality of his opponents, he conveys a satisfying and comforting aura of ruling class protective power, of a beneficent master who can be relied upon to put things right. His wealthy, luxurious lifestyle was not offensive to those who could never hope to attain it because such a lifestyle was seen as appropriate for a ruling class hero.
Templar demonstrates an honourable responsibility to others over whom he is placed. It is probably not going too far to suggest that his actions amount to a type of noblesse oblige – the idea that privilege entails responsibility and that (high) social standing includes obligations (OED Online 2016). Like the medieval knight-errant who looked to the welfare of the weak, the Saint battles for justice for the powerless and underprivileged. In addition to his special abilities, he has the power that his wealth and class status provide, facilitating his ability to confront evildoers of high social standing and render them accountable.
The Saint provided satisfaction in other ways. His missions recreated the spirit of an inspired world where energy, inventiveness and decisive action, imagined to have made Britain and its empire great in the Victorian era, could reverse the trend of decline. In pre-war Britain, the Victorian ideology of empire was still extant; no matter how humble his circumstances or class at home, an Englishman was part of a great nation that saw itself as the centre of the world, directly ruling over much of it, and as inherently superior to people of other ethnicities and cultures, and nationalist sentiment and pride in the empire was still prominent in the mass media and public life (Haseler 1996, pp. 46-48). This was an English ruling class ideology, but one shared by the middle and working classes, acting as what Haseler (1996, p. 47) calls a 'trans-class unifier', a perception that transcends class divisions and tensions. The Saint is clever and ingenious, both outwitting and outfighting his opponents – for readers, especially where his enemies are foreign, the essence of his actions was the same as those believed to have raised England above other nations, aligning him with heroes who had made the nation great.
Finally, an important dimension of the Saint in the 1930s is his standing as a fictional folk hero. Folk heroes are popular heroes acclaimed in folkloric expressions such as tales, songs, customs and beliefs, often outlaws who fight against injustice as a substitute for incompetent or corrupt authorities. In his classic study of the outlaw hero as social bandit, Eric Hobsbawm notes that this type of hero is one of the most universal and uniform historical social phenomena, with the role of the noble robber 'that of the champion, the righter of wrongs, the bringer of justice and social equity' (Hobsbawm 1981, p. 42). Style and charisma are important; the outlaw hero carries out his activities with daring and cleverness, and is handsome, witty and jocular, often dressing colourfully. He is known far and wide. His moral code ultimately ensures his support among the community, seen in particular in the circumscribed nature of his targets and of the violent acts he commits, his distribution of spoils to the poor, his chivalrous behaviour towards women and his concern for the weak.
Circumstances like those of Britain in the 1930s were conducive to the emergence of such figures, including the fictional Simon Templar. While he is not a fugitive and lives lawfully within the community, he is informally known and acknowledged as an outlaw. Some traditional features of the outlaw folk hero are not seen in him, but his attitudes and activities very much align with the key characteristics outlined above. He pursues and punishes evildoers, especially those who are rich and powerful and do not fear the authorities; he strives for social justice; he targets totalitarians who seek to control society. He is seen as just and fair by the general population (even, occasionally, by the police), donates much of what he acquires to charity, and kills only those who have committed monstrous crimes. He is the epitome of style and flair in dress, speech, manner and life-style.
An outlaw folk hero cannot rely solely on fighting prowess but must be nimble and elusive, possessing skills of deception, resourcefulness, daring, trickery and disguise to maintain his freedom and ability to act (Seal 1996, p. 10). The popularity and standing of 'clever heroes who are rascals on the other side of the law' (Klapp 1954, p. 21) benefits from outwitting and humiliating unsavoury figures in amusing ways. Often these will be defeated by wily or comical ruses rather than by sheer force, demonstrating to the hero’s following that his frequently high and mighty opponents are fools who can be overthrown and defied (Klapp 1954, pp. 22-25). These features fit Simon Templar like a glove.
Seal (2009, p. 67) notes a widespread scholarly view that bandits, including the type discussed by Hobsbawm, ultimately support rather than subvert the ruling elites of the society in which they operate, and it has been argued that benevolent outlaws, in not seeking the overthrow of established centres of power, are in effect reformers rather than revolutionaries who in the final instance allow the traditional order to continue (Blok 2001, Chapter 1). As we have seen, this is typical of the Saint; his actions in targeting evildoers heal and cleanse society, they do not refashion it.
The Saint of 1930s Britain is a hero of many dimensions. He battles the monsters of the era, fights for justice and the ordinary person in a troubled world and tries to prevent the war that loomed over the decade. While his heroism ultimately derives from many sources and influences, the events, circumstances and ideologies of 1930s Britain shaped that heroism in a way that graphically defined the character for millions of readers at that time and into the future.