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

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 255 pages; 2005.

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. (The title comes from the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton.)

The story begins with John Franklin’s Royal Airforce plane crash-landing in Occupied France at the height of the Second World War. Franklin, who has been “actively operational” for almost a year and isn’t far off notching up his first 300-hours of flying time, is accompanied by a crew of four sergeants.

The five of them survive the plane going down in marshland, but Franklin’s left arm is badly injured. After walking for an entire day, they come to a small farm on the edge of a woods. Here, they are taken in by a mill-owner and his family, who hide them in an upstairs bedroom.

The men plan to escape to Spain, but Franklin’s injury has left him too weak to travel. A clandestine visit to a local doctor is arranged, but the only cure, it seems, is bed rest.

This does not go down well with his crew, who are anxious to head for the border. They are not sure whether to trust the mill owner and his family, and they are frightened to stay on French soil lest they be captured by German forces that patrol the local area.

Eventually, the crew are provided with fake travel papers, arranged by the mill owner, but Franklin decides to stay behind until his arm heals. During this time he is nursed by the mill-owner’s daughter, Françoise, a strangely quiet but observant and cool-headed customer, with whom he falls in love.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not your average sappy romance, however. Set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Bates is also very good at evoking time and place. Because much of the story occurs over the course of a hot summer, there are beautiful descriptions of the French countryside baking in the heat, which, in turn, makes Franklin homesick.

Of England, his other thoughts were simple. He wanted a cup of tea. Since it must be mid-afternoon he found himself alone in the room, listening for the encouraging, clean, beautiful sound of rattled tea-cups. But as he lay there he could hear nothing but the deep and audible silence of the full summer day, so strong and drowsy that it seemed to press both his mind and body deeply back into the bed. Diana [his “best girl”] and tea and England: all of them like small and faintly unreal clouds, far distant and at the point of evaporation, on the horizon of the present world. A long time before they come any nearer, he thought. Ah well!

There is much tenderness and quiet beauty in this story, but there is heart-ache, pain and death, too. As Franklin grapples with his predicament — should he stay, or should he go — the reader begins to fear for the pilot’s survival: no matter which he chooses, surely his life is in danger?

This a book about trust and intimacy, not only between two people, but between allies in war. It is gut-wrenchingly sad in places, but brims with optimism. And when I discovered, towards the end of the novel, that Franklin was just 22, I found myself reeling from the knowledge. His maturity, his insight, his care for others — not just Françoise, but his crewmen, who must have been younger still — made my heart lurch. I defy anyone to read this book and not get completely wrapped up in this lovely, occasionally daring, story.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not only destined to be on my list of favourite reads of 2011 at year’s end, but one of my favourite books of all time. Do beg, borrow or buy a copy if you can.

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39 thoughts on “‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates

  1. Oh, you’ve reminded me of how much I loved this book when I was a girl – it was one of my absolute favourites! So many books written then were about, or influenced by, the war. (WW2) I subsequently read several others by him but this one was always my favourite by a long way.

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  2. It’s such a lovely book, isn’t it? And this is despite the fact that it is so shocking/upsetting in places. It’s the kind of novel I want to buy and give to everyone I meet. I wish I’d chosen it for my last book group choice! I do want to try some of his other stuff now, but interesting to hear that you think this one is the best.

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  3. Oooh Kim you have me wanting to read this from your wonderful review but in particular that last line and the fact its one of those books you then want to go and buy everyone. It is so lovely when those books come into your lives, reminds you what reading is all about. I need to read more stuff like this, too much too modern is the way my reading has gone (not that thats all bad of course) but you tend to forget there are so many books out there like this one to find.
    I actually saw an H.E Bates in the local pub where they always have books for charity for 20p, it wasnt this one but I am wondering if I missed a trick.

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  4. I was trying to think where I knew this author’s name from and realised it was because he wrote The Darling Buds of May. This book sounds like something I would love but I might have to go looking for it as my library doesn’t have it.

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  5. Lovely review, thank you. I have a copy on the tbr shelves & I’m getting it down right now. I love WWII fiction that was written at the time.

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  6. Kim, wonderful review & you take me right back to 1970s London. I still have the set of 30p Penguin editions of H.E. Bates that I bought and read then.For some reason they made perfect night-duty reading, perhaps because they are so readily visualised from the writing. I took some along and did a pitch for him at my book group recently and everyone had both forgotten about him and was then going to dash off and read again. Some of the novellas are little gems The Triple Echo one of my favourites. He’s due a revival surely??

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  7. When I first read this comment, Simon, I thought you said you had seen H.E. Bates in the local pub!! The poor man’s been dead for 35+ years, so I was, like, how is that possible?? But then I see you saw some of his books… and at 20p that sounds like a bargain. I can’t vouch for the quality of the rest of his work but if it’s anything like Fair Stood the Wind for France then it’ll be pretty damn good.

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  8. Well spotted. Yes, he wrote The Darling Buds of May, and I was trying to work that into the review, but in the end just chopped it out entirely. He wrote dozens of books, actually, but according to the blurb on the back of this one, Fair Stands the Wind for France was his most popular. I’ve also read elsewhere that it was the first book that made money for him.

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  9. Oh, do dig it out and let me know what you think of it once you’ve read it. This is the kind of book I know I will read again, and I’m not generally a re-reader.

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  10. Thanks, Lynne. He seems to have a vast back catalogue, but I’m not sure how many of them are still in print. I notice that Penguin have re-released a handful in Kindle editions, which is interesting. And in my further scooting around the internet, I discovered this wonderful website designed to bring his work to the attention of a wider audience: http://www.thevanishedworld.co.uk/

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  11. This was a book I read as a teenager too (along with all of Nevil Shute). I remember loving it, and I still have the old orange Penguin which I shall have to excavate and read again thanks to your brilliant review.

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  12. I have a copy of this at home (I swapped it on readitswap it a while ago) and you have made me really want to pick it up sooner than later. I love books set in France and this one sounds right up my street. Great review, Kim 🙂

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  13. I didn’t like his more comedic/rural books so much, but remember enjoying The Purple Plain, another war story. Having checked him out on Wikipedia, I see he wrote masses, of which I’ve probably only read about 15.

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  14. Yes, he seems to have written loads. I notice that Methuen Publishing have re-released several novels, including two which really appeal to me — The Feast of July, and Love for Lydia. I do feel a book-buying binge coming on!

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  15. Sounds wonderfu, and that is some recommendation. I shall definitely get this, thanks!
    Just one thing I wondered. If you were reeling back from the discovery that Franklin was just 22 and up until then you’d had the impression he was much older, does that mean Bates’ evocation was not convincing in this regard?

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  16. I think the fault probably lies with me than with Bates. I read this with a modern mindset and kind of assumed Franklin was mid-30s. He seemed very mature and kind-hearted and constantly put other’s needs before himself. But this was a time of war and I suspect that he had to grow up very quickly…

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  17. Thanks, yes, I can imagine that. Everyone seems to stay much younger these days, and yes, I expect war would have that effect. I’m looking forward to reading this.

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  18. Thank you so much for sharing this book with your readers. Your blog is one of my favorites on reading, although this is the first time I post in here (too shy, think I have nothing important to say), but today I broke my lurking silence to send my virtual thanks, which also include the article about the Marsh’s Library in Dublin.
    I like to read about characters more mature than their biological age, to inspire in goodness and beauty … at some point you just want to rest your soul on solid inspiration. I will certainly buy the book, based on your recommendation.
    My respects,
    Doina

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  19. Thank-you for your lovely comment, Doina. Am so glad you overcame your shyness to leave it! Yes, this is quite a beautiful book, the type that gives you faith in the human race when you read it.

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  20. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of it either. It was a chance discovery while browsing in a bookstore about a year ago. I discover quite a lot of my reading material this way, so it makes me quite fearful when bookshops start closing down because browsing online bookstores isn’t quite the same.

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  21. This looks wonderful Kim. I have just added it to my list of books set in France at Packabook… It is so wonderful when old-remembered gems rise again to the surface. Does the book actually mention which region of France it is set? Or is the location more generic?
    Suzi

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  22. Hi again Kimbofo! I didn’t buy the book (yet), but I borrowed it from the library where I work (university), it’s the 1944 edition and already started reading it. I’ll keep in mind the recommendation, in the last line of your comment above. I will come back here after I finish it. Meanwhile, I browse the archive of reviews, for inspiration. Cheers, and thank you again.

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  23. Wow, what a lovely response from all of the above. How many ticks do I need to go out and purchase this book: 1.”…finest and loveliest book I have ever read…”, 2. Set during WWII, a period I am obsessed by, and 3. By a writer unknown to me. It now sits in my Amazon basket 🙂

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  24. Hi Suzi, the region of France is not specified… which is deliberate, because the family refuses to tell the airmen the name of the nearest town for security reasons. But a small part of the book is set in Marseille.

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  25. I’m positive you won’t be disappointed by this one, Samantha. Honestly, it’s the best book I’ve read this year, and I’ve read some great ones in the past 6 months.

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  26. Excellent – I have catalogued it under Marseille as well, for good luck! There’s only one other in Marseille so far, so am pleased to be able to add to it – even if it’s only a small part of the book.
    Suzi

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  27. A memorable book for the writing, the story, the characters.
    H.E. Bates is a too well kept secret.
    I found a good story about him in the Guardian Review and started with this book.
    Then i read all the others.
    I love everything he’s written.
    Mara

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  28. Can I give you a suggestion for the memoir list?
    (Sorry, I’m not quite sure how to navigate this site and leave my message on the memoir page.)
    It’s “Burning the Days”, by James Salter, my favorite author.
    He’s a brilliant writer and this memoir is exceptional.
    I recommend it highly! Thanks for reading this.
    Best,
    Mara

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  29. Can I give you a suggestion for the memoir list?
    (Sorry, I’m not quite sure how to navigate this site and leave my message on the memoir page).
    The book is “Burning the Days”, by James Salter (my favorite author).
    Salter is a brilliant writer and this memoir is an exceptional look back at a life well lived in the post-WW2 American era. His journey began as a West Point cadet, training to become a fighter pilot in the Korean war. He left the military in mid-life to become a Hollywood screenwriter (Redford’s Downhill Racer) and highly acclaimed “writer’s writer.”
    But the factual details are not what makes this book so special. It’s the beautiful, meticulous writing: every word, every sentence, every page.
    I recommend this book enthusiastically. Hope you will read it.
    Best,
    Mara

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  30. I read this book about 50 years ago, as a young girl, maybe more than once. Other than the basic premise, along with the romance, I don’t remember it so well. But, I do remember it was one of my favorite books. I read many books as a youth, most, other than classics, I couldn’t tell you the name of, which means, to me, that this was a very good book. I think I should read it, again, and, maybe, some others by this author.

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  31. I actually think Bates must have done this intentionally, as I was also surprised when I read late in the novel that Franklin was only 22. Early on he expresses his sympathy for the two young sergeants, he focuses on their youth and nominates them as the first to leave the mill solely because of their young age, so it is inevitable that a reader will assume he is an older man. And there is the fact that he is the leader, and respected by men we know to be in their 30s.

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  32. Hi Kim,
    I just reread this book and love it even more.
    One of my all time favorites, thanks to you!
    But I have two questions.
    The first relates to the title. I know it is the first line in Michael Drayton’s poem “Agincourt”
    “FAIR stood the wind for France
    When we our sails advance,
    Nor now to prove our chance
    Longer will tarry;
    But putting to the main,
    At Caux, the mouth of Seine,
    With all his martial train
    Landed King Harry.”
    But why this title? How does it relate to the Book?
    The book is about pilots, the poem about the sea.
    I know the Battle of Agincourt represents success despite the most enormous odds, and maybe that is the metaphor. But am not sure?
    My other question is why the main character, Franklin, repeats on several occasions that he hopes they have crash landed in occupied France.
    Why would this be preferable to landing in Vichy for a British pilot?
    Would appreciate any information. I would like to understand every aspect of this great novel.
    Thanks.
    Mara

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