Fire over England

A.E.W. Mason is one of those names who is now largely forgotten, but in the 1920s and '30s he was a well known author, at least two of whose books were made into famous films. Four feathers was hugely popular, and has been filmed many times; Fire over England is now less well-known, but was a big hit when it was filmed in 1937, starring the celebrity couple of the day, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. For Leigh the film would be of enormous importance. After scouring the length of America to find the actress to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the wind, Vivien was spotted in Fire over England, and took the role over some of the biggest names in Hollywood. The novel of Fire over England was also a huge influence on films such as The sea hawk.

It is about a young man, Robin Aubrey, who comes of age shortly before the invasion of the Spanish Armada. Robin believes his father to have died in Spain, a victim of the Spanish Inquisition. When he meets Elizabeth I's spymaster, Francis Walsingham; Walsingham (an old friend of his father) reveals that George Aubrey is still alive, living in poverty in Spain. Walsingham hatches a plot to infiltrate Robin into Spanish society and to deliver into Walsingham's hands full details of the Armada. Robin will undertake a dangerous mission, with traitorous neighbours, but it will be traitors nearer home who will cost Robin dearly.

It's a fascinating novel of its period. When I was reading it, I was reminded very much of Death of an airman, whose author was about to die in the Spanish Civil War. I suspect that the start of the Spanish Civil War may well have been an influence on Mason's writing. This novel feels as though it's gearing up for war. It's not just about a tempestuous past, but about a possibly turbulent future.

I was also intrigued to learn that Mason himself had once worked in Naval intelligence (it seems to have been a fertile ground for authors). He writes about Walsingham and the spies who worked for him with some perception, they are not just spies, but real people. It's a patriotic romp in much the same way that Four Feathers was, but this felt to me like a much sadder tale. War is seen as inevitable, but there's little of the glory that was present in the earlier novel. No doubt this is due to the time gap between them, and the shadow of the First World War that swept between the two novels.

It feels oddly prescient. A novel very much of its time, and one that hasn't endured particularly well, but worth a read if only to prove that in the mid-'30s there were some authors who were only too well aware of what the future might hold.


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