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Bengal Lancer

Francis Yeats-Brown
(1886-1944)

Extracted from Barnaby Rogerson’s afterword to Eland’s new edition


Bengal Lancer was published in the summer of 1930 and proved a phenomenal success in both the British Isles and North America. Over 150,000 copies were sold and the London publisher, Victor Gollancz, sold foreign rights to Italy, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Rumania. The film rights were snapped up by Hollywood for fifteen thousand dollars and in January 1935 Paramount released The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, [starring Gary Cooper] which was saluted as one of the great adventure stories of cinema. Francis Yeats-Brown was able to admire the film on its own merits and was amused rather than outraged that it had so little to do with his book. But having read Bengal Lancer, you will understand how difficult it would be to create a film that would in any way be true to the text.
 
For Bengal Lancer is many things, but above all it is a love affair with the spiritual traditions of India. It is also the autobiography of a carefree young cavalry officer in the British Indian Army and includes an account of his courageous work with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, a prison-escape narrative and a subtle treatise on leadership and what makes a good soldier. It is funny and self-deprecating, so that the reader delights in being in the company of such an unusual man. We do not care that he never found the spiritual master that he yearned for, nor acquired the unattainable woman he desired. It is enough to have spent time in the company of someone who so cared for the Punjabi and Pathan men under his command that he tried to understand their religion, to feel for himself its emotional appeal. It is a rare combination, the soldier and the mystic, the sportsman and the pilgrim. Bengal Lancer feels like one of those books its author was born to write, a one-off touched by magic.
 

***

 
The Yeats-Brown family were a cosmopolitan hybrid – part of the English establishment who had nevertheless, for three generations, lived on the coast of Italy. Francis’s great grandfather had made a small fortune in banking, and his grandfather, Timothy (1789–1858), had married Mary Ann, the daughter of another London banker and loan-broker, Benjamin Goldsmid, in 1812. After the early death of Mary Ann, Timothy remarried Steuarta Erskine, the intellectual daughter of the British ambassador to Munich, and in 1828 the couple moved to Italy where Timothy initially represented the family banking interests of Brown, Cobb & Co. From 1840 he also served as the British Consul in Genoa. The Ligurian coast of Italy was a world away from strait-laced Victorian London, and the Yeats-Browns maintained an enviable and arty style of life in the palace they rented on the edge of the city. All sorts of travellers passed through the port of Genoa on their way further east, and many of them were delighted to accept the hospitality of the British Consul. Some of the more famous visitors, such as Dickens, became lifelong friends of the Yeats-Brown family.
 
Francis’s father, Montagu Yeats-Brown, was born into this idyllic world in 1834 and brought up in an Italian-speaking household though his mother made certain that he would also be fluent in German by hiring a Bavarian nursemaid and spending much of the year with her father at his home in Bavaria. Aged ten he was sent to the German Academy in Brussels, before finishing his education at Marlborough College. The allure of the soft Mediterranean climate saw him return and join the consulate staff at the tender age of 21. When his father died in 1858, Montagu was already Vice-Consul and took over his father’s position. It was a very agreeable life, especially after he bought the ruins of a medieval castle on the coast above Portofino for just £40 in 1867. Isolated on its own olive- and pine-clad peninsular, the ruins were turned into an enchanting summer house, the old battlements enclosing a sheltered garden … Francis was born into this cosmopolitan household on 15th August 1886, the youngest of three boys. His childhood memories are idyllic. He was pampered by Italian maids and the family was used to the most excellent food and long summers in their own castle, now shaded by a mature garden overlooking the sea.
 
***
 
In July 1904 Francis entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, which completed his outward transformation into a confident young man. Eighteen months later he took ship for India wearing the uniform of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. He was initially stationed at Bareilly (roughly halfway between Delhi and Lucknow) and acquired the characters we meet early on in the pages of Bengal Lancer, his bulldogs ­– Brownstone and Daisy – and his ponies, Punch and Judy. On 31st December 1906, Yeats-Brown was transferred to the 17th Bengal Lancers and, with his early multilingualism, progressively taught himself to speak Urdu, then Pathan and Punjabi. His sparse frame, which had kept him off the rugby fields of Harrow, now became an advantage, as he could ride fine Arab horses as a lightweight. He became an excellent polo player, with a five-goal handicap. His company commander, Major Metcalfe, considered him ‘the least conceited man I ever met. Very shy and retiring.’ It was also noted that he tended to duck invitations to attend shooting parties but used his leave to travel incognito in the North-West Frontier and to live as a Hindu in Benares. This wasn’t held against him, for imaginative use of leave and skill in languages was one of the accepted ways of becoming noticed, and of being asked to become a Political Officer.
 
In May 1909 Francis finally returned home to the Yeats-Brown castellated summer house outside Portofino. The ugly duckling of the family was now a swan, who could look his elder brothers in the eye and was even able to confess the extent of his debts (good polo ponies have never been cheap) to his father. That summer Francis also became a friend of the writer E. F. Benson (a comic genius of the first water) who taught Francis the essentials of the craft: to observe carefully, to listen to how conversation flows, to write quickly (but edit slowly) and to alter your style, so that descriptions, dreams, thoughts and conversations each have their own mood, as if perceived through different eyes. Francis returned to Portofino again in 1911 but otherwise his life was entirely committed to India, as described so evocatively and sympathetically in Bengal Lancer.
 
***
 
War erupted before Francis could return to his regiment in India. In September 1914 he served with the 5th Royal Irish Lancers and took part in the battle at Aisne and then the first battle at Ypres. His parents had a house in the Hampshire village of Twyford, which was their English bolt hole when not working in Genoa. It was in this comparatively modest environment that he finally made peace with his old father, whilst on leave, and in the process also felt himself to be part of England. Then he was ordered East. The journey down the Red Sea was spent in the fascinating company of Mark Sykes, one of the talented young men then directing British policy in the Middle East. The campaign in Mesopotamia that Francis Yeats-Brown served in was deliberately being pushed forward to offset the failure of the Gallipoli landings. As we now know, it led to an even more spectacular military defeat, with the surrender of the British army at Kut. In Bengal Lancer Francis devoted just twenty-five pages to his long period of captivity in Turkey. This was a wise editorial decision for his first book, Caught by the Turks, was entirely devoted to this period of his life and was not a success. He subsequently returned to describe these years of imprisonment in his third book, Golden Horn, whose sales were also disappointing. The problem was that this period of his life, although packed full of real adventures and a hair-raising series of escapes, could never be convincingly told in a light-hearted manner. Francis had suffered physical and mental wounds in the prison camp, from which he would never be entirely free. After the war, there was an attempt to get the commandant of the Afyion-Karahisar prison camp tried for war crimes, but it was thought that it would be too traumatic an experience for the young men he had raped to testify in a court room. To what extent Francis directly experienced abuse, or was affected by the sufferings of his comrades, we will never now know. No doubt the spartan boarding school experiences of his English childhood (about which he never wrote) did not make this second involuntary experience of captivity any easier. He was a convalescent after the war, complaining of back pains and wounds from an axe, but by the summer of 1920 the army doctors had somehow got him back on his feet. He was sent back to India, to the barracks at Rawalpindi outside Peshawar, where Major Francis Yeats-Brown supported the work of the Political Officer, John Coatman. It was a fascinating but also difficult period, for British rule was being challenged all over the globe, with blood on the streets in Cairo, bombed-out villages in central Iraq and civil war in Ireland. And calls for independence in India had just been galvanised by the British army massacre of protesting civilians in Amritsar. It was hard for British forces to know if the rising of the Mahsuds of Waziristan or the three Hazara martyrs was just another incident of North-West Frontier dissidence, or the beginnings of a new national uprising.
 
But instead of further immersing himself in the complex tribal politics of the region, which was probably what he desired, Francis was cherry-picked for a very different mission. He was appointed the official interpreter for a four-month fact-finding tour of India by the US journalist, Lowell Thomas. It was an inspired choice. Lowell Thomas was clever, influential and energetic and would not have tolerated any interference (official or otherwise) in his itinerary. Though a relentless, hard-driven operator, he was continuously astonished by Francis Yeats-Brown’s knowledge, energy and enthusiasm for every aspect of India. Lowell Thomas travelogues – image-led lecture shows – had already single-handedly made T. E. Lawrence world famous. By the time he produced The Land of the Black Pagoda about India, film technology had superseded this medium, but his acknowledgement of the assistance of Francis Yeats-Brown was heartfelt and genuine. ‘I, metaphorically speaking, sat at the feet of a Guru, a Yogi. Incongruous as it may seem, my Guru was neither Hindu, Muslim nor Buddhist monk. He was not even an Oriental, at any rate by place or birth or ancestry. He was an Englishman and a professional soldier.’
 
At Lucknow in 1922, the 17th Bengal Lancers were amalgamated with another regiment, which Francis took as a sign that it was time to leave the army. His seniors not only accepted this decision but gave him the last two years of his service as furlough on full salary. Francis Yeats-Brown ‘took leave of mother India, as her servant, on Sunday morning, 6th August, sailing down the Hooghly from Calcutta.’ He changed steamers at Rangoon, then at Singapore, then took a boat to Shanghai and on across the Pacific to Vancouver.
 
***
 
In April 1929 he paid a ‘young stenographer with a blonde Eton crop: a discouraging, disinterested party who kept glancing at her wrist-watch’ to take down a dictated story about his life in India. He was consciously tapping into his golden days, both of innocence and of energy, but also saturated with his fascination for India. With words on the page, he took himself off to Italy that summer to ‘cut the thing to pieces’ and completely rewrote it. His friend, E. F. Benson, tried to interest his own publisher in the book but there were two rejection letters to be digested before Victor Gollancz (one of the leading left-wing publishers of the day) snapped up Bengal Lancer.
 
The rest is publishing history. Francis enjoyed the process of being lionised, though he noted how famous writers tended to slip into performance mode, and that it was only with his close friends such as E. F. Benson and T. E. Lawrence that his conversation remained real. He could not, however, resist accepting invitations to dine with Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham, E. M. Forster, John Masefield and the dozens of other famous names that litter his diary after the publication of Bengal Lancer. What undoubtedly gave him the greatest pleasure however was being allowed to talk to Gandhi on a long, dawn walk through the deserted streets of London.
 
***

Francis Yeats-Brown died unexpectedly early in December 1944. His old friend and Fleet Street colleague, John Evelyn Wrench, wrote a biography, Francis Yeats-Brown 1886-1944, which was published in 1948. Yeats-Brown was undoubtedly an exceptional man, who searched all his life for the truth, practicing periods of abstinence and fasting alongside his passionate immersion in the discipline of yoga. Despite his British DNA, in many ways Francis was a genuine European, aspiring for a classless society that rewarded all its people, more fully at home in Italy, Germany and India than in his British homeland.
 
Barnaby Rogerson

Extracted from the afterword to Bengal Lancer  Francis Yeats-Brown


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‘One of the most remarkable books in modern literature … I have known no other instance of the genuine psychological record of any intimate touch of a western mind with the mind of the East.’  Rabindrath Tagore, Spectator

‘I shall read this again, it’s good stuff.’ T E Lawrence
 
One of the gladdest moments of human life is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of routine, the cloak of many cares and the slavery of home, man feels once more happy.’ 
Richard Burton

ELAND
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Standing in Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, is one of London’s finest and most unusual parish churches, Our Most Holy Redeemer, built towards the end of the nineteenth century in an Italian Renaissance style, complete with baldacchino and campanile. This book will tell you about the Pantheon ‘pleasure-dome’ which preceded it and became one of the formidable Countess of Huntingdon’s chapels.

Holy Redeemer was part of the flowering of Anglo-Catholicism within the Church of England. Its story is bound up with that movement, as with the fluctuating fortunes of the parish it serves in north Clerkenwell. Once populous and prosperous, Clerkenwell became a byword for urban deprivation. Late in the last century it emerged from the wreckage left by the Blitz and redundant industrial development with a new vigour and creativity, becoming instead almost a byword for urban regeneration. 
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In the past Holy Redeemer has been prized and admired rather than maintained. That deficit is being redressed. By buying this book you will help to make this building worthy of its architectural heritage and, with the holiness of beauty, once again worthy of Christ the Redeemer.  To buy the book click here
 
A cluster of ghostly spires, hundreds of feet high and needle-pointed at their summits, cluster before the face of a precipice; vultures wheel and turn upon the air currents between them.’  Gavin Maxwell, Lords of the Atlas

Listen & Watch
with ELAND


For a cornucopia of travel writing information including several podcasts with Eland authors, go to Jeremy Bassetti’s Travel Writing World site. It also features resources for both travel writers and their readers.  For more click here and to listen to Jeremy’s podcast with Ronald Wright on Peru (see below) recorded last year click here

EVENTS



We are pleased to announce the launch of a new translation of Jérôme and Jean Tharaud’s A Moroccan Trilogy, hosted by the British-Moroccan Society at the National Liberal Club on 1st December, 6.30pm. From 1917–19, the Tharaud brothers immersed themselves in Marrakesh, Rabat and Fez to absorb and observe the now-vanished Moroccan way of life and the French Protectorate at first hand.  This is the first translation of these vivacious works into English, giving access to the majesty, the squalor and above all the liveliness of this extraordinary period of Moroccan history.  Translator Anthony Gladstone-Thompson will be joined by publisher, Barnaby Rogerson and editor, Rose Baring to talk about his new translation.  Tickets are £10 to include a glass of wine.  To buy a ticket click here or email info@travelbooks.co.uk - the first 20 Eland readers to apply will get a free ticket.

The Interiors Boot Sale 2021



Come and say hello to Barnaby who will be manning a stall at the Interiors Boot Sale on Saturday 4th December at St Marks Church, Regents Park, London.  He wont be selling books, but  will have treasures from his travels alongside others with similarly laden trestle tables displaying the surplus, squirrelled-away contents of their cupboards and drawers, attics and cellars. This years sale is held in St Marks Church, just a few minutes walk from the original location, Cecil Sharp House. There will be a buyer entrance fee on the day, 50% plus of which will go to the Whitechapel Mission -  a wonderful London charity, open 365 days a year, serving the homeless marginalised in the East End for 145 years. For more information click here

Peru: A Journey in Time at the British Museum
11 November 2021
- 20 February 2022




Marking Peru’s bicentennial year of independence, this exhibition highlights the history, beliefs and cultural achievements of the different peoples who lived here from around 2500 BC to the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s, and their legacy in the centuries that followed.

For more information on the exhibition click here For background reading we have Ronald Wright’s Cut Stones & Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru

Competition



We have a copy of Bengal Lancer to give away.  To enter our draw click here

‘… my Guru was neither Hindu, Muslim nor Buddhist monk. He was not even an Oriental, at any rate by place or birth or ancestry. He was an Englishman and a professional soldier.’ Lowell Thomas

 

Catalogue


Eland houses an unrivalled collection of books about the world and its societies. The titles explore the magic of our cultures, their humour, their common humanity and their inspiring differences.   

‘A nearly extinct integrity, an eccentric passion for quality and a wonderful survivor. We are all in its debt.’  Colin Thubron

To see the full list, please click here.
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