The James Bond Files ~
The Disagreeable Dornford
Yates – An Essay by O.F. Snelling
Introductory Notes by Wes Britton
Beginning in 1980, O.F. Snelling wrote a number of articles for the
Antiquarian Book Monthly Review. (Note 1)
One of these was his essay on “Clubland” writer
Dornford Yates for a series on Unappreciated Authors.
While only obliquely related to James Bond – Yates was one
of the writers Snelling and others point to as an obvious literary ancestor
to Ian Fleming – we offer here Snelling’s own neglected
writing as part of these archives. Other observations by Snelling on
Yates can be found in his correspondence with Ron Payne, posted in
The James Bond Files section of this website.
To include the present subject in a series generally devoted to
authors I feel are not fully appreciated at the present time would, at
first glance, appear to be quite inappropriate. After all, Dornford Yates
was a best-selling writer for something like forty years. His books
were devoured in their hundreds and thousands during his career,
and the watertight contracts he negotiated with his long-suffering
publishers made sure that none of those books ever went out of
print while he was still alive.
And yet it was only a few years back, when I became utterly
exasperated at finding none of his titles on the very same library
shelves which had once sported dozens, that I wrote to the
publishing house of Ward, Lock and Co., famous for its association
with the renowned Mrs. Beeton, and a firm more recently devoted to
things like Do-It-Yourself manuals rather than to sensational novels
and the slick tales which had once richly and meatily regaled
train-travellers in its monthly periodical, The Windsor
I requested their current catalogue. In it I found very little fiction
at all. Indeed, Dornford Yates, a name which had once been their
mainstay, if not exactly their pride and joy, was now represented only
by the very last book he ever wrote.
This, somewhat to my surprise, was priced at the moderate figure
of 75p. I naturally assumed it to be a paperback reprint, and I sent
off for it immediately. But when the book arrived I found that it was the
first – and only? – printing of the original hardback,
published in 1958, and complete with dust-wrapper, on whose front
flap was clearly printed the retail price of 15 shillings.
That – almost unbelievably today – was the
average price of most new books a quarter of a century ago. Ward,
Lock and Co., possibly in an effort to rid themselves of stock which
had now become an embarrassment, had ignored the rampant
march of inflation and were selling off Dornford Yates at the decimal
equivalent of the sum his books had been priced at when he died!
Cecil William Mercer, which was the real name of the man who
adopted the nom-de-plume of Dornford Yates, was something of an
enigma all his life, and he remains so to this day. He was an extremely
private person, to the extent that he shunned personal publicity as
much as he possibly could.
He did allow a somewhat idealised portrait of himself on the backs
of the wrappers of some of his books, mainly in order to help promote
their sales, but nobody who had known the mundane Willie Mercer
would ever have recognized him as being the real-life Dornford Yates.
The biographical information he supplied about himself was sparse.
Even so, he was a scrupulous and meticulous correspondent,
always answering those myriad readers who sent him
“fanletters.” But while he was always ready to discuss
his books and his characters, he gave away very little about himself
and his replies were always signed “Dornford Yates”.
Further, and to add to the riddle, although he had an enormous
and devoted following in the years between the two big wars and for
more than ten years afterwards, no attempt was ever made to film any
of his romances or his thrillers while he lived although his eminent
contemporaries in much the same field, like John Buchan, Edgar
Wallace, Sapper, Leslie Charteris, and E. Phillips Oppenheim were all
translated to the screen, and sold to the stage. Although in his old
age he expressed wonderment at this seeming neglect and oversight,
he was so precise and particular a man, and looked upon his written
works as so sacrosanct, that he probably wanted no Hollywood
illiterates monkeying about with his plots and prose in so-called
adaptations, and discouraged all overtures in that direction. This was
unlike some of the other authors, who gladly grabbed the money and
Those people who reviewed his books were both laudatory and
scathing at times, but he remained quite aloof from these opinions
ostensibly, at any rate. He was quite content to know that his writings
were not ignored by the book pages of the press. He was also rather
proud of the fact that to his knowledge he was acquainted with no
other authors, and he certainly never met a reviewer.
Few commentators have discussed the man in print, simply
because they knew so little about him. Apart from Cyril
Connolly’s brief but oft-quoted eulogy, wherein he said that
we know “. . . next to nothing about our hero, but we
appreciate fine writing when we come across it, and a wit that is
ageless united to a courtesy that is extinct”, it is difficult to
trace very much literary criticism of Dornford Yates.
I think I can see what he means, but what other sort of criticism
can any contemporary observer employ? For all this, Mercer still
comes across in his biography as a very odd fish indeed. Born in
1885 at Walmer in Kent, the boy who was to grow up to become
Dornford Yates writer of fiction, showed an early interest in literature.
He was well-versed in the classics, but his favourite reading was the
work of people like Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Hope, and
Arthur Conan Doyle, all authors of romance and tales of adventure.
The drama, too, held great fascination for this quiet and
impressionable youth, and he was stage-struck from an early age.
But he had marked persistence. The flamboyance of Oscar Asche
and Matheson Lang, with whom he became acquainted, appealed to
him greatly. That of an extrovert self-publicist like Bernard Shaw, with
his socialist message and call for equality, was always inclined to
send him slightly apoplectic. Indeed, in later life, one of his wife’s
regular chores, on welcoming the very infrequent visitors to their
home, was to forewarn them all never to use that gentleman’s
name in the presence of her husband!
Willie Mercer was educated at the public school of Harrow and
at University College, Oxford. Very reserved, extremely reticent, and
never a good mixer or the most popular of young men, he was
nevertheless inordinately proud of being elected the President of the
Oxford University Dramatic Society. The insufferable snob in him
showed early. While he was prone to boast of that honour he would
also tend to suggest that he had been educated at a somewhat more
He was set to the law as a profession, and in the early years of
the century he slogged away unhappily as a fledgling barrister. As a
very humble junior he hated much of the routine work, but he loved
the ritual, the colour, and the drama of the courtroom.
It is no doubt a fact that he was privileged to be a modest and
silent “fly on the wall” witness of many great cases
and causes célèbres of the
period. It is from his own report alone that we are told that he had
much to do with the sensational Dr. Crippen murder trial of 1910, and
I have no doubt at all that he was on the spot. But I have studied the
verbatim reports of this case in the Famous Trials series, in which
the names of all legal representatives for both the prosecution and
the defence are clearly documented, and no where have I seen the
name of C.W. Mercer mentioned. It was a most humble capacity,
indeed, I should imagine. Something like tea-boy on a building site
In later years his somewhat tenuous connection with
well-known crooks and murderers became something of a party-piece
with him, and he was inclined to set himself up as an oracle and
pundit of certain criminological matters. Things were always very
black or very white with Mercer. With regard to Crippen, for instance,
time and the observances of many of those who were closely
connected with the case have now left the impression that the little
man, while undoubtedly guilty, was a mild and unfortunate individual
caught up in a web of circumstances. Mercer makes him appear the
blackest and most double-dyed of criminal types, which was far from
the case. One of the author’s canniest knacks, as a master
of the written word, was an ability – while never deviating
from the actual facts in what he said – to give a quite different
impression of the truth.
The young lawyer’s very earliest light contributions to
periodicals were clearly influenced by Hope’s Polly
Dialogues. But war intervened before he could establish himself
properly in the scribbling trade. During hostilities, when he served in
the Army, most of his time was spent well away from the action, in
Egypt, although with his rabid patriotism he would have preferred to be
in the thick of things, killing Germans. He was a green young officer,
unlike his cousin, Hector Hugh Munro, the famous “Saki”,
who joined up in the ranks at the age of 45 and was killed in 1916.
Mercer was sufficiently proud of his stint in uniform to retain his
captaincy as a permanent title when he returned to civilian life, as
have many other commissioned temporary soldiers have loved to do.
(Incidentally, why don't privates and corporals tack their former rank
on to their names, later on – or even humble second-lieutenants,
for that matter? Obviously, it has a lot to do with pride, prestige, and
possibly some snobbery. Mercer was never found lacking in all
Forsaking his wig and gown and throwing himself wholeheartedly
into fiction, Willie – or Bill, as he now preferred to be known
– rapidly became extremely successful with light and frothy
short stories concerning well-to-do upper crust heroes and heroines
with unlikely adventures and even more unlikely names. These were
published in Ward, Lock’s monthly magazine, The
Windsor, and it was only a matter of time before they were
issued by the same house in book form.
He had met a ravishingly beautiful but small-time musical comedy
actress named Bettine Edwards, who had had a tiny part in his friend
Oscar Asche’s long-running success Chu Chin
Chow. They were married in 1919 and went to live at the Villa
Marylandt Pau, in the Basses Pyrenees, after skirting about for a
suitable home. He was to reside in this area for most of the remainder
of his life, ever “the Englishman abroad”. He made no
serious attempt to learn the French language properly, or even to
adapt himself to another mode of living.
The early 1920s found Mercer a popular best-seller with his
fictional but very real Pleydell family, the famous Berry and Co., who
were Boy, Adele, Daphne, Jill, and Jonah Mansel, complete with
family tree in all the books in which they appear, rather like the
Forsytes, to establish their exact relationship. Many readers have
identified the author so closely with his engaging characters that
one time they were actually believed to be living people. Mercer
himself became so absorbed with those he had created that it is
no exaggeration to state that he almost believed in them himself.
It was now that he began to retire more and more from the harsh
world of mass unemployment and strike-torn postwar existence and
retreated into a fantasy world all of his own.
His wife was young, vivacious, and gregarious; she made an
effort to mix with the French and to enter their social life, but he had
no time or desire for such frivolities. Hard at work most of the time
in his study, it was accepted throughout the household that he must
on no account be disturbed.
Even Smithers, who is biased in his favour, can see that
Bettine’s comfortable but somewhat monastic life was not
an enviable one. “Should Bettine desire to share the room
with him, as she often did, she was welcome enough on the clear
understanding that she sat quietly and got on with her knitting or with
whatever other female task happened to be engaging her attention.”
A chauvinist pig? That term had not yet been coined, but Mercer
might have been proud of it, rather than otherwise, “They did
not go much together into society. For a young woman of active habit
it became thoroughly boring.” (Note 2)
Inspired by the success of writers like John Buchan and Sapper,
with their adventurous protagonists Richard Hannay and Bulldog
Drummond, Mercer now lifted his already-successful character
Jonah Mansel from the perennial summer’s day existence
of high life in vast country estates and teased him up with one
Richard William Chandos, a sort of foil and second-string hero with
the Boswell-Dr. Watson talent of narrating the exciting experiences of
the pair in search of crooks and murderers in the environment of an
eternally Schloss-dotted Austria, bearing hidden treasure
in deep and dark wells or secret and almost impenetrable
compartments and dungeons, and in sinister houses in the hills and
mountains of Pyrenean southern France. Ward, Look and Co.
didn’t like this idea at all and felt that the cobbler should stick
to his last, so the author Dornford Yates shifted temporarily to
Hodder and Stoughton, a house which specialized in such
sensational fiction. But although his work sold very well he was never
particularly happy with them. One gleans that he encountered editors
and sub-editors almost as autocratic as he was. They raised his
hackles, first of all, by not sending him any galley-proofs, this
resulted in an entire resetting of some 40 pages of the page-proofs he
did see. That didn’t endear him to his new colleagues.
But it was with Hodder’s that he began in 1927 the series
of very entertaining and readable adventure yarns, totally different
from anything he had set his hand to previously, for which he will
probably be remembered in years to come. After the initial
Blind Corner, he followed it with Perishable
Goods, Blood Royal, and Fire
Throughout the 1930s he consolidated his position with
alternative Berry books, and his original publishers were only too
glad to welcome him back into the fold. Eventually, they bought the
rights of the Chandos tales from Hodder’s and continued to
reprint them and to publish new blood-and-thunder yarns. He was a
great money maker, despite his insistence upon keeping everything
he had written available to his vast public. At least 20 years after his
first book was published he made sure of the following being printed
in heavy capitals, and dated, on his wrappers: NO BOOK WRITTEN
BY DORNFORD YATES IS NOW OUT OF PRINT OR
Although Mercer was obviously very strong for King and Country,
and he exalted England as the finest of all lands, even to the extent
of dedicating one of his books to “London, the greatest city
in the world”, he took very good care not to have to live in
it once he had made sufficient money to reside in comfort elsewhere.
That he was a martyr to rheumatism may have been the primary
cause for his seeking a warmer climate, but it was never much fun
for Bettine. Pau was always his main stamping-ground, where he
could lord it over a household of faithful servants who “knew
their place” and were not too uppity to show open
He was never a particularly pleasant person. He was so despised
and tyrannical that on one occasion he actually took a whip to one of
his employees and flogged him for leaving the curtains undrawn and
allowing the sun to fall upon one of his favourite pictures! That landed
him in court, but he got away with it.
Mercer also once waylaid and assaulted a certain wealthy
gigolo-type who had been rash enough to pay too fond attention to
his long-suffering wife. He beat the man with a riding-crop and broke
his arm. And if Bettine decided to sing, which she was fond of doing,
he was inclined to put the shutters up in order that nobody outside
might be attracted by her warbling. The Man of Property, indeed.
Soames Forsyth had nothing on Cecil William Mercer when it came
to conserving his personal possessions.
Life had become intolerable for Bettine by the end of the 1920s,
and she left him. In due course he met up with a beautiful but
unfortunate young girl named Elisabeth Bowie, who had been stricken
with what was known at that time as infantile paralysis, and which we
now refer to as polio. Her legs were so wasted that she could hardly
walk. To his credit, he idolized this young lady, who eventually became
his second and extremely subservient and dutiful wife. But from the
outset he rechristened her Jill, the name of the most engaging and
desirable fictional character of his fantasy life and “Jill”
she remained for the rest of their life together.
He divorced Bettine, promising her £500 a year for life
if she did not defend the action, since any scandal connected with
the illustrious name of Dornford Yates would have been adverse to
his reputation. At that time, £500 was a very considerable
sum, and she acquiesced. She had nothing of her own. As the
years passed, Mercer reduced this allowance considerably, and
she supported herself. When she died, in her 80s, she was not exactly
reduced to penury but was in relatively straitened circumstances.
Mercer was a very wealthy man when he began building the
dream home for “Jill” and himself, which has
become well-known in what is perhaps the most famous of all his
many books, The House That Berry Built. This story is half fact
and half fiction. Although it carries a sub-plot, with many dark deeds
and much derring-do it is also a pretty true-to-life account of the
enormous dwelling he erected on the side of a mountain, not 20
miles from Pau, and with a view quite out of this world from its
spacious front terrace actually pillared with relics from the old
Waterloo Bridge when it was pulled down and rebuilt just before
the Second World War. A little bit of old London preserved forever
in the faraway comfort of the Basses Pyrenees?
Although he built the place in Cockade – but called
Gracedieu in the novel – primarily for his beloved
“Jill”, the plateau on which it was erected was
hewn out of the side of the mountain, and much of its front
foundations were formed by an enormous wall some forty feet high,
with no fewer than 93 steps up from the road to his terrace and
front door. His disabled wife was thus a virtual prisoner there for
a great deal of the time unless he chose to accompany her out
anywhere and then back. He was taking absolutely no chances,
said the wits of Pau, of another usurper coming along and trying
to steal his most treasured property, but there could have been
considerable truth in this, subconsciously, in his choice of
Strangely, Elisabeth Mercer does not appear to have viewed
her virtual incarceration as a deprivation. She did not look upon
herself as a “damsel in distress”, to be rescued by
a Jonah Mansel or a Richard Chandos from an imperious villain.
How long this state of affairs in incredible luxury might have lasted
it is difficult to conjecture. Pleasantly, one hopes, but war broke out
at the start of their idyll.
Mercer and his wife moved out hurriedly, leaving
“Gracedieu” in the care of the servants as the Nazis
moved in in 1940. He was one of those on the “wanted
list” by what he had always referred to as “the
Boche”. His observations about the German people in
general had never exactly been complimentary in any of his books.
From the Pau area, through Spain via Hendaye and eventually
to San Sebastian, the refugees drove, with countless others who
blocked the roads, and on to the more hospitable country of Portugal.
Franco’s regime, while infinitely preferable to Mercer than
a left-wing one, was far too sympathetic towards Germany for his
As Captain Mercer, he volunteered for service, at the now rather
advanced age of 55, but the War Office wanted none of him. But
one of his old friends from his Oxford days had been Ellis Robins,
now commanding the Royal Rhodesia Regiment as Lord Robins
in distant Africa. Strings were pulled, and the “old boy
network” went into action. The upshot was the writer and
his wife eventually shipped themselves to the dark continent and
he found himself back in uniform in a sinecure as Major Mercer.
His writing continued all through hostilities, with more romance
and more derring-do. Shoal Water, Period
Stuff, and An Eye for a Tooth are three of the
books which delighted his world-wide audience during the war
Complete and utter frustration followed on his return to the
beloved Cockade, when peace arrived. Not only had he never
forgiven the French for its capitulation in 1940, and the subsequent
disruption of his pleasant existence, but the newly-found
independence and égalité among the local servant
class was not at all to his taste. God was not in his heaven, and all
was not right with the world, any more.
Elizabeth, too, had by this time become completely aligned with
her husband’s smug and self-interested views. Writing a
long letter about their feelings on returning to Cockade after the
war, she refers to “our house and the servants. The latter
had completely changed. The servants are RED, and we were to
find they were apparently heading the local black market, though
we didn’t get anything, and it was a bitter blow and
disillusionment to Bill.”
I’ll bet it was. I am inclined to think that it was as much
the fact that the returning privileged
“émigrés” received no share of the
under-cover goodies available which outraged the Mercers, as
anything else. Had the servants turned over their ill-gotten gain
accumulated under the eyes of the watchful incumbent Nazis, to
their employers, who had, after all been living in relative comfort
in far Africa rather than to the humble village folk who had been
obliged to stick it out as best they could under the Germans for
five years, perhaps Elisabeth might have viewed them only as
upstart pinkoes, rather than out-and-out Bolsheviks?
The Mercers hastily quitted the scene for good, and “The
House That Berry Built” was eventually sold, for about
a third of what it had cost to erect.
The idea of returning to live in Britain, with a Labour Government,
was absolutely out of the question. Life under characters like Ernest
Bevin and Aneurin Bevan, statesmen who were drawn compositely
by Dornford Yates in a later 1950 political novel, Lower Than
Vermin, as Erny Balch, was quite inconceivable.
That millions of people eventually led fuller and happier lives,
by courtesy of that austerity period of immediate postwar Britain
and the emergence of the Welfare State, and that the subsequent
conservative Government, which in course of time replaced the
Labour one, under Mercer’s former hero, Winston Churchill,
and had now become so liberal in attitude that Mercer was inclined
to view the old Prime Minister as RED, probably merited observation
but not consideration.
He looked towards Rhodesia for salvation. “Jill”
would have preferred somewhere like Jamaica, but Mercer had
already bought extensive land at Umtali, as a sort of insurance, also
on the side of a mountain. There he recreated the fictional
“Gracedieu” and the Cockade of sad memory by
building Sacradown, a replica, as far as he could make it at his now
somewhat advanced age, supervising a task which entailed the
excavation and leveling of a considerable portion of the real estate
he had purchased.
Here, for the remainder of his life, he resided in comfort,
mellowing to some extent but still lording it over the local populace.
Here also, at that stage of the world’s history, he had little
cause to report to anybody that “the natives are restless.”
He still span out his fiction with enjoyment, but his last few books,
so different in content and attitude from his earlier bestsellers sold
far less than the ones which had made his name.
He died in 1960, still the anachronism he had perhaps always
been, and now almost forgotten by his former public, many members
of which were now also dying off. But right to the end he still
traveled regularly into town, simply to have his cigarette-lighter
topped up with petrol at a local shop!
Mercer never lived long enough to encounter Harold Wilson,
Ian Smith, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the emergence
of men he would have called “black upstarts”, and
Zimbabwe. Had he done so I feel sure he would have quickly deserted
Sacradown and retreated to some far off South Sea island, or even,
perhaps to Jamaica, a land at which his beloved “Jill”
had gazed fondly. But how happy would he have been there now?
There has been some small awakening of interest in the works
of Dornford Yates in recent years, rather for their relation to social
history, perhaps as much as anything else. Although printed in very
large numbers during his lifetime, most of them have now disappeared.
While, as collectors’ items, they might be termed scarce,
there has been little indication, so far, in exaggerated prices being
either offered or asked for them.
They are both archetypal and archaic, in their way. From volume
to volume, the characters move and speak in a never-never-land of
Mercer’s own imagination – or at the most, in an age
and in places very far removed from the mundane and everyday
world that most of us know, despite the fact that they were lapped
up with absorption by a readership of genteel romantics who
believed that if this was not life as it is it was as it should be.
His people don’t leave a room: they withdraw from it;
they are not then outside that room: they are without it; they
seldom actually eat breakfast: they break their fast; they dine very
frequently, of course, and always bathe before the meal and never
take a bath – putting on the old full glad-rags for the meal
match and they sup rather than partake of supper. They never ate
on chairs, but always upon them.
His sympathetic characters almost always tend to use the same
sort of expressions, whether they be from the courteous aristocracy
the monied and privilege upper classes, or the quiet and subservient
status of butlers, chauffeurs, valets, footmen, or Scotland Yard
detectives, all perfectly happy in their calling and ready to lay down
their lives for the superior beings to whom they muster.
Most of his unsympathetic characters and arrant villains are
ill-educated and foul-mouthed. The oaths they ejaculate are never
actually printed. Dornford Yates always used the very convenient
dash, thus – , or the even more appropriate spondee
– –. You can therefore formulate your own idea of
what horrible terms were actually said, depending upon your extent
of your familiarity with impolite language. No readers are therefore
offended. The low-life villains bear names like Goat, Lousy, Mangey,
Sloper, and Sweaty – all very descriptive and, except for
one of those, “all imply hygienic defects”, as Smithers
there has taken pains to point out.
Such people sneer, smoke cheap cigarettes. and use slang
terns like “Sez you!” and “Be your
age!” – surely out-dated expressions which had
already come and gone in the very earliest days of the arrival here
of American talking pictures, and which the author apparently imagined
everyone of their type still employed many years after they were
no longer used.
All Germans are gross; all Jews, without exception, are sly,
odious, and frequently quite dishonest, although, to be fair, one of
Mercer’s executors was named Benjamin Disraeli Goldberg,
which does suggest that he had undoubtedly mellowed a trifle
towards them. Most Britons are honest and upright, but the poorer
classes are only noble if they know their place and are inclined to
touch their forelocks to the gentry or crawl in the direction of the
orificium fundamental. The slightest deviation from
this depiction and they become incorrigible malcontents and so, in
the course of things, villains.
Cecil William Mercer was a Colonel Blimp of the most outrageous
kind. He was the very personification of that character’s
worst attributes and none of his better ones.
Withal – and how easy it is to lapse into
“Yatesese” when writing about the man – for
all his infuriating prejudices, his snobbery, and his eternal
self-satisfaction – the books he wrote are masterpieces of
plot, sustained narrative, and riveting dialogue. One can laugh openly
at them, squirm in embarrassment, and fume with exasperation at his
smug superiority, but it is difficult to discard them.
Dornford Yates will have his renaissance, even as did the prolific
Frank Richards and the oh, so rare Amanda Ros.
Note 1 – Published in Oxford, The
Antiquarian Book Monthly Review (original title, ABMR)
is a journal intended for those in the book trade dealing with out-of-print
books and books dealing with the history of books. Snelling’s
piece on Yates must have appeared sometime during or after 1982
as he cites A. J. Smithers’ biography which first appeared in
that year. (See Note 2.) While a number of booksellers have print
copies of back issues in their catalogues, I was unable to find a
bibliography indicating articles or authors included in these issues.
One source for print copies is the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.
The text used for this electronic publication came from a typed
copy of the article Snelling provided Ron Payne in hopes Ron could
find an American publisher for the essay. This copy did not include
the original title, so we do not know how it was headed for its first
appearance, nor if there were any editorial changes in the
Return to Text
Note 2 – A. J. Smithers’
Dornford Yates – A Biography was published by
Hodder and Stoughton, London in 1982. A 2nd edition was published
as a trade paperback and marked Centenary Edition in 1985 with
some corrections and no illustrations.
Return to Text
Note 3 – Modern readers can find free
online versions of some Yates titles at ~
While scholarship on Yates remains thin, “Great War
Fiction: Dornford Yates and the Uses of Facetiousness” (a
paper given at the conference on the First World War and Popular
Culture at the University of Newcastle, March-April, 2006) is posted
Great War Fiction website.
Return to Text