The Cavalryman Rides Again: the historical novels of George Shipway
First published in 'Solander' Vol 7 No 1, May 2003, pages 4-6 (published by the Historical Novel Society). Many thanks to Alan Fisk for allowing me to include it in my blog. Thanks to Jim Poulton for the illustrations.
In October 2002, Imperial Governor, a novel about the Boudiccan revolt against the Romans in 61 A.D., was republished after being out of print for many years. [A review of Imperial Governor appeared in The Historical Novels Review, Issue 22, December 2002 and see also a review at Historical Novels Info.]
For its author, George Shipway, becoming a historical novelist was a third career, which he started late, and which lasted for only a few years. In that relatively short time, though, he established himself as a noted and sometimes controversial writer.
He died in 1982, but his wife still lives in the cottage in Berkshire that they first moved into in 1949. She has given Solander invaluable help with this article.
George Shipway was born in 1908 in Allahabad, India, where his father was a publisher. In accordance with the custom of that time, George was sent to England at the age of eight to go to boarding school at Clifton.
After leaving school, he became a cadet at Sandhurst, the Army’s academy for future officers. Sandhurst trained cadets for both the British Army, and the Indian Army, which was the one for which George Shipway was destined. He used to claim in later life that the only reason he had joined the Army was so that he could play polo, which he would not have been able to afford to do as a civilian!
After Sandhurst, he was commissioned in 1928 into the 13th. Duke of Connaught’s Lancers, a cavalry regiment. He returned to India, where he married while he was posted at Jullundur.
In the ensuing years, the Shipways moved “all over India”, as Mrs. Shipway recalls. George Shipway’s service included two years away from his regiment with a force of irregulars on the frontier between Baluchistan and Iran, as well as being a staff officer in Delhi and in central India, but history was about to bring his Indian Army career to an end. At Partition, the Indian Army was divided, and the 13th. Lancers was one of the regiments assigned to Pakistan.
The Shipways came “home”. George Shipway had obtained a transfer to the British Army, to the 3rd. Carabiniers, the Prince of Wales’s Dragoon Guards, a Scottish regiment. In the end, he decided not to go through with it. His explanation was that he had never been north of Yorkshire and didn’t intend to make such a dramatic change in his life, but really he seems to have had no wish to pursue an Army career anywhere but in India. He retired in 1947 with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
At this point, the Shipways happened to run into a friend whom they had known in India. She was married to another former Indian Army officer, and she and her husband were now running Cheam School in Berkshire, a school for boys aged from 8 to 14. They suggested to George Shipway that he should become a teacher at the school, which he did.
His second career, as a schoolmaster, lasted 19 years. His pupils included Prince Charles, who spent some time at Cheam. The boys liked and respected him.
Looking at George Shipway’s photograph on his 1970s book jackets, one can judge that only a very foolish, or a very brave, boy would have misbehaved in Mr. Shipway’s class. The photograph shows a man who clearly knows his way about the world, with a genial expression, but who carries the bearing of one who expects to be obeyed when he gives an order.
While he was a schoolmaster, he tried his hand at writing in his spare time, encouraged by his friend John Masters, who had also been an Indian Army officer before becoming an author. George Shipway eventually began work on what would become Imperial Governor.
Mrs. Shipway describes him as a man who lived much within himself. He combined the qualities of the soldier with those of a scholar. When he was a boy, his family had thought of sending him to a grander school, Winchester, and Mrs. Shipway believes that if his life had taken that turn he might well have become a university don rather than a soldier.
George Shipway loved the countryside, and Mrs. Shipway still treasures a book in which he had collected dried specimens of more than 200 species of wild flower.
Imperial Governor was published in 1968. It takes the form of a memoir of the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus, who, when Governor of Britain, suppressed Boudicca’s rebellion. At 60, George Shipway was an unusually late starter as a published novelist, but he found success at once. Imperial Governor was widely praised.
His next novel, Knight in Anarchy, followed a year later, in 1969. It relates the adventures of Humphrey Visdelou in the chaos of the struggle for the English crown between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda in the mid-twelfth century. It is built around Humphrey’s perverse and helpless devotion to the service of the cruel but charismatic Geoffrey de Mandeville.
Knight in Anarchy is perhaps the quintessential George Shipway novel, full of violence, dirt, fear, and danger, while at the same time being scholarly and a well-constructed story. The story never flags, right up to the fascinating punchline at the very end of the Author’s Note that concludes it: “I live on the fief that Visdelou once held”.
At this point George Shipway quarrelled with his literary agent of the time. Mrs. Shipway recalls him stamping off to his study and swearing that he would never write again. Some months later he emerged with the manuscript of The Chilian Club, a novel that would bring him considerable public notice, much of it hostile.
The Chilian Club (published in the United States as The Yellow Room) is not a historical novel (except for its Prologue), but it needs to be examined here because of its effect upon his reputation for some people.
The Chilian (short for “Chilianwala”) Club in London is founded in the middle of the nineteenth century by the former CO of the 6th. Hussars, a cavalry regiment that had disgraced itself in the opinion of the rest of the Army by its behaviour at the battle of Chilianwala in India in1849, during the Sikh Wars.
By the mid-1970s, Britain is paralysed by strikes and left-wing political activism (an extrapolation by Shipway from the real industrial and political strife of the time). A group of retired Army officers, members of the Chilian Club, decide to redeem the honour of the 6th. Hussars by assassinating the union leaders, left-wing agitators, and even a trendy bishop, whom they believe to be destroying the country. It turns out that the figures whom the Chilian Club select as their targets were financed by the Soviet Union, but there are more revelations, and the novel ends in a sensational and unexpected twist that takes it into science fiction.
The Chilian Club wasn’t politically correct in 1971, and is even less so now. There were plans at the time to film it, but the unions “blacked” the project so that the film was never made.
George Shipway had described The Chilian Club as “a diversion”, but many who read it, or heard of it, were not amused. He was guyed as a silly old retired curry colonel, and was called (unfairly) a Fascist, and (even more unfairly) a racist, an accusation that is absurd to anyone who has read some of his other novels, with their noble Moorish and Indian characters.
Shipway returned to less controversial ground with his next two novels, The Paladin and The Wolf Time, which tell the story of Walter Tirel, known to history as the man who was blamed for killing King William II with an arrow in the New Forest. When Tirel is a boy undergoing a brutal training programme to become an esquire, he meets William Rufus for the first time, and is spellbound by him, although he is appalled by Rufus’ homosexuality.
The Paladin and The Wolf Time contain a gallery of characters that is vaster and more fascinating than in any of George Shipway’s other novels, and the story of Walter Tirel’s 20‑year affair with the alluring but dangerous Isabel of Conches is like no other love story that you have ever read.
George Shipway returned to India, the country where he had spent 28 years of his life, for a pair of novels set at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Unlike The Paladin and The Wolf Time, though, these two novels are not connected except by both being set in India within a few years of each other.
Free Lance follows the fortunes of two friends who have fallen into disgrace in England and taken service with the East India Company: the dashing Hugo Amaury as an army officer, and the stolid Charles Marriott as a junior merchant. Marriott stays loyal to the Company, but Amaury, whose temper nearly ruins his career, decides to strike out into the lawless interior of central India to find a life of power and wealth for himself without the help or approval of the Company.
Charles Marriott is appointed a Collector, effectively a local ruler for the Company, and Amaury accompanies him. Plenty of fights and battles ensue, not least as part of the pursuit of Amaury by Caroline Wrangham, the spirited daughter of a general.
Free Lance is perhaps not Shipway’s most successful novel, depending heavily on a couple of convenient coincidences, but it does make a serious effort to exhibit and explain the attitudes of the East India Company’s soldiers and merchants, and of the Indian peoples with whom they deal.
Ignorance and insensitivity towards Indians are the very theme of Strangers in the Land, which begins five years later, in 1806. A general newly arrived from England orders two small changes to the Indian soldiers’ uniforms and personal appearance regulations. This act eventually leads to a savage mutiny, and equally savage reprisals. The sense throughout Strangers in the Land is of an onrushing disaster, which people of goodwill on both sides try to prevent. In the end, each side feels that it has been betrayed by those whom it trusted, and the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 is a warning that will have been forgotten 50 years later, a forgetfulness that will lead to the much greater Indian Mutiny of 1857.
Strangers in the Land is notable for the large number of Indian characters, and the understanding portrayal of their tragedy, which is important to remember in view of the reputation that The Chilian Club had earned George Shipway in some quarters.
Shipway now moved back 3000 years to produce a pair of novels about the Mycenaean king Agamemnon. He had first become interested in the period when he had been taught the Classics as a schoolboy, and he travelled widely in the Aegean to research the two novels.
The first of the pair, Warrior in Bronze, tells the story of Agamemnon up to the point at which he gains the throne of Mycenae. Warrior in Bronze is full of characters from Classical mythology and drama, such as Hercules, Clytemnaistra, Castor, and Pollux, and the novel gives origins for them from which the tales and legends might have grown. Shipway also serves up his usual quota of battles, intrigues, and shocking acts of violence. Agamemnon, who narrates his own story, is entirely unrepentant, and believes that only a harsh and ruthless man could rule in the Greece of his time. When Warrior in Bronze ends, the seeds of the coming Trojan War are already sprouting.
The second novel of the Mycenaean pair, King in Splendour, tells the story of how Agamemnon brings about the war against Troy of which he has long dreamt. His account of how it really happened varies in many respects from the story we know from Homer’s Iliad. This is because, in King in Splendour, the bard who composed the Iliad is a hired hack brought to Troy by Achilles, and who is paid to compose an epic that reflects maximum credit upon Achilles, and the minimum upon Agamemnon. At the end of the novel, Agamemnon prepares to sail home, wolfishly considering how he will execute his treacherous queen Clytemnaistra and her lover Aegisthus. He cannot know that it is Clytemnaistra who will have the last brutal triumph.
King in Splendour was George Shipway’s last novel, published when he was 71. Mrs. Shipway had long urged him to retire when he reached 70, but sadly his health failed soon afterwards, and he died in 1982.
It had been an extraordinary career, lasting only 11 years. George Shipway had been first published even later than Alfred Duggan (whose first novel had come out when Duggan was 47), and his novels had been published over an even shorter period than Duggan’s (11 years, as against 14 years).
One can also compare Shipway with his friend John Masters. Shipway’s novels combine the scholarship of Duggan (who, like Shipway and Masters, had served as a soldier in combat) with the roughness of Masters. Shipway’s Amaury family, members of which make appearances from the eleventh century to the twentieth, is perhaps a deliberate echo of Masters’ Savage family.
Duggan had Shipway’s erudition, but lacked his toughness, while Masters had the toughness but did not have Shipway’s deep education.
George Shipway’s most notable distinction as a historical novelist is his unflinching representation of the attitudes of the times and places of which he wrote. We may be appalled by Walter Tirel’s willingness to kill helpless peasants in order to weaken a rival lord’s economic power, while at the same time Tirel is always obedient to the laws of honour. Those laws simply don’t apply to serfs. As modern readers, we do not have to approve of his viewpoint, but that does seem to be the way a man of his time and class would have seen it.
In his Indian novels, Shipway is quite aware (even mentioning it in a foreword to Free Lance, for example), that the attitudes of his British characters are now considered reprehensible, but he is not afraid to give them the outlook of their own time. He is equally faithful to the attitudes of his Indian characters, not all of which would be approved of by modern Indians.
Because George Shipway never modified his historical novels to fit modern views, they have not dated, whereas The Chilian Club is now a period piece that would require notes and explanations if it were to be published again, which is highly unlikely.
George Shipway’s historical novels are strong meat indeed, and will not appeal to everyone. His in-your-face, no-apologies style leaves no room for indifference. Either you like his novels or you don’t.
His undoubted strengths are the force, clarity, and imagery of his writing, and the accuracy of his backgrounds. He has a rare gift for vivid verbal pictures: a flight of arrows shot from one ship to another at sea forms “a shimmering bridge”; looking out over the length of the city wall of mediaeval London, “(the) helmets of the watch and ward twinkled like jewels on a two-mile-long diadem”.
Those who like to read historical fiction will find that he is an author who can make another time and place live with a skill that few historical novelists can match. Those who write historical fiction as well can learn from an author who never forced his characters to adopt whatever attitudes were fashionable at the time or writing, instead of the attitudes of their own time.
Alan Fisk lives in London. His historical novels include The Strange Things of the World, The Summer Stars, Forty Testoons, and Cupid and the Silent Goddess. His website is at: http://www.alanfisk.com/
See also the Wiki page for George Shipway.