Welcome to the first Fact or Fiction Friday, which will alternate between looking at fiction that takes us into the past and seeing how other media can help us keep in touch with history.
Today’s topic is W.E. Johns’ Biggles series of boy’s stories from the 1930s to the 60s. Though I was born long after Johns passed away, my copies of Johns’ novels sit on the shelf next to hand-me-down Boy’s Own and Hotspur Annuals and other bits and pieces of Anglophilia. The Biggles books get a lot of perfectly reasonable criticism for casual racism, misogyny (though Johns’ did write a parallel series of Worrals of the W.A.A.F. novels during the Second World War) and general cluelessness about the world outside Johns’ preferred slice of British life, so it’s interesting to look at how they evolved out of Johns’ own flying career. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and stayed with it when it became the Royal Air Force at the end of the First World War, retiring in the 1920s and becoming the first editor of Popular Flying.
The first Biggles stories appeared in that magazine in the early 1930s (you can find them collected as Biggles, the Camels are Coming and the first half of Biggles of the Fighter Squadron). They were supposedly based on real events, and in them Johns’ didn’t try too hard to whitewash the experience. By the second page of the first story, “The White Fokker,” we learn about Biggles’ “irritating little falsetto laugh which … betrayed the frayed condition of his nerves.” The third story, “J-9982,” ends with a “peal of nerve-jarring laughter which ended in something like a sob,” and by the end of the collection Biggles is drinking whiskey for breakfast and hallucinating a blue pigeon. Today, we’d probably say Jones wrote Biggles with PTSD.
The effect is more muted in the stories that begin Biggles of the Fighter Squadron, but things really change around the halfway mark – when Johns began writing for Modern Boy. While almost all the Popular Flying stories have the action take place in the air, in Modern Boy Biggles tangles with a German spy (“The Though Reader”), fights in the trenches (“Biggles Finds His Feet”), and has his airfield captured (“Scotland for Ever!”). Over-drinking, giggling Biggles is replaced by an imperturbable two-fisted pulp hero who could put Indiana Jones to shame. It’s a pity that Johns didn’t continue to develop the frailer character that he began with. I wonder what that Biggles would have done after the war, rather than fly off to adventure in South America. What would they have said about James Bigglesworth at Clarissa Dalloway’s party?