Fair Stood the Wind for France – Book Review
Fair Stood the Wind for France, written by H. E. Bates and published in 1944, was Bates’ first commercially successful novel. Although not strictly an espionage novel, it includes the clandestine activities of the French Resistance.
Fair Stood the Wind for France: Title
The title references the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Michael Drayton. Referring to another artistic work (story, song, play, movie, etc.) is a classic title generation technique.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
Fair Stood the Wind for France: Logline
In World War Two France, a British bomber crashes. The pilot, aided by a young French woman he falls in love with, tries to evade the Germans in order to escape back to Britain.
(For more on loglines see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Fair Stood the Wind for France: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1942, and somewhere over Nazi-occupied France a British bomber has engine trouble. John Franklin, the pilot, crash-lands the aircraft, badly injuring his arm during the landing. The other members of the crew pull him from the wreckage.
The airmen quickly decide that it’s their duty to evade the Germans searching for them. If possible, they must make their way back to Britain. Despite being badly wounded, Franklin force-marches the crew as far from the crash site as possible before daylight.
The crew realise they must try to contact the French Resistance. The first farmer they try rejects them, but eventually they contact a sympathetic Frenchwoman, Francoise. Her family hides the men and gives them food while they try to arrange false papers and an escape route. Almost at first sight, Francoise and Franklin fall in love with each other.
Francoise takes Franklin into the nearest town to see a doctor. The doctor does what he can but says that Franklin really needs to go to hospital. This is impossible, as the Germans would pick him up.
The other airmen leave without Franklin, aiming to get over the Pyrenees mountains and into neutral Spain. From Spain they can get to Portugal or Gibraltar and hence back to Britain. Franklin is very weak and seems in danger of dying. Francois arranges for the doctor to amputate his left arm. Shortly afterwards, the Germans execute the doctor in reprisal for a Resistance attack.
The Germans search farmhouses more carefully, forcing the Resistance to move Franklin, who’s too weak from his operation to walk. He hides on Francoise’s rowing boat while she pretends to fish and so avoids the searchers. Soon after though, Francoise’s father tells Franklin it is time for him to make his escape to unoccupied Vichy France. There, he’ll be in less danger from the Germans and can eventually get back to Britain.
Franklin gets ready to leave. On his last night, Francoise’s father commits suicide. With nothing to stay for, Francoise tells Franklin she’s coming with him.
They row the boat down the river to the Vichy border, which is heavily guarded. A Frenchman spots them loitering, looking for a way across. He tells them he knows a route and will show it to them and give them bicycles to continue their journey. In return, he wants Francoise’s boat.
They are both suspicious, thinking it’s a trap, but in the end the Frenchman is as good as his word. They sneak across the border and head off on their new bicycles.
In Vichy, travel becomes easier. The pair cycle towards Marseilles, hoping to find a boat to take them across the sea to Allied territory. Overjoyed, and feeling like he’s already escaped, Franklin asks Francois to marry him when they get back to Britain.
They stop in a small town where Francoise knows someone, and they hope to get a proper bed and some food. But it’s a rough area, the friend has moved to Marseilles, and two locals try to steal the bicycles. Not wanting to stay in such a depressing town, they move on to Marseilles where they catch up with Francoise’s friend.
Franklin goes to the docks to look for a way onto a ship. A gendarme sees him and is about to arrest him when there’s shooting on the other side of the docks. Franklin hits the gendarme and runs. He sees another man hiding from the shooting and realises it’s one of his crew, O’Connor. Together, they sneak back to Francoise.
Franklin meets two British expatriate women, who give him spare identity papers that he can amend to suit O’Connor. The three fugitives set off for the Spanish frontier on a train…
At the border [blackout] (probably Cerbère, though Bates doesn’t name it) everyone has to get off the train to have their papers checked. Franklin gets through the checkpoint with no problem and gets back on the train, but he can’t find Francoise or O’Connor. As the train sets off again, he hears shots outside and sees O’Connor engaged in a gun battle with the gendarmes. [/blackout]
The train [blackout]pulls away from the station. A woman on the train tells Franklin that she saw gendarmes taking Francoise off the train. Franklin is distraught. He stares out of the train window blindly. [/blackout]
When Franklin [blackout]focuses his eyes again, he sees Francoise reflected in the window but thinks it’s an illusion. Eventually, he realises it really is her. She tells him she was being held by the gendarmes because her papers were incorrect. When O’Connor started shooting, the gendarmes ran off to fight him and she slipped back onto the train. [/blackout]
The two [blackout]stand side by side, crying over the sacrifices the war has forced on humanity. [/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Fair Stood the Wind for France: Analysis
Fair Stood the Wind for France has a ‘on the run’ plot (see novel plots). However, there is no personified Antagonist, just ‘the Germans’ and the Vichy police. The ending is also more open than a typical ‘on the run’ ending.
The ‘On the Run’ Plot
- Is involved in an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
- Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
- Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or controlled by the Antagonists.
- Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
- Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.
Set in 1942, written in 1942 and 1943 and published in 1944, Fair Stood the Wind for France is quite unusual in being a war novel written when people didn’t know how the war was going to end.
Bates was in the RAF, employed as a writer and, effectively, as a propagandist. He had already written a series of popular short stories about aircrew under the pseudonym ‘Flying Officer X’.
Although the RAF intended both the ‘Flying Officer X’ stories and Fair Stood the Wind for France to be subtle propaganda, they certainly don’t ignore the horrors of war. To an extent, I see the novel as anti-war, particularly in its downbeat ending. Franklin himself is not a violent man, although he has become fatalistic about war and death.
However, the section describing the grey, depressing town in Vichy and its beaten down, criminal inhabitants feels like a propaganda insert, especially in contrast to the beautiful descriptions of occupied France, and its brave, steadfast inhabitants.
This is very far from being rah rah stuff though—the tone of the novel is melancholy, and the ‘happy ending’ is anything but, having been bought with so much sacrifice.
H. E. Bates’ prose style reminds me of Graham Greene, which in my book is high praise. Fair Stood the Wind for France is not a novel where really a great deal happens—even the most dramatic sections are understated in a way that modern writing isn’t.
Instead, it’s a simple tale of everyday bravery and ‘carrying on’, all about atmosphere and a thoughtful exploration of the horror of war. Perhaps this is because Bates wrote it quite late in the Second World War, when most readers would have known from their own experience just how painful war is.
Reality: MI9 and the Escape Lines
During World War 2, the escape and evasion process for crashed aircrew was more organised than Fair Stood the Wind for France suggests—the authorities would have censored the novel to make sure it didn’t reveal any secrets.
In reality, the secret British organisation MI9 ran ‘escape lines’ that helped evaders to get back to the UK and would have helped Franklin and his crew.
MI9 supplied evaders with safe houses, fake documents and travel passes to enable them to move across enemy-controlled territory. The main escape lines led over the Pyrenees and through Spain and Portugal to Lisbon or Gibraltar, from where evaders could get back to the UK. Altogether, MI9 helped around four thousand evaders to return to Britain.
Fair Stood the Wind for France: My Verdict
A beautiful literary novel, full of gentle romance and poignancy.
Fair Stood the Wind for France: The Radio and TV series
The BBC filmed Fair Stood the Wind for France as a four-episode miniseries in 1980. The series stared David Beames as Franklin and Cecile Paoli as Francoise.
There’s also a BBC radio adaptation which is sometimes available here.
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