Travellers' Tales: Jan de Hartog is a Liar by Julia Jones

Angela Wyndham Lewis
 with Francis Wheen & Frank Thorogood
February 1994
It was late 1960s, a railway station in Austria, perhaps nine or ten o’clock at night. Beyond the lights of the station it was dark, only gleams of light reflected from tramped down snow. I was perhaps 13 and was waiting with my parents and my brothers for the snow-sports-special to take us back to England.The holiday was over, all that remained was a long night in hard bunks as the mighty train carried us back across Europe. Then my brothers and I would go back to our boarding schools and my parents would continue living semi-separately in a marriage that had lost its joy.

We were joined by a small lady in a thick fur coat. Her name was Angela and it transpired that she would be travelling with us. We had seen her and her daughter in the resort. They both had fur coats, neat boots and hennaed hair. They wore eye make-up, soft cream polo neck jerseys, stretchy black trousers and looked unachievably soignée. There had been a problem with the couchette arrangements. The daughter, Cathy, was elsewhere and Angela would be sleeping in our compartment. I remember feeling shy and worried that our family would behave badly in some way. We might fart or make stupid jokes.

Once our luggage was stowed and we were all settled into our bunks, Angela began to talk. It seems to me now that she told us stories for the entire journey though I suppose we must have slept. It was magical. She had been (still was?) an actress. Her voice was beautiful and her timings perfect – even if I understood almost nothing of the context of what she said. Her subject matter was people and worlds outside my knowledge. My parents fared better and from that night a friendship sprang up, with my mother particularly, that lasted until the end of their lives.

Angela died in 2000. She liked to give the impression she was younger than my mother, in fact she was a few years older. She had been born in 1920, daughter of the journalist D.B. Wyndham Lewis (‘Beachcomber’) and Mary Jane Holland. Her mother conceived a second daughter with writer J.B. Priestley and married him in 1926. Angela moved with her and grew up as Priestley’s step-daughter, with his surname. That marriage had lasted until 1953 when Priestley divorced Angela’s mother and married the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes. None of this meant much to me on that first meeting. Angela’s surname then was de Hartog. This also seemed exotic. (Most surnames do, to a Jones.) Her husband had left her and her children and was living in America. He was a writer and, I gathered, had not been kind to them.

After that first magical journey Angela and her fur coat quite often came to stay with us. It was always an event and, in my memory, her lovely voice and graceful movements lit up our house. I could see, however, that her life was not easy and the composed, sophisticated appearance was both essential and a private struggle. Her acting career had hit a high point when she had played Peter Pan for the annual London production but that was in the past. Now money was in short supply. She survived on occasional roles and some teaching. I felt angry with the absent Jan de Hartog and vowed never to read any of his books.

This week, on Thursday, I was at the Cruising Association at Limehouse Basin, in London. I’d given a talk and stayed the night and my treat was to spend a morning in their well-stocked library. Among the discards (I protested against anything being discarded but was assured it was only when there were duplicates) was an omnibus volume of Jan de Hartog’s early novels: The Call of the Sea. I took it with me. 

It was a wet and windy walk to Limehouse station; a brief, wet, change at Poplar; a long wet and cold wait at Stratford. When I changed at Colchester, the train was delayed and when I finally reached Woodbridge all I had time to do was haul my suitcase up into the town (through rain and wind), collect a magazine proof, hurry back (through the rain) and check all was well with Goldenray, then wait on a metal bench for the train, which was delayed. It was delayed again at Ipswich – but did I care? I had been reading The Call of the Sea since soon after Poplar and was quite happy for the journey to continue indefinitely (or at least until I’d finished the volume).

Another  magical journey. The first novel in the collection is brief – and odd indeed to an English reader. The Lost Sea is the story of a small Dutch boy who runs away and becomes a ‘sea mouse’ – as de Hartog himself had done. It takes place immediately before the final damming and draining of the ZuiderZee; in the 1930s when Dutchmen still wore clogs and baggy trousers and vicious sea-battles took place between the catholic Volendammers and protestant Huizingers, fishermen with incompatible netting techniques as well as visceral hatred of each other. It’s a strange, absorbing, brutal book but light dawns at the end when the child realises he is a Liar.

Liars (in The Lost Sea) are the story-tellers, drunken layabouts, usually, who must be bribed with bottles of the finest Geneva to come on board and tell strange tales in their lovely voices. Liars are the fiction-spinners; liars-R-us. Jan de Hartog was a Liar, perhaps Angela was too. Perhaps we all meet that temptation when we find a willing audience …on a long train journey, perhaps? 'It was a story that amazed me as much as the others, gazing at me motionlessly in the lamplight[...] For although I told the truth, yet it was one big bunch of lies; for I got mixed up with what I had been told and what I had experienced.'  Don't we all? But a story-teller does it so well...

The Lost Sea was published in 1951. It was not de Hartog’s first novel but his first in English. It had been dictated in Paris in 1949 (dictated, not written ‘because I could not spell’). This was when he was married to Angela. Cathy, their daughter was born in this year: their son Nicholas (who I often heard about but never met) had been born in 1947. It had been an immediate post-war marriage: did that make Angela the prototype of the imperturbably English June Simmonds who the protagonist marries at the end of The Distant Shore (1952)? And how can one stay angry with someone who writes so beautifully about ‘the joy’ of writing in English: ‘which is a musician’s joy rather than a poet’s or a painter’s. It is like a superb Renaissance-built cello of amazing warmth and range.’  (Jan de Hartog, author's preface 1966)

Sadly, the act of writing in English was seen as a betrayal in de Hartog's native country. His first novels had been written in Dutch – and the first of them all, Holland’s Glory (1940, translated in English as Captain Jan) had become a sustaining symbol of Dutch resistance during wartime occupation. De Hartog had been hunted by Nazis, had hidden and escaped, finally coming to England and marrying Angela. He left behind a wife, Alide, in Holland and two small children. So a betrayal on two levels? I don’t think he was with Angela, Nick and Cathy for many years before he moved on, firstly to live on a 90’ Dutch canal boat during the 1953 floods and then to America where he married once again, adopted two small Korean girls and became a Quaker (also writing a best-selling trilogy on that subject).

Jan de Hartog’s New York Times obituary (2002) describes him as ‘the author of his own life’, which seems a nicely-nuanced judgement. When the child-narrator of The Lost Sea first heard himself begin telling the story of his adventures he was shocked:
It was a lie so stupendous that after finishing it breathlessly, I sat for a second waiting for Jesus to swoop down on me in hot revenge. But nothing happened but that Mother Bout’s eyes filled with tears. “Poor darling” she said, “I knew it was all my fault.”
     The stupendousness of my lie was topped by the stupendousness of the truth it evoked, and I felt, during that long moment as if my whole world of laws and conscience was sagging. How could it be that instead of slapping me, Jesus had come so justly down on Mother Bout who had indeed been the cause of it all?
I don’t think one needs to be cognisant that I am typing this on International Women’s Day to hear an authentic male cop-out here. ‘It was all my mother’s/ wife’s / sister’s fault’; ‘The woman that thou gavest to be with me’ etc etc. Truth and lies are more complicated still. Reflecting on the facts of the story: 'Mother Bout' may have seemed harsh but she was caring for three foster children who were giving no love in return. It was the child's own cowardice that had made him run away. Yet he was only ten, orphaned in a hard world, he could not be responsible ... Where is the truth? Do stories make experience too tidy? 'It was the way I would have told it if I had floated overhead as a seagull and seen it all happen below me, instead of having been trapped in the cable hole full of smoke with Murk going mad in the darkness.' 

All I can say is that Jan de Hartog seems to be an honest Liar -- compelling and intelligent as well. I also love the way he uses words. I've ordered more novels and am looking forward to travelling with him again, soon.


Kathleen Jones said…
I read his books as a young girl and loved them. Fascinating piece of memoir Julia. Thank you.
Jan Needle said…
I've never read much about de Hartog, but I've read an enormous amount by him, starting with Captain Jan, an early part of my lifelong love affair with ocean tugs and towing. Apart from Masefield I've never come across such fantastic writing about the sea - what more can I say? As to farting and bad jokes, Jul, well I'm your man, one hundred and fifty seven and a quarter point three per cent. Although I'm still shocked that you should have married a man with such a haircut! Two victims of the English boarding school?
julia jones said…
Guessed you would have deep affinity with such another Jan, Jan. I've just ordered Captain Jan and am looking forward to it immensely. I think Francis looks beautiful in that pic -- we had not been together long and I feel some guilt at the way long relationship / parent hood has dragged him down and deprived him of almost his last remaining follicles. Worse still is the lovely young lad on Angela's l.h. side -- my second son Frank, now married with three children and not a wisp left...
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Julia. For some unaccountable reason, de Hartog's name has been on my 'to read' list (unread) for ages. A Dutch writer friend has berated me before for not yet having read him but your lovely post has done the trick. As soon as I finish the present Carl Hiaasen, the process begins. Thank you.

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