Sunday 7 June 2009

Deptford and the Foreign Legion

The famous novel Beau Geste was one of a series of romanticised accounts of the Foreign Legion produced by P C Wren (1875-1941). Originally just Percy Wren, son of a schoolmaster, he was born at 37 Warwick Street, Deptford.* However, he clearly wasn't proud of his origins: he misled others into believing in a more privileged birth in Devonshire, and while studying at Oxford he renamed himself 'Percival Christopher'. The middle name was presumably chosen to suggest a family connection to the famous architect.

Wren's future life, like his books, extended far beyond Deptford. However, details are hard to pin down thanks to Wren's fondness for elaborating his personal history. We do know that he taught in India - his application to the Indian Educational Service had to give his real birth details - becoming a headteacher and educational inspector.

Beau Geste was one of a number of novels and textbooks written by Wren, but is by far the most successful. Published in 1924, the first film of the book appeared in 1926. Although he was in active service during the First World War, Wren's claim that he joined the French Foreign Legion seems to have been another invention. The accurate detail for which the books are known was presumably the product of careful research. He is buried in Amberley, Gloucestershire.

* Warwick Street ran between Payne Street and Douglas Way parallel to Adolphus Street, where Warwickshire Path now is.

Further reading: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (you can probably access this online via your library card: Lewisham library members can find their online resources here).

Image from abebooks, which is also a great place to find your vintage copy!


Philip Wilkinson said...

Fascinating. I read Beau Geste as a boy but never knew about the way Wren 'edited' his name and retold the story of his background. It reminds me slightly of the way Arthur Morrison, the author of such London classics as A Child of the Jago, also distorted details of his life so that he seemed more upper class than he was.

CarolineLD said...

Wren managed to do such a thorough job that all sorts of reputable sources cite Devonshire as his place of birth. I nearly gave up on him before the ODNB sorted the mess out for me! It seems they had to go back to his IES job application to do so.

The Grim Reaper said...

Truly fascinating, but I fail to understand the presumption that Wren, rather than his publisher changed the deails of his background.

The DNB should be taken wuth a pinch of salt at the best of times and the Wren article displays poor editing. The author Oxbury admits that when Wren married in 1899 he was still signing himself simply as Percy then goes on to assert that when he (Wren) joined the Indian Education Servive in 1903 "he was forced to reveal his real date and place of birth;...". In the absence of any evidence that Wren had assumed the 'Percival Christopher' mantle in the intervening four years the assertion is codswallop.

On the 1901 census plain 'Percy Wren' is living with his first wife Alice and month old daughter Estelle Lenore at 27 Ommany Road, Deptford. Sadly Estelle subsequently died aged 9.

CarolineLD said...

It seems rather unfair to blame his publisher: Wren published a number of non-fiction educational books in India under the expanded name long before he published fiction in Britain and continued to use the same name. As Philip has pointed out, such 'editing' of biographies was not unique. (Indeed it still goes on!) I suspect that the major change is in our response to it: we tend to see such rewriting of personal history as immoral. I'm not sure that earlier generations saw it as anything more than giving the readers what they wanted.

I do agree that the ODNB article has its shortcomings. However, at least it does what some previous works have failed to do and gives Deptford back one of its notable sons!

Peter Ashley said...

Never mind all that, I'm just glad to realise that he wasn't a policeman after all.

The Grim Reaper said...

Always good to reclaim one of ours. I used to get highly irritated by the Science Museum labelling models of ships with details of the dockyard that built them, except Deptford and Woolwich, where the label said built on the Thames.

It is the tone of the DNB article that is grating; writers, actors and musicians have all used pen and stage names for a very long time. The use of pejorative terms such as 'deliberately misled', 'fabricated' and 'falsifying' is completely over the top.

The more I think about Oxbury's assertion that Wren "was forced to reveal his real date and place of birth" when he joined the Indian Education Service, the more I am disinclined to believe it.

In Deptford he was plain Percy, in India he published as, and was commissioned into the Indian Army as, 'Percival Christopher'. It is far more plausible that he made up the 'Percival Christopher' name when he applied to join the Indian Education Service. Oxbury does not provide any reasoning as to why Wren would have had to give his original details.

Demanding ID from job applicants as a matter of routine is a very modern thing, in the 1st World War hundreds of thousands of underage boys joined up, nobody asked for birth certificates.

To be fair to HF Oxbury his other 14 DNB articles appear to be of a reasonably scholarly standard.

Adam said...

Ah, the French Foreign Legion. I worked with an English guy once who told everybody that he was in France to join the foreign legion and would be starting soon, and everybody believed him. I guess it still has a certain mystery and glamour, perhaps stemming from this book.