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Angry Young Woman:
Isabel Colegate’s The Blackmailer

4,572 words

TheBlackmailer [1]Isabel Colegate
The Blackmailer [2]
Richmond, Va.: Valancourt, 2014

“If you want to call it God, the divine, the energy in all things, the force that created the universe, nature, whatever you call it, I believe it’s fury not love.” — Jonathan Bowden

“What we feel for each other is really a passion for power,” said Judith. “We want to destroy each other by making the other fall in love with us.” — Isabel Colegate, The Blackmailer 

Downton Abbey is one of the latest viewing fads among SWPLs.[1] There’s even a demographic calling itself — or dubbed by others — “Downton Abbey Democrats.”[2] Creator Julian Fellowes (a rather Downton Abbey-sounding name, what?) also wrote 2001’s Gosford Park, which, although directed by Robert Altman, is one of those “starring everyone” British productions:

The story follows a party of wealthy Britons and an American and their servants, who gather for a shooting weekend at Gosford Park, an English country house. A murder occurs after a dinner party, and the film goes on to present the subsequent investigation into it from the servants’ and guests’ perspectives.[3]

Now, at this point I must confess that I haven’t seen either the movie or the series, so, like Sir Francis Urquhart, I couldn’t possibly comment.[4] The interest here is that this Fellowes chap has admitted that Gosford Park was, ah, “inspired” by The Shooting Party (note “a shooting weekend at Gosford Park” above), a novel by one Patricia Colegate (note the title above).

Fellowes does admit The Shooting Party was inspiration for another of his works, the Oscar-winning Gosford Park, writing that, ‘without [The Shooting Party], the seed of the idea behind my script would never have been allowed to germinate’.

Now, if Downton Abbey is a spinoff of Gosford Park, and the latter is based on The Shooting Party, then a simple application of the white man’s logic would lead you to think Downton has at least some filiation to Colegate’s book. However, for some reason, Fellowes hasn’t been keen to point this out:

ITV’s favourite export Downton Abbey is set at the same point in history, and addresses many of the same themes. The similarity cannot be lost on the show’s creator Julian Fellowes; in 2007 he wrote an introduction to a new edition of Colegate’s work.[5]

As the same blogger notes,

It’s interesting, however, that both Colegate and her work seem to have largely been forgotten, despite the fact that The Shooting Party was adapted for the screen in 1985 and starred many of the era’s most popular actors (James Mason, Edward Fox, John Gielgud . . .). [In fact, even I vaguely remember seeing it on the TV] Why is it, then, that so many are unaware of the extent to which Colegate influenced the creation, and continuation, of Downton Abbey?

It’s a shame that a writer of fourteen works, who wrote for almost half a century, should so easily disappear from public consciousness. It’s particularly regrettable that a new generation of Colegate fans haven’t crawled out of the woodwork due to the world’s Downton fascination.

Shameful, regrettable, and indeed puzzling. However, perhaps we should start looking for an answer here: thanks to Valancourt’s wholly admirable project of resurrecting forgotten mid-century British fiction, behold Isabel Colegate’s first book, The Blackmailer.

There’s a Preface, but unlike most of Valancourt’s books, it’s not by a scholar or enthusiastic fan, but by the now apparently somewhat elderly authoress, who seems a bit diffident about the work; about all the enthusiasm she can muster is this:

[Inspiration] bubbles less easily now that I am old, which is why I look back on The Blackmailer with a certain affection.

Valancourt gives us the raw data:

Colegate’s first novel, The Blackmailer, was published by Blond in 1958 and was followed by two more novels focusing on English life in the years after the Second World War: A Man of Power (1960) and The Great Occasion (1962). These were later republished by Penguin in an omnibus volume, Three Novels, in 1983.

Reviewing that Penguin omnibus, Kirkus Reviews provides us with a neat plot summary [3]:

[The novels are] largely preoccupied with British class-conflict on the tonier levels. The Blackmailer is the least well-executed but the most intriguingly conceived of the three–exploring the odd love/hate relationship between an ill-born, envious blackmailer and his semi-posh victim. The villain: bitter young solicitor (and would-be M.P.) Baldwin Reeves, who knows that blueblooded Korean War hero Anthony Lane was really a coward and traitor. His victim: Lane’s young widow Judith, editor in a small publishing office–who pays Reeves off in order to protect her aristocratic in-laws from scandal. But Reeves soon wants more than money, indulging in cruel power-plays; Judith feels strangely bound to her torturer–whose vulnerability is soon exposed; and eventually Reeves almost succeeds in parlaying their folie à deux into a social leap upward.

From its title, and first chapter, which takes place in some low pub frequented by journos, we might expect this to be some kind of noir, or police procedural. When the eponymous blackmailer make his move, though, we find Reeves taking rather a fancy to his victim, while she, for her part, does not seem entirely immune to his charms, such as they are.

[S]he had thought he would kiss her, and had wished that he would . . . that her desires should now apparently have been aroused by a man she had thought she regarded with loathing seemed to her wicked.

Indeed, Reeves is very wicked indeed; after expressing her previous opinion of his “wickedness,” Reeves responds with a quick, Byronic character sketch:

“All right, you say it’s a filthy thing to do. It’s blackmail. It’s wicked. I shall go to Hell. But I don’t believe in Hell. Or Heaven. I’m not a Christian at all. I don’t believe in immortality. I don’t believe in anything. Except myself. So why should I conform to the Christian ethic?”

The aforementioned Kirkus reviewer was nonplused:

Unfortunately, however, despite the seductive premise and charmingly offbeat touches, Colegate never finds the right tone for this ironic anecdote–wavering between Jamesian moodiness and black-comedy, with a clumsy statement of theme at the close. (“What we feel for each other is really a passion for power,” said Judith. “We want to destroy each other by making the other fall in love with us . . .”)

Colgate3 [4]But this is no Harlequin romance or Lifetime movie, with a heroine who responds to blackmail with bodice-ripping lust.[7] I think, perhaps, we can see Colegate attempting more than just some offbeat black comedy with her disagreeable protagonist. As I read further into the book, I began to sense a certain similarity to another British first novel published the year before: Bill Hopkins’ The Divine and the Decay (aka The Leap!).[8] A lucky blogger who scored an autographed copy of the exceedingly rare book[9] on Amazon says [5] of the book:

The book is a political thriller whose anti-Hero is Peter Plowart, a ruthless and power-hungry statesman who seeks refuge on Vachau, an imaginary isle in the Channel Islands to provide an alibi for his assassination of a political rival. The work is said to be Nietzschean, inspired by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.[10]

Though sounding very different, I think we can better appreciate Colgate’s book by assuming, provisionally at least, that she’s addressing the same Nietzschean themes, albeit perhaps unconsciously — often, as we’ve seen, the best way to do so.[11]

In both novels, a crime (blackmail/murder) leads to a contest of wills between a man and a local noblewoman (Reeves/Judith, Plowart/Claremont). The woman serves as a teacher to the upstart, lower class male (the perennial theme of the Angry Young Men, such as Hopkins, Wilson, Braine, etc.)[12]

“It all sounds very dangerous to me” said Judith. “And the result, I should have said, of rather indiscriminate reading.”

“I have no humility and no patience,” said Baldwin. “Perhaps you would care to teach them to me.” “I don’t think I can teach you anything,” said Judith.

“Aren’t I horribly clear to you?”

Once you get on the scent, the Nietzschean themes start to appear everywhere. Judith’s self-imposed task is less feminine weakness than amor fati, an

altogether feminine desire for self-immolation, which made her need to devote herself to a duty, for duty breathed life into the inevitability of events, gave them, if not a meaning , at least something to be suffered for.

She views Reeves as a worthy opponent/lover/pupil, one of Nietzsche’s unscrupulous Borgia-like schemers:

She thought it a discreditable game, but that did not seem to alter the fact that she preferred to see him succeed at it.

Success in fact had come to be what he stood for in her mind, a man whose unscrupulous charm no one could resist.

Charm, indeed, is the lesson.[13] Or rather, the root of charm, and success in life: simple optimism:

Any doubts he may have felt about Judith . . . were here dissolved in this mood of optimism. Of course, she was in love with him, of course she would be useful to him, of course he was going to be a tremendous success.TheBlackmailer2 [6]A simple, perhaps too simple lesson, one might think. Yet it is the key to what I’ve called our native-grown Neoplatonism, our two-fisted Traditionalism, the “New Thought” movement of the turn of the last century (whilst Europe wallowed in it fin de siecle decadence). And it’s the lesson, as we’ll see, that some AYM, like Colin Wilson, painfully drew out of their experience of postwar despair: life indeed doesn’t have a meaning — unless you give it one.

One important, though perhaps unsuspected, corollary, however, is a very un-American value: solitude. If meaning depends on what I can give it myself, and doesn’t depend on anything or anybody outside myself, then in a sense the Existentialists, though too weak to will their way out, were right: we are each alone.

This is the lesson Reeves learns; he does not lose, he does not go to jail for his crime,[14] but he does fail to marry Judith, which would have given him a safe country seat in Parliament. Despite this, he’s really better off, and his political career is on track; in fact, an inevitability:

Already he was in the process of arranging to appear regularly in a discussion programme, with the aim of furthering what he regarded as his serious career, the political one.

But one must live in the future, not the past, don’t you agree? And I don’t feel that I am destined to mark my mark in films.” [I.e., no interest in royalties or publicity from the blackmail story, from the past, which is being given the patriotic movie treatment].

“How simple life is,” said Baldwin, “when one has faced the fact of one’s solitude. For the true solitary ambition has no limits.”

Reeves thinks he needs a wife for political purposes; all he really needs is faith in himself. All these themes — Nietzsche, optimism, solitude — come together on the last pages:

For a moment Baldwin paused, suddenly gazing through the midst of his intoxication into a not unfamiliar abyss where loneliness and failure monstrously loomed, then looking solemnly at Harman he said with resolution, “Yes, leave it to me. I’ll think of something.”

Loneliness is the bad solitude associated with failure; resolute solitude defeats the monster gazing back from the abyss. This is the lesson learned:

“What we feel for each other is really a passion for power,” said Judith. “We want to destroy each other by making the other fall in love with us — we challenge each other; that’s all.”

And what does not destroy us makes us stronger.

All this is reminiscent of themes from Hopkins’ novel. Like Reeves, Plowart is an aspiring politician (although his sites are higher than a mere country seat) who acts from a post- or anti-Christian moral posture. As Jonathan Bowen sketches him:

The work in question deals with the psychological origins of a dynamic leader (a veteran “Outsider”). It depicts the spiritual trajectory of a “British Caesar” on his way to complete power—or what is conceived as such. If you like, it is a version of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game played with human eyeballs!

It denotes the “amoral” power-curve of Peter Plowart—at least after he has succeeded in “murdering” the chairman of the New Britain League (the latter his vehicle to obtain supreme power. . . .

For he is a man who believes—in a purely Nietzschean sense—that the “Will to Power” is the basis of all existence (whether civil or otherwise) and that human beings only learn anything through their ability to transgress thresholds of pain.

For Plowart is—in a purely normative manner—a “left-hand occultist” or social magician: an “amoralist” and an anti-Christian; a new Assyrian; a man who believes in a religion older than Christianity, when the latter is controversially dismissed as a humanist creed, the weak-kneed religion of those unfit for life. . . .

For Plowart preaches a “pessimistic” ideology of force and challenge. He believes in the manipulation of mass emotion (i.e., the use of contemporary fear and sentiment) primarily through the persuasive utilization of superior cultural energy. Basically, then, he stands for the values that animated European revolutionary regimes from the 1920s to the 1940s—i.e., the “dictatorships” that were defeated by Britain and her Allies in the last war.

Hence the fact that there was such a furious reaction to this novel—i.e., to a metapolitical inquiry; a philosophical speculation—undertaken in 1957, which was after all only a few years after the war itself had ended. But these events have now passed into history.[15]

Although Bowden calls it “pessimistic” I think he means, “quote pessimistic unquote”; what may seem to the herd or sheep to be a pessimistic philosophy — force is all that matters — is, to the Outsider who has learned to overcome his lowly status, actually the key to his greatest happiness: he already has all he needs for success; he needs nothing and no one else. To him, this is what Colin Wilson liked to call, quoting Chesterton, “the great good news.”[16]

Like Reeves, Plowart also earns solitude; Claremont both betrays him and teaches him that success lies in accessing his willpower; as Colin Wilson describes the novel’s climax:

At the end of the book, he has to learn the hardest of all lessons, that he will never solve his problem while he looks to someone else to provide with the answer. Claremont is lying when she tells him that the rocks will move if he has enough faith; yet the rocks do move, and he is saved.[17]

From the purely aesthetic angle, Colegate does very well with this first novel. The writing is plain, unadorned, with only occasional fancy touches that may even be accidental:

The wind from the north swept through Wenseleyday and Wharfedale, whisking away . . .

She wisely limits her cast of characters — no country house full of upstairs and downstairs intrigue here. Other than the main two characters, the cast is small, suitable for a stage play or episode of a sit-com. The in-laws, the late Lane’s old grandfather and widowed mother, are familiar types but well-drawn. We know these people, or think we do: the old snobs that Basil invites to the first Gourmet Night at Fawlty Towers, or indeed the batty old resident Major himself. The class details are accurate:

[Reeves] was eulogistic at meals, thereby immediately forfeiting the regard of Mrs. Lane, Sir Ralph, and Nanny, none of whom could believe him to be sincere.

As Paul Fussell has alerted us, among the true Upper Classes, one never praises the food or drink provided by one’s host, as its excellence is taken for granted.[18] Just the sort of mistake a Joe Lampton or Jim Dixon would make.

The mother, however, is also allowed one late, pivotal moment to deliver a remarkable outburst of existential dread, a period touch but revealing unsuspected depths of feeling in what might otherwise been thought a boring suburban matron.

Another well drawn character, rather more idiosyncratic, is Judith’s business partner, where we learn an interesting detail that today would never be allowed in print: a hooked nose, which

[W]as useful to him for it enabled him when he wished to pass himself off as a Jew, which he sometimes found advantageous from the business point of view.

A final member of the cast, Thomas, exists to show Judith’s own ruthlessness — he’s take up only to provide her with excuses for not seeing Reeves — and provides us with a glimpse of a rather more interesting character off stage:

Thomas Hood’s aunt was anti-Semitic. She was also opposed to vivisection, and a believer in herb cures. . . . Miss Hood was kind and jolly, and Judith would have liked her.

Young Thomas’s anxiety about keeping his aunt away from Judith shows a grasp of the coming PC mentality. Today, of course, the anti-Semite would still be some old fool, but the rest of her eccentricities would only characterize good-thinkers and heroic types, who, in turn, could never “like” the old fools for any reason. And as a bonus, Counter-Currents readers can imagine Savitri Devi in the part!

There’s also a hint of a homoerotic subtext; Judith looks like Lane.[19] Reeves explains his motives as including:

And you looked a bit like him, in a way, as if your might be equally unassailable.”

While for Judith, it seems as if

“You want to revenge on me the fact that you loved Anthony, I on you the fact that I sometimes hated him. But reason, as you say, has destroyed it all.”

So why didn’t Colegate continue as a kind of female Colin Wilson? One might suggest that Colegate simply mistook her true métier; rather than becoming a novelist of ideas, centered on how one can achieve self-overcoming and social dominance, à la Hopkins or Colin Wilson, she thought her task was to chronicle in a somewhat romantic fashion the lives of the already settled and indeed already decaying Western elite. This confusion may account for the flaws in her first book, as well as a subsequent oeuvre devoted, it would seem, to a somewhat higher-brow kind of romantic, if not romance, fiction:

Fellowes’ upper-class is equally romanticised, fighting doggedly for survival where similar families disintegrate and disappear. As he himself puts it: “[Colegate] neither hates nor worships [the highly privileged] but is simply striving to understand how they could have ruled since the dawn of recorded time and then, in the space of less than half a century, have entirely lost their grip on the political and public life of the Nation.”[20]

Hopkins himself had a clearer idea of his purpose, and set his sights higher; not mere reportage on the decline of a soi-disant elite, but doing something about creating a new one:

The central problem that concerned me was the dearth of prototypes in the way of new heroes and heroines capable of generating fresh values and visions to a spiritually directionless and dying society such as our own. To my mind, spawning such possibilities is the paramount purpose of literature, with entertaining of titillating empty-headed readers only a secondary consideration. Although that is always a craft in itself, of course.[21]

If she had dared to actually take their side (that is, take our own side[22]), she might have turned out something like Hopkins’ book:

In this sense Bill Hopkins’s The Divine and the Decay—his greatest literary achievement—stands revealed as a Bildungsroman of the anti-Left; a premonitory explosion; a lightening-flash which reveals a terra incognita; an intrusion into the Zeitgeist; a “storm of steel” against liberal evasion.

The world of Isabel Colegate, like much of the postwar, gothic, and even “gay interest” literature Valancourt is bringing back to light, is such an “intrusion into the Zeitgeist; a “storm of steel” against liberal evasion.”

It’s like coming across a dinosaur or strange fossil or something that’s a spiritual relic from another era because his is the psychology of another era where the West never apologized, was totally proud of what it was, regarded itself as a preeminent civilization, whatever discourse it felt about itself, without any apology whatsoever. At all. All moments of the day. Without the odd bit of liberal hand-wringing and funk and self-denial.[23]

Of course, Hopkins paid the price, with his short-circuited career; no long series of novels, award-winning film adaptations and SWPL-beloved TV series for him!

But, to be optimistic myself, perhaps Colegate’s is the way to get the Nietzschean message across: not with chest thumping agitprop, but between the lines, almost unconsciously written and read, in popular fiction.

After all, there’s plenty of Downton Abbey Democrats and Hunger Gamers eager for the Next Big Thing. As Mencken might say, they deserve to get it — good and hard.


1. “zgalehouse [7]” provides an illustrated list of SWPL features of Downton Abbey here [8].

2. “Downton Abbey Democrats May Cost their Party the Senate” by Lloyd Green, The Daily Beast, 03.24.14, here [9]. “It’s not that the Democrats don’t know that they have a problem with the non-government employee middle class, but it’s just that they really are not bothered by it. . . . This hardly looks or sounds like the lunch-bucket liberalism of FDR and Harry Truman, or the JFK’s robust New Frontier, which sought to ameliorate poverty while embracing technology and space shots. No, the current iteration of liberalism sounds more like reactionary 19th century Toryism, which, in the words of Siegel, attacked further industrial and commercial expansion as “impossibly vulgar.” . . . Think aesthetics as politics, and academic credentials as peerage. Think of a latter-day Americanized version of Downton Abbey—where everyone knows his or her place, and our betters look best.”

3. Wikipedia [10], which adds the delightful detail that “development on Gosford Park began in 1999, when Bob Balaban came to Altman and asked if they could develop a film together. Bob Balaban suggested to Altman an Agatha Christie-style whodunit and introduced Altman to Julian Fellowes, with whom Balaban had been working on a different project.” Apparently, this is what he got up to after Elaine broke his heart and he left NBC without optioning Jerry’s pilot; see Seinfeld, Season 4, Episode 23/24, “The Pilot [11].”

4. “Francis Ewan Urquhart is a fictional character created by Michael Dobbs. Known by his initials FU, Urquhart appeared in a trilogy of novels: House of Cards (1989), To Play the King (1992), and The Final Cut (1995). He was portrayed in the BBC TV adaptations by Ian Richardson, who won a BAFTA award for his performance. Thought to be based on Richard III and Macbeth, and described as the “epitome of elegant evil,” Urquhart is characterised by his habitual breaking of the fourth wall, his quoting of Shakespeare, and his usage of the catchphrase, “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment,” or a variation thereon, as a deniable way of agreeing with people and/or leaking information.” — Wikipedia [12].

5. “The Forgotten Inspiration Behind Downton Abbey,” Aimee Oliver, For Books’s Sake, Nov. 29, 2013, here [13].

6. Kirkus Reviews, loc. Cit.

7. “First, I think of a man. Then, I subtract reason and accountability.” — Jack Nicholson as Mr. Udall in As Good as it Gets.

8. “The Divine and the Decay (1957), reissued as The Leap! (1984), was the first and only published novel by Bill Hopkins (1928-2011). It occupies a curious place in British literary and cultural history because its reception was embroiled in the brouhaha (partly fomented by Hopkins) around Colin Wilson (b. 1931), whose reputation was rapidly disintegrating after the initial success of The Outsider (1956).”– “Bill Hopkins: The Divine and the Decay,Nicolas Tredell (Independent Scholar), [14] The Literary Encyclopedia, here [15].

9. “The book was an immediate rarity upon publication because the publisher decided not to promote it, and in fact pulped most of the edition. The reasons for this have to do with journalistic fads of the 1950s, and are best explained by Hopkins’s friend Colin Wilson in his book The Angry Years. Essentially some of the Angry Young Men who were ‘in’ in 1956, were declared to be ‘out’ in 1957, when this novel was published. Hopkins was therefore derided as ‘a new espresso evangelist, another seer of the Soup Kitchens, a fresh messiah of the milk bars . . . !’ even before this book was published.” — Amazon reviewer.

10. You can find a rather more/too detailed synopsis here [16].

11. On the unconscious recapitulation of occult themes in genre works, see my review of Robert Aldrich’s film Kiss Me, Deadly: “Mike Hammer, Occult Dick: Kiss Me, Deadly as a Lovecraftian Tale,” here [17] and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

12. On the Angry Young Men, see Colin Wilson’s The Angry Years and Jonathan Bowden, “Bill Hopkins and the Angry Young Men” here [18].

13. “It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers.” — Anthony Blanche diagnosing the Marchmain family’s poison in Brideshead Revisited, a book that memorializes everything the AYM hated.

14. The whole blackmail angle is completely dropped. Reeves is totally unmoved even by news that a film is to be made, glorifying the coward Lane. It’s kind of like Frank Sinatra’s character in The Manchurian Candidate just said, “Oh, what the hell” and let Laurence Harvey assassinate Sen. Iselin while keeping the “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life” cover story going. Raymond Shaw, of course, is played by Laurence Harvey, who played Joe Lampton in Room at the Top, based on John Braine’s Angry Young Man novel, also of 1957; it was republished with a new introduction by Janine Utell last year by Valancourt; see my review of Braine’s second novel, the weird fiction The Vodi, also republished by Valancourt, “Lovecraft in a Northern Town,” here [19].

15. See Jonathan Bowden’s “Bill Hopkins’ The Divine and the Decayhere [20].

16. A somewhat more jaundiced view from Revilo Oliver:

[Plowart] . . . certainly is no Übermensch, and his confidence in his own strength is something of which he has convinced himself by assertion even while his subconscious mind is aware that it is pretense. As a potential Führer, he is so flawed by several weaknesses that the reader takes it for granted that the New Britain League will never become politically formidable, even if Plowart survives and becomes its dictatorial master. . . .

See “Beyond Good and Evil: Bill Hopkins’ The Divine & the Decay” by Revilo Oliver, Liberty Bell, vol. 13, no. 4, December 1985, pp. 17–19, here [21].

17. Colin Wilson, “Foreword” to The Leap! [aka The Divine and the Decay] (London: Deverell & Birdsey, 1984), p.xii.

18. Class: A Guide through the American Class System (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 184. Basil Fawlty: “Tat? Of course, only the true upper class would have such tat!”

19. Displacing apparent homoeroticism by means of shifting interest to a female character who looks like the man or boy she replaces is an old trope, of course. The most immediate influences here would be the Charles/Sebastian/Julia trio in Brideshead Revisited (“He [Sebastian] was the forerunner”) and perhaps Fr. Rolfe’s “Zilda disguised as Zildo as a plot contrivance who is really Zildo all the time in Rolfe’s imagination anyway” in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole; more recently, George’s “man-love for a she-Jerry [22]” in the Seinfeld episode “The Cartoon.”

20. For Books’s Sake, loc. Cit.

21. Bill Hopkins, “Author’s Preface to the New Edition” of The Leap! [aka The Divine and the Decay] (London: Deverell & Birdsey, 1984), p. 3.

22. See Michael Polignano, Taking Our Own Side, ed. Greg Johnson; foreword by Kevin MacDonald (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2010).

23. Jonathan Bowden, “Bill Hopkins and the Angry Young Men,” here [18].