“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” Thus Conan Doyle opens “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the first story in the collection “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”. In a similar fashion W.E.Johns created Marie Janis, to be for Biggles the one woman in his life that made all the difference. She was his only romance and her memory lingered with him from the end of the First World War until the 1960’s. She only appears in two books and yet she can be said to have had a considerable formative influence upon his character and upon the life-style that he pursued until his retirement. Ironically, it is his old enemy von Stalhein who sums up what happened to Biggles,
“My dear Bigglesworth, don’t you realise that it was the shock of that affair that made you what you became a deadly combat pilot and a reliable espionage agent ?”
Von Stalhein too loved Marie. His affections too have survived the 45 years since the cataclysmic affaire de coeur that changed the direction of Biggles’ and Marie’s life. Biggles claims that his heart has been in a cold store since the night that his dream exploded and he found out that she was a spy. Von Stalhein adds that the experience had rendered Biggles incapable of being of fooled by a woman again. To return to the comparison with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle observes that the “softer passions” were “admirable things for the observer excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions”. If we wished to continue the analogy further we could note that Biggles in later life becomes a detective who often shows highly-developed powers of logical reasoning. He even lives in a flat in central London and, where Holmes has the reliable Mrs Hudson to minister to his wants, Biggles has Mrs. Symes to bring him cups of tea and to clear up after his clients. Ginger, Algy, and Bertie in particular, all sit around and, like Dr. Watson, listen to Biggles’ precise analyses of people and crimes.
And yet this cold-blooded picture of the central character in the Biggles saga does not quite ring true. There are other women in the stories and the emotions of Biggles and his friends are fully engaged on many occasions. It might surprise you to learn that the current writer of this article pulled out all the copies of Biggles books where women appear to a greater or lesser extent, and the pile exceeded twenty five in number and reached to the height of the desk-top. W.E.Johns did not ignore the feminine side and the women he describes are not all cast in the mould of the femme fatale to be despised.
Let’s start at the very beginning. It has often been said that we hear little of Biggles’ mother and it is a feature of the books that male characters appear to come from exclusively one-parent backgrounds. Ginger comments about his father in “The Black Peril” but never mentions his mother. Dick Denver in “Biggles Flies West” is introduced with the words, “His mother he had never known.” Somehow Flight Sergeant Smyth manages to produce a son, Roy, yet we never hear of the wife or the mother. Even Bertie mentions his father but never his mother. The penitent thief of that story is rescued largely by the endeavours of his father the mother is scarcely mentioned. This might appear pretty striking evidence that W.E.Johns allowed Biggles no understanding of one of the strongest bonds of all. It needs but two examples to refute this idea. First of all, rather strangely, there are the feelings expressed by the villain in “The Case of the Black Sheep” in “Biggles Air Detective”. When confronted by the evidence of his crime, Paullson’s first thoughts are not of himself,
“This will about kill my mother when she hears of it.”
Unusually for someone who is a great believer in justice, Biggles later argues with Raymond that Paullson deserves another chance and should be treated leniently.
Even more clear is Biggles’ intuitive understanding of the policeman’s behaviour in “The Case of the Missing Constable”. He is able to retrace the route of the young man on the night of his disappearance by empathising strongly with someone who has recently been bereaved. The constable would spend time by the grave of his dead mother is what Biggles points out to Ginger. He is right, of course. Thus a closer look at the evidence would indicate that W.E.Johns make his hero understand all the normal emotions in the mother-child relationship. These are stories mainly about men but in fact there are many other examples, particularly of the worries that parents have about their children and the dangers that they get into.
It is true that Biggles loses Marie for nearly fifty years but there are many other young women that he comes across in the course of his adventures. Does the fact that his own love affair has been blighted make him cynical and unsympathetic to the idea of romance? Admittedly the evidence here is rather mixed, though an overview of the whole saga would tend to suggest that the older he gets, the more understanding he becomes. Let us take a look at some of these young women.
In “Biggles Flies Again” our hero and Algy rescue Consuelo Gardia from the bandit Estaban Martinez. Wilks declares that she has “the reputation of being the most beautiful girl in South America”. More crisply he sums her up as “wizard”. We later learn that she has a “proud Castilian head” and that she maintains her nerve even when Biggles slips quietly into Martinez’s mountain stronghold. When bullets slam into the plane as they make their escape we are told that she does not even “flinch”. Little wonder then that Algy falls for her charms. Biggles’ attitude is that his companion should not flirt with the girl if he does not mean to marry her. It may be said light-heartedly but it achieves the desired effect. He and Algy move on to a new adventure. Love is for keeps - is what he seems to suggest. He certainly shows no signs that he has lost his respect for women or regards them with any bitterness. W.E.Johns continues to portray women as both resourceful and attractive in a later story in the same book entitled “Fair Cargo”. Algy is approached by a girl with “dark, appealing eyes” and whose breast is “rising and falling spasmodically from exertion or agitation.” (Steady lads!) At first Biggles is reluctant to accept her story about running away from an arranged marriage but it is he who decides to smuggle her out of the country. Eventually Biggles and Algy discover they have been duped and that Juanita has arranged the escape of her husband from a firing squad. Biggles is left with a rose in his hands and an enigmatic smile on his face.
Still from the same book it is worth mentioning “Savages and Wings” which takes place on the island of New Guinea. As Dawne, the would-be thief, lies dying, he sums up his life story. He had been cashiered from the Air Force but the money he’d stolen hadn’t been for himself.
“A girl bah ! what does it matter ?”
In spite of this bitter reproach, the last word Biggles hears on his lips as the man’s life ebbs away is “Pauline..” With that one poignant word W.E.Johns manages to suggest the corrosive power of the love of a man for a woman.
Stella Carstairs in “Biggles and Co” is an entirely different kettle of fish. W.E.Johns describes her as “a remarkably pretty girl, who wore an expensive coat over her evening gown…”. She is a rich, young woman who talks her father into buying her a plane. In spite of her wealth she despises the unscrupulous men who are obsessed with the quest for money. We are even told that “her nostrils quivered” when she talks about it. As Biggles pulls off trick after trick to outwit the bullion raiders she dutifully marvels at his ingenuity and worries over the risks he is taking. Later in the story, however, Biggles expresses concern about the fact that she might be risking her life by making a night flight. He gets a rebuff for his thoughtfulness. We are told that he
“looked at Ginger helplessly, for the female mentality was one of the things he did not understand.”
Clearly he still has a lot to learn. Stella herself ceases to play an important part in the story after supplying (without meaning to) a plane in which Ginger can follow Biggles to Germany. It is almost as though W.E.Johns meant to develop her part in the story further but, thank goodness, got carried away with the return of von Stalhein from the dead.
An entirely different young lady appears in “Biggles Goes to War”. Here W.E.Johns does remind his readers of the vision of blonde loveliness that was Marie Janis. Princess Mariana’s first appearance makes a striking effect on our hero.
“She could not have been more than eighteen years of age, but it was not this that held him speechless. It was her beauty. She was rather pale, but he thought that her features were the most perfect he had ever seen. With a sudden movement she threw back the hoodlike garment that covered her head, releasing a halo of golden curls…..”
From the beginning it is made clear that Princess Mariana is unobtainable. There was “something regal about her voice as well as in her poise.” For Biggles she is chiefly a young girl who needs help. His manner is respectful without being too deferential. Pretty soon she begins to fall under the power of his compelling character.
“His intense personality was drawing her secrets from her….”
This time W.E.Johns allows the book a happy-ever-after ending, for the Princess ends up married to Ludwig who has served her so faithfully. Figuratively speaking, Biggles, Algy and Ginger fly off into the sunset, the damsel in distress having been rescued, the country of Maltovia put to rights and their knight-errantry temporarily over. There is definitely no sign of cynical weariness there nor any suggestion that Biggles was prepared to sneer at the softer emotions (unlike Sherlock Holmes).
A world away from the fairy-tale romance of a Ruritanian princess are the South Sea Islands. Here W.E.Johns presents his readers with yet another vision of young womanhood. Full Moon does not remain passively on the sidelines whilst the airmen save the situation. It is she who is brave and resourceful enough to save them. The author introduces her with the following words;
“A pretty girl of about fifteen years of age, in a light blue pareu the single garment common to both sexes her brown skin glowing with health, ran up, laughing, and seized Sandy’s hands without any suggestion of shyness…”
This is a girl who can fight octopuses, dive deep to the bottom of the sea to search for pearls and cross thousands of miles of empty ocean without a care in the world. The end of the book brings her greatest triumph for all the riches they had struggled for are retrieved by her and handed over without the slightest sign of greed. The friendship with Ginger is just platonic and includes, without jealousy, Shell-breaker her “boyfriend”. The trappings of civilisation such as make-up and beads are shown to cheapen her natural beauty, though they bring her temporary pleasure. Ginger’s feelings at leaving the islands behind nearly overcome him.
“Their distress was so affecting that it was all Ginger could do to keep his own tears back.”
The perils of the Second World War brings romance to Ginger for the first time and, in the same story “Biggles Fails to Return”, another aristocratic heroine figure for Biggles to be involved with. Injured, Ginger staggers his way to the house of the Ducoste family in Monaco. Here he is nursed by Jeannette, the sister of the airman who had flown them on the mission to rescue Biggles. The attraction between the two young people appears to be mutual. Ginger declares to Bertie that he is absolutely crazy about her. Bertie has to keep reminding him that they are involved in a rescue and not a romance. This does little good and, at the end of the book, Jeannette and Ginger are to be found constantly in each other’s company “walking and swimming”. This is a book written for children after all what else can W.E. Johns have them doing?
The description of Jeannette includes such features as her jet black hair, her pale complexion, her skin with the “tint of sun-warmed ivory”, and her perfect white teeth. By comparison, the Princes Marietta, who has both led Biggles into trouble and got him out of it, gets little more detail than the fact that she was wearing a blue shawl. It is her actions that are meant to mark her out as a remarkable person. She has given up her chance of a flight to England and safety, shot dead her Italian pursuers and nursed Biggles back to health. Biggles remarks,
“Since meeting Princess Marietta my opinion of princesses has touched a new altitude level.” Presumably he has forgotten his admiration for Princess Mariana of Maltovia. Is W.E.Johns’ insistence on the names of Marietta and Mariana meant to remind us of Marie?
However, we must remember that W.E.Johns was writing for schoolboys and girls who wanted their heroes to go on having adventures and not to settle for comfortable domestic bliss. We hear no more about Jeannette Ducoste and Biggles assumes again his role as father figure to 666 squadron without a glance backward at a woman whom he clearly admired.
Other wartime stories reveal further understanding of the power of a love between a man and a woman. “Spitfire Parade” contains the sad account of Tony Luke’s romance with the daughter of a French countess. There are certain similarities to Biggles’ own World War 1 romantic trauma. Wilks tells the tale of how Tony Luke, injured in a combat over northern France, is nursed by a girl called Marie(!)
“But Marie was a good-looking girl and Tony was a good-looking lad. The result was inevitable. They fell in love with each other.”
Wilks assesses the barriers that automatically come between the two young lovers as those of class and cash.
“He was hardly in a financial position to ask the hand in marriage of the daughter of one of the oldest and richest families in France.”
More important is Tony’s youth and the fact that he could be killed in conflict at any moment. It was a dilemma that must have been faced by many young R.A.F. pilots whether their girlfriends were English or French. Clearly Wilks feels that the situation would have been better avoided in the first place. Perhaps he does not go so far as Bertie (in “Biggles ‘Fails to Return’”)
“I once had a pal, a jolly good pilot, too, who walked straight into a spinning airscrew. He was looking at a gal who had just stepped on the tarmac. That’s the sort of thing that happens if you see what I mean?”
But we can be sure that Wilks believes that Lady Luck deserted Tony Luke when he fell for the French aristocrat. The death of the young Marie in a bombing raid tore Tony to pieces. With her dying words she had declared that she would be waiting for her young R.A.F. hero up in heaven. The story ends when Wilks describes how Tony’s life ends with him jumping from twenty thousand feet without a parachute. We are left to imagine that the two lovers are now reunited.
To end this Second World War round-up on a happier note let us go to “Biggles in Borneo”. Biggles and Co have rescued Jackson from the clutches of the Japanese. He discusses the prisoners that have been taken on the island of Cotabato and lists the various ones that are there, ending with the name Mary Stockton (Another Marie?). At once Biggles reads all the signs with sympathetic understanding and he gets Jackson to confess that he had a private arrangement with Mary about getting married.
“I take it you’d go back to Cotobato if you thought there was a chance of getting your girl away?”
“You bet your life, I would,” answered Jackson warmly.
This simple declaration from a man who has survived days in an open boat and pursuit from a ruthless enemy confirms that W.E.Johns (and through him Biggles) had every reason to believe that the power of the love between a man and a woman was both constructive and uplifting.
Biggles’ post-war career in the Air Police takes him into the detective phase of his existence, referred to at the beginning of this article. In his capacity as Sergeant and later Inspector at Scotland Yard he is forced to investigate several crimes and mysteries where women are involved. It would be fair to say that during the long years of police service he runs into many different types of women and his reaction to them is usually both understanding and sympathetic. In “Biggles Takes a Holiday” his life is saved by the prompt action of Mrs. Lil Clarke, one of the unfortunate victims of Doctor Liebgarten in the so-called Paradise Valley. She shoots dead one of the Doctor’s henchmen as he advances on the reclining figure of Biggles, who had been pumped full of venom by a tarantula. Lil’s husband, Joe, reacts with approval.
“Joe looked at Biggles.’There’s a woman for yer,’ he said proudly.
‘You’re a lucky fellow, Joe,’ answered Biggles..”
The ultimate acceptance of women in Biggles’ world comes, of course when W.E.Johns allows them to become the villains of the book. In the story “The Black Gauntlet” in “Biggles of the Special Air Police” the reader is introduced to Thea Hertz, a German test-pilot, who had done some useful work for the Americans during the war. She has a slim “but rather masculine figure” and “a pair of ice-blue eyes”. She has insisted upon Biggles being brought in as technical consultant on a British flying movie that it being made. Her mission is really revenge, for Biggles was responsible for shooting down her brother over Marham aerodrome. She succeeds in trapping Biggles inside an unarmed Spitfire which she attacks with the Messerscmitt that she believes is firing real bullets. As the author remarks, even if he had carried live cartridges, he would never have used them “against a woman”. When he outmanoeuvres her easily he sees her face twisted in “thwarted fury” and he realises,
“Such hatred was beyond his understanding.”
Eventually her relentless desire to kill Biggles ends in her own destruction as she discharges her pistol in the petrol-soaked atmosphere of her crashed ‘plane.
Incidentally Mary Cadogan in her book “Women with Wings” suggests that W.E.Johns based the Thea Hertz character (apart from the ruthless killing streak) on the real German flyer, Hanna Reitsch.
Hilda Steiner in “Africa Assignment” from “Biggles Takes the Case” demonstrates similar homicidal tendencies. She and her husband are caught smuggling diamonds and, when unmasked by Biggles, once again the female appears more deadly than the male.
“Kill him!” cried the woman. She seemed on the verge of hysteria. The tribal chief moves to obey her orders but is caught in the crossfire between Hilda and Biggles. Fortunately he survives but Mrs. Steiner ends up spending one year of her life in prison for attempted murder. In the same collection of short stories Storna Buchner, who had attempted to seduce Flight Lieutenant Brand so that her husband could obtain the plans of the secret aerofoil, ends up sentenced to “a long term of imprisonment.”
Old-fashioned notions of honesty and decency are seen again in “The Trick that Failed” in “Biggles Flies to Work”. A young girl is about to fly to the continent with her lover. Biggles and Ginger intervene.
“But what’s all this about?” cried the girl, looking from one to the other. “We’re going to Paris to get married.”
“Flight Lieutenant Rosten already has a wife,” said Biggles.
After the girl has run away Biggles reproaches Rosten for his behaviour.
“What sort of skunk are you? That girl’s going to take a crack when she learns the truth about you?”
“You weren’t satisfied with the money you stole. You wanted to ruin an innocent girl as well.”
Already the case is clearly made that women do appear in the Biggles stories and that the reaction of our hero towards them is chivalrous, concerned, and with no signs of bitterness. The traditional attitude of the people of other countries and cultures towards women is also shown to be respected. The arranged marriage and the elaborate protocol that surrounds the daughter of the Sultan of Rasal al Sharab (in “Biggles’ Special Case”) is well understood by Biggles and he strives to ensure that all aspects of the Moslem procedure are left uncompromised. Similarly in “Biggles in Mexico” he discusses the concept of Spanish family honour with Ginger, “Once a marriage has been arranged for a girl it’s absolutely forbidden for her to have anything to do with another man.”
As well as the elaborate codes of Spanish behaviour Biggles can also cope with the raw emotions of the rather more primitive Peruvian Spaniards of the Amazonian jungle. In “Orchids for Biggles” he comes across the dead body of Dolores.
“Poor kid, he thought. He had no great regard for the girl, but he was conscious of a sudden flood of pity. Whatever her character might be she did not deserve this.”
He knows straight away that the killer must be Maria, the girl from the cantina. Later he has to tell Jose of the death of the girl he loved.
“Biggles never forgot the expression on Jose’s face. The smile seemed to freeze into a mask. His lips became thin lines drawn hard against white teeth. His hands opened and closed, slowly.”
Later he watches Jose’s tears and encourages him to go and have a drink. After all it was what Biggles had done when he had found out about Marie…
“Orchids for Biggles” is also the book where we learn some surprising news about Bertie. Maria, the cantina dancer and later murderess, complains that Bertie had pushed her off when she sat in his lap as part of the act.
“He meant no offence. He is afraid of women.”
“I don’t know. Some men are like that.”
This idea, however, is not taken up anywhere else in the stories.
There are more women of different types who could be catalogued in the different stories in Biggles’ adventures. From the kind lady who allowed him the free run of her garden and the cave it contained in “Biggles Goes to School” to attractive Conchita Gonzalez, the air hostess who survives the crash on the Andean mountains in “Biggles and the Little Green God”; from Miss Summers and Miss Treeves, the dedicated missionaries in “Biggles in the Gobi”, to young Vera Harrington, the murder victim in Biggles’ solo effort at detection in “Biggles Goes Alone”, the list stretches on. There are other female villains such as the lady who used chewing gum to smuggle precious stones and the woman who helped her bank-robber brother to hide out in Scotland. But it is time to return to Marie.
“Biggles Looks Back” is a remarkable book for W.E.Johns to have written. It takes him into the dangerous area of Biggles’ vulnerability and into the interesting idea of redemption. Most strange indeed is the part played by Erich von Stalhein. As we said before, he too loved Marie, yet he claims that this never prejudiced him against Biggles. There is a reprise of the general air of forgiveness and reconciliation that first appeared in “Biggles Buries a Hatchet”. Air Commodore Raymond had started it by encouraging the rescue of von Stalhein from Sakhalin.
“If more people in the world would see eye to eye, instead of glaring at each other across frontiers, the general public, the ordinary common people, would have less cause for anxiety.”
Biggles carries this message to his comrades, in particular to the very sceptical Algy.
“If I can make von Stalhein see that we bear no grudge against him for what happened in the past I shall be satisfied. One of the troubles of this world is, people will look back instead of forward.”
So, at the beginning of “Biggles Looks Back”, a new interpretation is put on the behaviour of Marie Janis all those years before. First of all Eric and Biggles come to an understanding that being a spy is an honourable profession. Marie had attempted to do a job for her country just as Biggles had tried to for his. Von Stalhein points out that it all went wrong for Marie when she fell in love with Biggles. She put her duty to her country first or apparently did so. Von Stalhein is quite intrigued to learn for the first time that Marie had sent a message so that Biggles would be saved from the wholesale destruction of 266’s officers’ mess. The words of her note to Biggles are then repeated with full poignancy some forty odd years later by the man who has never forgotten them. In particular the words, “My last thought will be of you,” are meant to ring in the readers’ minds. There is even an image of the two of them meeting in another world, much as suggested by the story of Tony Luke and girl Marie in “Spitfire Parade”.
For the first time Biggles learns that she survived the war and is still alive. The next stage in the rebuilding of Marie as a worthy match for Biggles comes when we learn that, after the trauma of being a spy, she devoted her time to being a nurse. W.E.Johns shrewdly chooses a profession that brings echoes of selfless devotion to others into our imagination. This feeling is intensified when we learn that Marie belongs to an aristocratic family and yet had chosen to serve others in this way. Now she is trapped behind the Iron Curtain and, apparently from Biggles’ deductions, in poor health and living in impoverished circumstances.
It is at this stage that we should remind ourselves that W.E.Johns was writing a boys’ adventure book and not a romance. Biggles is rather old for the juvenile lead and yet he spends the days after his discussion with von Stalhein in such a state of introverted silence that his comrades are forced to confront him. The book can never end with marriage and retirement, for W.E.Johns faces the same dilemma that he did with Ginger at the end of “Biggles ‘Fails to Return’”: his heroes must go on to further exploits. The actual adventure with Erich playing the part of a café violinist, Marie’s home being a fairytale castle and her manservant a deformed dwarf, is extraordinary enough. In fact, in addition to his choosing Bertie as the comrade to accompany Biggles, is a masterstroke, for his typically frivolous constant references to how extraordinary it all is deflects the criticisms even before they arise.
Marie behaves with coolness and courage. Her reactions to what Biggles and Erich have done for her are all that could be wished. In a scene which is surely the climax of the book, she even asks for forgiveness and Biggles takes her hand and replies,
“We were at war then. I’m not sorry. You gave me something wonderful to remember.”
“While it lasted.”
“For as long as I live.”
In the light of all this it seems extraordinary to think that some people have accused W.E.Johns of sexism, of ignoring the world of women in his stories. It would be easy enough to refute that short-sighted inaccuracy with a quick resume of the Worrals series or with the details of the great admiration the author had for pioneer women aviators. This survey of some of the women in the Biggles series will, I hope, show that our hero and his creator were just as romantic, just as appreciative, just as realistic, and just as hopelessly puzzled as the rest of mankind about the so-called gentler sex.