Review: Pantheon by Sam Bourne

Pantheon

Sam Bourne

HarperCollins, 416pp, £12.99

In H G Wells’s 1911 novel, The New Machiavelli, the narrator, Richard Remington, a Cambridge fellow-turned-journalist and Liberal MP, finds himself in “one of those long apartments once divided by folding doors . . . common upon the first floors of London houses”. His hosts are 

Altiora and Oscar Bailey, socialist intellectuals and reformers modelled by Wells on his old friends and rivals – and the founders of this magazine – Beatrice and Sidney Webb. 
 
“At the Baileys’,” Remington says, “one always seemed to be getting one’s hands on the very strings that guided the world. You heard legislation projected to affect this ‘type’ and that; statistics marched by you with sin and shame and injustice and misery reduced to quite manageable percentages”.
 
The Webbs, it seems, were amused rather than offended by Wells’s debunking of their coldly technocratic, rationalistic version of socialism (“If they had the universe in hand I know they would take down all the trees and put up stamped tin green shades and sunlight accumulators”). Beatrice is supposed to have said to her husband, “I’m in it. I’m the woman whose voice is described as a ‘strangulated contralto’”. And Sidney recognised himself in the description of “one of those supplementary males among the lower crustaceans”.
 
It’s hard not to think of the Webbs (and the Baileys) when one encounters Bernard and Virginia Grey early in Pantheon, the latest thriller written under the name Sam Bourne by the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland.  Bernard is master of the Oxford college at which the novel’s protagonist, an experimental psychologist named James Zennor, is a fellow. The Greys are “luminaries” of the British intellectual left. “You couldn’t open a copy of the New Statesman without coming across an article by or about them.”
 
Bernard and Virginia are sceptical about James’s work in the nascent field of experimental psychology, urging him to switch to political science. They show much more interest (and this will turn out to be highly significant) in the work done by James’s wife Florence in evolutionary biology.
 
Most of the action of the novel occurs in the early summer of 1940, shortly after Churchill has replaced Chamberlain as prime minister. Bourne evokes very vividly the privations of rationing and some of the unintended consequences of the blackout (which included a steep increase in the incidence of prostitution). He shows us an Oxford emptied of students and colonised instead by government departments exiled from Whitehall (Balliol, inevitably, snags the most prestigious department of all, the Foreign Office).
 
James and Florence have met four years earlier at the People’s Olympiad in Barcelona. After the outbreak of the civil war causes the event to be cancelled, James remains in Spain to fight on the Republican side in the International Brigades. He is shot in the shoulder during a mission in which his best friend dies. A hasty, botched operation on his wounds leaves his shoulder looking like “a wall covered with paper from two separate and clashing rolls”.
 
His injuries render him unfit for action in the Second World War and the effects of post-traumatic stress mean he is also overlooked for sensitive work in the civil service. 
 
It soon becomes clear that James’s infirmities – mental as well as physical – are the cynosure of the plot, as well as the vehicle for Bourne’s exploration of the British left’s flirtation before the war with the pseudo-science of eugenics. Fearing her husband’s reaction, Florence secretly joins an evacuation of women and children to the US that turns out to have been organised by the Greys.
 
James tracks his wife and son down to Yale University, which he discovers is also in the grip of a sinister eugenicist fantasy. In the library there, he finds that the Greys’ friends and colleagues, many of whom he had met at High Table back in Oxford, had been intoxicated by the same ideas. He comes across a New Statesman editorial from 1931, which had asserted that the “claims of eugenics are not inherently incompatible with the outlook of the collectivist movement”.
 
Bourne has clearly done his research. Until well into the 1960s, it was customary at Yale to take nude “posture photographs” of new undergraduates, a practice that had begun 30 years earlier and was part of an experiment designed to prove that “physique equals destiny”. But for all his
assiduousness in the archive, he doesn’t quite manage to make these ideas come alive.
 
Responding to those who read The New Machiavelli as straightforwardly autobiographical, Wells asked: “Why on earth if one wants to write an autobiography should one write a novel?” One wonders if Bourne might not have done greater justice to this fascinating and important subject in non-fictional form. 
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