Sex, spies, aristocrats and atom bombs — the Profumo affair is in the news again, thanks to the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Stephen Ward. William Nicholson has chosen to hang his seventh novel around it in Reckless, which takes place between the end of the second world war and the Cuban missile crisis.
Our hero, Rupert, is a quiet Englishman and aide to Lord Mountbatten. During the war he is invited to tea at Cliveden, where he meets the teenage Princess Elizabeth in the company of a Russian and an American; inspired by her gentle thoughtfulness, the three young officers vow a pact for there to be ‘no more wars’. The ensuing two decades intertwine the personal and the political as the world inches towards nuclear Armageddon.
As a much-garlanded scriptwriter, Nicholson is excellent at dialogue, and his eye for period detail is almost as good. Richard’s foil is the naive young Pamela, whose belief that her destiny lies in having ‘a great love affair… the kind of thing people write about in books’ is set up as a prelude to what happens when, thanks to Stephen Ward, she discovers the power of her beauty. Unlike her literary namesake, she is swiftly seduced by the rich, corrupt men she meets at Cliveden.
As Nicholson was shortlisted for last year’s Bad Sex Prize, it should be noted that his descriptions of sex in Reckless are both erotic and dismaying in that the reader is sharply aware that his heroine is being duped. Pamela’s narcissism and vulnerability make her compelling, and one would happily have read a novel just about her and Rupert, as the latter falls in love with Mary, an unhappy Irish postulant desperate to be rescued from convent life.
Another of Nicholson’s rare good men, Rupert is rendered especially sympathetic by his charity in finding Mary a new home with the same querulous couple who are putting up Pamela in London. The ensuing complications are painfully funny; one especially neat twist has Mary suspected of stealing £5 from her hosts, taken by the unabashed Pamela in order to buy herself lingerie.
Reckless is part of a sequence of interlinked novels, each engaging in its own right, but unfortunately the imaginative sympathy that made Nicholson’s previous novel Motherland so absorbing falters whenever real people and political history are added to the brew. Ostensibly, Rupert’s job as strategic adviser to Mountbatten and Pamela’s occasional appearances as a member of the Cliveden set are the link between the private and the public. However, the idea that the Cold War ‘plays out … like a game between lovers’ needs more subtle development to have any place in a work of serious fiction. While the fearfulness of the ordinary people awaiting the end of the world feels real, as well as poignant, the clunking scenes concerning Kennedy and Khrushchev might have wandered in from a Tom Clancy novel.
By the end, we believe that Stephen Ward is, in Pamela’s words, ‘one of the good guys’ about to fall over a precipice. Nicholson’s strength is his capacity to make you care about his characters as they struggle towards self-knowledge, love, honesty and courage. Sadly, not even he can persuade us to believe that this happens to politicians.
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Amanda Craig’s novels include A Vicious Circle, Love in Idleness and Hearts and Minds. Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99. Tel: 08430 600033
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