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The Making of a Londoner: Richard Hillary and the Myths of War

Kristin Bluemel

Angus Calder, in his Myth of the Blitz, reminds us that starting on 24 August 1940, the Battle of Britain that had been conducted in the skies over England’s southern coast really became the battle of London. On that day, the Luftwaffe began concentrated attacks on the seven RAF sector stations that were “the key to the defense of London” (Calder 33). By 7 September, with the air battle still raging, London withstood a bombing raid of such magnitude that it was seen as the first of the Blitz. In between these two dates, symbolic markers for the moment at which the Battle of Britain became the Battle of London and the Battle of London became the Blitz, twenty-one year old RAF pilot Richard Hillary fell with his flaming Spitfire into the sea. This fall and its resultant injuries, which occurred on 3 September 1940, transformed Hillary from pilot to patient, soldier to veteran, and in the process gave him the materials for his fictionalized memoir, The Last Enemy. This book would go on to become an international bestseller and earn Hillary a reputation as one of Britain’s best writers of World War II. This reputation became itself mythical when Hillary died in a crash during night-training flight on 8 January 1943 near RAF Charterhall.

I am interested in the ways that Hillary’s narrative of his transformation from an Oxford golden boy to the skinless, misshapen survivor of the Battle of Britain powerfully unites the myth of the Battle of Britain with the myth of the Blitz through a third myth, that of the ideal Englishman as a beautiful “boy” at war; in The Last Enemy, all three myths play out upon the geography of an intermodern London that is at once source and destination of the book’s uplifting message. Since Calder and other scholars have familiarized us with the images, structures, and cultural impacts of the myths of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, I will focus in this article on Hillary’s dependence on and contribution to the less commonly analyzed myth of beautiful English manhood, charting traces of its curious course in Hillary’s narrative and in narratives about him. My goal is to point to the sexed and gendered terms of Hillary’s active wartime mythologizing and others’ postwar mythologizing of him, not in order to deride them as sources of untruth, but in order to discover within them a volatile, powerful instance of an intermodern ambivalence that, once named and understood, can point us toward more nuanced, less mythical understandings of wartime narratives and mid-century literature.

My quest to understand how Hillary is situated at the junction of the three powerful myths I name above and in relation to London is indebted not only to Calder’s justly famous work on World War II history and myth, but also to Patrick Deane’s anthology of 1930s writings, History in Our Hands, which seeks to revise our understanding of the perhaps equally powerful myth of the 1930s. Deane joins other literary scholars like Samuel Hynes in insisting that “At some level the 1930s was its myths and is unknowable outside of them” (Deane 6), complementing Calder’s belief that the myths of the 1940s entail ‘more than “untrue stories, legends”’ (Calder 9). That “more” can in part be measured in the popularity of The Last Enemy and its enduring influence on everyday stories about the Battle of Britain. Myth is real even as it transcends facts; citing Barthes’s Mythologies, Calder affirms that “myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. … Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them” (qtd. in Calder 3). Hillary’s account of his fall, injuries, and recovery was read by many thousands in relation to their interior or actual visions of the disfiguring scars on his body—scars which were themselves read as the traces of his disintegrating beauty—and lent itself perfectly to the processes of myth-making that Barthes and Calder describe. The book’s autobiographical subject seems to have been purified by fire; his involvement in that particular battle at that particular grievous moment transformed from a fluke of history into an inevitable destiny whose heroic scope seems to take on natural form in Hillary’s uniquely disabled body. This body was created by the RAF’s genius plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe in his “beauty shop,” the burn ward of the Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex; it became a public body when Hillary came to London and managed to interest a publisher in his manuscript about his experiences.

Spitfires and the Beauty Shop
This much is true. In those last weeks of August and first weeks of September 1940, Hillary and the other “flying undergraduates of the Battle of Britain” (Koestler 62) were engaged in a desperate, seemingly futile effort to ward off German Nazi invasion. Stationed at Hornchurch, just twelve miles east of London, Hillary, like the other “long haired” or “Brylcreem” boys of the RAF, spent his days in the skies chasing Messerschmitts and his nights drinking hard at the local pubs. Such nonchalance belies the stakes for London and the nation; at the height of battle, when Churchill asked Hugh Dowding, chief of RAF Fighter Command, how many fighters he had left, Dowding replied, “None, Sir” (Faulks 136).

This much also is true. Like many pilots, Hillary had chosen to fly and fight without wearing his protective gloves and with his goggles perched on his forehead rather than over his eyes. As a result, his face and hands were badly burned, and the doctors at the local Margate hospital where he was first treated followed the traditional though counterproductive procedure of putting gentian violet on his burned eyes and black tannic acid on his burned hands. When Hillary was transferred after a couple of days to the Royal Masonic Hospital in Ravenscourt Park, London, the house surgeon immediately set about anaesthetizing him and removing the tannic acid from his left hand (Ross 135). Soon thereafter he came under McIndoe’s care. McIndoe reversed the treatments of the Margate doctors, replacing the gentian violet on Hillary’s eyes with saline compresses, thereby saving his sight (Ross 135). When Hillary asked McIndoe when he could fly again, McIndoe replied, “The next war for you” (Hillary 137). Then the surgeon moved Hillary to a convalescent home for officers near his hospital in East Grinstead where he began the process of readying Hillary for what would seem an endless series of operations designed to rebuild his eyes and hands. Proximate to London but outside the primary danger zone of the bombings, East Grinstead was the liminal location of Hillary’s physical and mental reconstruction. It was also the location of his first serious literary efforts, the peripheral grounds of his attempt to turn his excruciating experiences into literature.

Literary scholars rarely treat Hillary as a serious writer of World War II, in part because they assume he was too popular to be good. However, Hillary’s literary contemporaries, Storm Jameson, Phyllis Bottome, and Arthur Koestler did support and believe in him as a writer. In 1943, Koestler published an influential essay on Hillary titled “The Birth of a Myth,” in which he describes The Last Enemy as “the most promising book that came out of [Hillary’s] generation” and concludes that “The promise is there, and the fulfillment … would have come. … The professional touch in The Last Enemy is unmistakable. There is a dazzling facility of expression very rare in a first book. It has all the qualities of first-rate reportage — precision, vividity, brilliancy, economy, excitement” (54, 65). Other critics have not been so smitten. Calder is only partially sympathetic to Koestler’s view, describing the memoir as “remarkably mature,” but marred by “moralising” (a fair enough judgement, as I shall demonstrate). Robert Hewison in Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-1945, is less confident, writing that The Last Enemy “has no great literary merit, but it is affecting” (47, italics in original).

It “is affecting” because Hillary describes with ironic detachment the gruesome and unutterably painful process by which McIndoe recreated his eyelids and facial structures out of skin grafts from other parts of his body. What he doesn’t describe is the process by which he turned pain into prose and prose into publication. This story was reserved for Hillary’s editor at Macmillan, R. Lovat Dickson, who published a memoir of Hillary in 1950, seven years after the latter’s death. Here we can read of Hillary’s first contact with a London literary institution, as he traveled by rail from East Grinstead to London to meet Dickson at his office at Macmillan’s. He had made trips into town since his crash, but they were always a trial and were undertaken as a kind of inoculation therapy. McIndoe only prescribed these trips for his patients when he thought they were sufficiently strong enough psychologically to withstand the reactions of “normal” people to their disfigurement. People in East Grinstead had grown accustomed to seeing burn victims. Those in London were not. Even Dickson, who had been forewarned about Hillary’s appearance, found the young man “repulsive.” Recalling his first encounter with Hillary in March 1941, Dickson notes that

The sharp wind had whipped colour into his face, but under the new skin it did not glow: it pressed against the thin surface, as though only the crushed lines of the patches held it on, and a touch, a rough movement, might release it. It looked very painful, and the lidless eyes, which had no protection against the wind, were watering. (115)

Just as Hillary’s looks made him an outcast, a liminal Londoner, so too did his approach toward publishing. Ignoring all protocols, he compounded his offences in Dickson’s eyes by insisting that Dickson listen to him read aloud his work. This was just not done; no London publisher would allow a novice writer to impose in such a way and Dickson urged Hillary to leave the manuscript and await a response. But Hillary persisted, deploying all the remnants of his pre-crash charm, and prevailed. Dickson recounts that

I did not hear him read the first few lines because I was watching his thin skeleton fingers, horribly raw in colour, without nails and permanently bent, gripping the pages … He was shy, and the nervousness underneath his domineering manner made the skin on his face flush, so that all the marks of the burns stood out like weals. … And underneath the bad reading, overcoming the distraction of his burns, were the words of the first chapter of The Last Enemy. (116)

While Dickson literally read The Last Enemy in terms of Hillary’s scarred body, it was Hillary’s unusual beauty prior to his crash — remarked on by every contemporary critic and biographer — that seems to have increased the popularity of his book. The extraordinary attempts by many people on many different levels (medical, psychological, professional) to restore Hillary to his former glory, reveals how the ideal of the modern soldier hero depends not merely on effective action, but on an appearance that belies that action’s violent motives, goals, and effects.[1]

Soldier memoirs almost always contend with the dictates of gender — the powerful force of masculine ideals upon manly and military conduct. Hillary’s memoir is no exception. Despite exposure to the famous poems of the “shell shocked” poet-soldiers of World War I, nothing in Hillary’s reading during his years at Oxford or training as an RAF fighter pilot prepared him for life with disfigurement. Ironically, it was the prospect of escaping disability and stasis that motivated Hillary to join the RAF and train to be a pilot in a single-seat fighter. Anticipating war while a second-year student at Oxford, he argued with a pacifist friend that

In a fighter plane … we have found a way to return to war as it ought to be, war which is individual combat between two people, in which one either kills or is killed. It’s exciting, it’s individual, and it’s disinterested. I shan’t be sitting behind a long-range gun working out how to kill people sixty miles away. I shan’t get maimed: either I shall get killed or I shall get a few pleasant putty medals and enjoy being stared at in a night club. (15)[2]

In this passage, we see Hillary’s modernist irony competing with his romantic sensibility; and in Hillary’s conclusion that knight errantry had returned to England, we see romanticism getting the upper hand. Hillary’s belief that he and his comrades could experience war “as it ought to be,” with the “clean” consequences of either killing or getting killed by the enemy, is only in part a result of his generation’s collective horror at the enforced stasis of World War I trench war fare. It is also an expression of a peculiarly English ideal of masculinity that Hillary found irresistible and that ultimately proved fatal.[3]

Prior to his crash, Hillary was widely acclaimed as an exceptionally mobile, graceful, and beautiful man. All the testimonies of family, friends, and enemies confirm this point. He was popular with them in part because of his physical attractions. Dickson describes him in the first pages of his biography as “an unusually good-looking boy” (39). According to Dickson, prior to his engagement in the Battle of Britain

Richard … took a coolly objective view of life. His good looks, the charm of his personality, and his position in Oxford undergraduate society, combined to intensify his rather hardy self-assurance. (64)

Describing Hillary’s looks after his crash, Dickson’s language gets more florid:

[It] was an effort of self-control not to betray how much his appearance shocked me. That beautiful boy! For his face was still beautiful in line and contour, though hideously patched and discoloured by flesh recently grafted to replace eyelids, part of the nose, and the upper lids. (121)

And again, “[T]he first sight of him brought a pang of the heart. That one so tall and slim and fair, with such arresting eyes, should have suffered mutilation” (142). Dickson and others describe Hillary’s appearance post-crash and reconstruction with marked ambivalence. His face and hands are mutilated but the qualities of being “tall and slim and fair” endure. It is in retrospect that these three qualities come to embody for Dickson and other readers, and most likely Hillary himself, the English ideal of masculine “beauty” — those befitting “a gentil parfit knight,” Chaucer’s phrase that Hillary used to describe a dead RAF comrade, Peter Pease.

In a portrait of Hillary written by Sebastian Faulks more than 40 years after Dickson’s, the more conventional word for masculine attractiveness, “handsome,” appears numerous times. But Faulks also chooses the word “beautiful” to characterize Hillary’s appeal (e.g., his “striking facial beauty”). This may or may not be a self-conscious echo of Hillary’s description of Pease, with whom Hillary seems to have been obsessed. Faulks notes that the French publisher of The Last Enemy assumed that Hillary was in love with Pease but Faulks himself judges that if it was love, it was “certainly pure, or at any rate not physical” (Faulks 128). In the same paragraph, Faulks describes Hillary in an apt phrase as “proudly heterosexual” (128).[4]

Faulks is reluctant to examine the homoerotic dynamic of these two pilots flying on behalf of a modern “round table,” but he is certainly more candid than Dickson about the role of heterosexuality in Hillary’s reputation as a “beautiful” man. Faulks announces with confidence that “[Hillary] became a handsome and sexually precocious youth; he lost his virginity at the age of sixteen, a feat that was the subject of incredulous schoolboy envy” (115). Hillary’s sexual conquests continued as an undergraduate and during his training and service as an RAF fighter pilot. His crash and disfigurement did nothing to alter his sense of entitlement or his identity as a sexually dynamic man even as it destroyed the physical basis of his sexual pride. There was no habit, no aspect of gendered identity that made it “any easier for him to adapt himself to his new circumstances” (Faulks 143). In the words of Faulks, “Even those who did not like him found something poignant in the sight of a man so physically proud rendered so dependent and vulnerable without even a skin to protect him” (Faulks 143).

Faulks, more than Hillary himself, lets us see the extent to which Hillary’s masculine identity was tied up with heterosexual activity and how Hillary (and his contemporaries) interpreted that sexual activity as an appropriate, if not automatic, reward for Hillary’s happy genetic gifts of being “so tall and slim and fair.” That description of English masculinity is still prevalent, making it hard to unpack the constructed nature of Hillary’s late-adolescent beauty or the implications of that beauty for the romanticism of his modernist tale. Of course the loss of that beauty requires Hillary and his readers to examine retrospectively that beauty’s components. What beyond height, narrowness, and fairness made him seem so beautiful before his crash? How and why do writers enshrine Hillary’s particular qualities of masculine beauty as essential and eternal in the extraordinary, stressed cultural moment of the Battle of Britain?

While Dickson, Faulks, Hillary, and Hillary’s friends and lovers certainly wondered about the special qualities that distinguished Hillary as a beautiful man or “boy,” they never came to deconstruct their culture’s notions of masculine beauty. Instead, the writing by and about Hillary, and, crucially, visual images of him, have more typically led to reaffirmations of the myth of beauty as a natural, instead of constructed, quality. Hillary, like his friends and supporters, continued to depend on an ideal of beauty as an essential quality of his gendered identity. This led him to seek in women’s glances and arms affirmation of his masculine self even after the crash had made him unattractive. Another way of putting this is to say that despite Hillary’s goals of living and writing and ultimately flying again for the sake of his dead male comrades, his popularity as a personality and a writer depended as much as ever on a gendered ideal of beauty that was inextricably tied up with heterosexual activity. Getting women to go to bed with him came to be seen by Hillary and his friends and biographers as confirmation and reward for his popularity. Popularity itself was a confirmation and reward for a supposedly essential quality of masculine beauty. Put simply, first beauty, then popularity, then (hetero)sexuality. The sequence was (and still is) assumed to be automatic, natural, inevitable.[5]

Hillary’s pre-crash identity was altered for better or worse with his immersion in RAF training courses. Being a member of the RAF complemented or completed his pre-pilot, Oxford identity as a beautiful, popular, sexual university man. In other words, masculine ideals of grace and bravery in military action only intensified the power of the masculine ideal of beauty as a source of Hillary’s popularity with men and women. Perhaps the crucial, perfecting quality was his access to unparalleled, unprecedented mobility. Though a commissioned officer in a military service and subject to its rules and codes, flying granted pilots almost absolute freedom of movement and near-total autonomy once in the air. Certainly the pilot came to symbolize the ideal of masculine mobility for the British populace. The sources of such symbolism include memoirs like Hillary’s. The ideal of freedom within authority is represented by Hillary’s description of his reaction to the massed German fighters. He recalls “going automatically into line astern; the next moment we were in among them and it was every man for himself” (Hillary 2). “Line astern” is air force protocol, the words symbolizing military discipline and authority; the words “every man for himself” need no explication.[6]

Hillary’s descriptions of the sensations and challenges of flying are justly famous. Some of them are almost rapturous. The burns that destroyed his mythical masculine beauty also destroyed his ability to fly, radically limiting his mobility. When Hillary was in the hospital recovering from burns and later, surgeries, he epitomized the static, corpse-like, ugly man. How could he construct a new identity out of the ruins of the old? Who was he, now? This is the mystery that Hillary grappled with in The Last Enemy and that determined the reception status of the text itself.

A Mythical Reformation
After McIndoe had saved Hillary’s vision and reconstructed his face, Hillary could move about as other men on land, but his hands were claw-like, the fingers curved down into the palms. Devices like little tennis rackets were strapped to them in order to try to extend the muscles, but these were uncomfortable and of dubious value. Hillary could hold a pen, which is the reason we have The Last Enemy, but he could not very easily maneuver a stick or push buttons or release straps. This means he could not fly. That he was eventually able to persuade or bully his doctors and various RAF authorities into letting him back into a plane and active service remains one of the mysteries surrounding his death.[8]

This discussion of Hillary’s loss of masculine beauty and mobility comments on a larger cultural ideal of the mobile, airborne RAF pilot, defending London during the Battle of Britain, and the cultural nightmare of the immobile veteran, hidden in hospitals just outside the range of the Blitz. Hillary’s raffish demeanor, insouciance, and carelessness combined with his height, shape, eyes, hair, and smile came for many to define the masculine difference of the hero pilots of the Battle of Britain. Yet Hillary and other fighter pilots refused the language of heroism through which the media tried to organize the public’s reaction to these masculine qualities. In The Last Enemy Hillary confronts his readers with his contempt for the conventional terms they must have been prepared to recognize him by. He writes that after his crash “I could not explain [to admiring civilians] that I had not been injured in their war, that no thoughts of ‘our island fortress’ or of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ had bolstered me up when going into combat” (Hillary 166). Actively mocking the politicians or news reporters’ romantic language of sacrifice and patriotism, Hillary claims that pilots sought to avoid the popularity with the people of “the people’s war,” setting themselves off from the public that acclaimed them with an exclusive jargon of radical understatement.

During the dark months of recovery in hospitals and rest houses, Hillary had struggled to figure out what his survival meant, who he was or could be without beauty, grace, or mobility. In his book, he dwells on these questions of identity, and finally answers them with an epiphany inspired by his efforts to dig out a dead child and dying mother from a Blitzed London home. With this ending, he rejects the defiant, individualist attitude that had made him so attractive as a historical and symbolic personality — the attitude that “The world is my oyster and to hell with the rest” (Hillary 177). Hillary represents himself in a moment of revelation and conversion, determining to redeem what now seems to him a meaningless, wasteful, egocentric life by writing of and for and with his dead comrades. Just as important, he represents himself as deciding to write to Humanity, the ordinary, bumbling, “cow eyed” Humanity that had always aroused his contempt. Adopting the character of the reformed Oxford rake, Hillary wants his book to justify “in some measure” his right to fellowship with those who “with courage and steadfastness … will go on fighting until the ideals for which their comrades died were stamped for ever on the future of civilization” (178).

These are the last words of the memoir and they rival any stirring, sentimental phrases politicians or propagandists might have constructed about an island fortress or the fight to make our world safe for democracy. They are also the words that support Calder’s criticism of Hillary’s “rhetorical excess.” (Calder 158). Calder admits that the scene with the woman in the Blitzed house is “well handled and very moving” (i.e., it “is affecting”), but goes on to say that “its effect is spoilt by the remaining pages of the book” (Calder 157). Calder does not mention that Hillary never had the epiphany about Humanity that he records at the end of The Last Enemy and never experienced the episode in the London ruins that supposedly inspired it.[9] How would his reading of Hillary’s memoir have changed had he known this? One would think that from the point of view of the historian of wartime myth making, Hillary’s invented conclusion couldn’t be more fortunate because it shows how he deliberately constructed for readers the ending he wanted, rather than anything he’d experienced. He thus provides critics with a perfect mythological moment, one which wrenches the narrative out of any possible or imagined contingency back into static, naturalized formations. For in this scene the proudly mobile, arrogant, unbound, heterosexual Hillary is isolated with a mother and child, establishing the triangular shape that is, in painting or narrative, almost impervious to historical nuance, most associated with traditional myths. The scene’s insistence on difference — that the mother/Madonna is ugly, wounded and dying, the child dead, and the man disfigured and ineffectual (his broken hands have been scrabbling almost helplessly against the rubble) — comes to mean much less than the familiar structure of the figural arrangement itself. This triangle echoes the stable triangle of myth that Hillary is skillfully uniting in this scene. The “heap of bricks and mortar, wooden beams and doors, and one framed picture” (171) calls up the mythical Blitzed London, “taking it.” The “tired, blood-streaked, work-worn face” of the dying woman who sips Hillary’s brandy, lifts her eyes to his and says “Thank you, sir. . . I see they got you too” while grasping his misshapen hand in hers, also partakes powerfully in the myth of the London Blitz. She is the sturdy working-class Cockney whose near-rescue demonstrates the unity of the city and the nation under new rules of social relationship. The figure of Hillary himself represents the myth of the Battle of Britain, a shadow conflict called up as a parallel to the London Blitz not only by the identification of the injured woman with Hillary, the fallen woman with the fallen pilot, but through Hillary’s comment during the bombardment, “God! what a stupid waste if I were to die now” (170). And finally, the third myth of masculinity powerfully shapes the scene through Hillary’s role as rescuer, admittedly of imperfect strength and beauty, but still recognizable as the hero until he escapes the scene in a “frenzy” of disgust and terror and fear, cursing the pathetic woman for her vision of herself in him. This flight from cross-class, cross-sex identification is a flight into the myth of masculinity. Hillary’s fictionalized account of his fury of gendered confusion leads to the last pages of the memoir in which he represents himself confronting and renouncing his past arrogance and adapting in its place a new, mythic sympathy for Humanity. In other words, he is again reborn, this time not through fire or isolated survival on the cold seas, but through social immersion and interpenetration of a kind only made possible in the mythical London of the Blitz. Not surprisingly, the book cannot continue in this register. Its commitment to a traditional myth of beautiful English masculinity simply cannot accommodate this new, feminized Hillary. The logic of the narrative requires that it either end here or be reconsolidated in the name of a impervious masculinity of a military band of brothers. In fact, The Last Enemy does both.

At the beginning of this article I described Hillary’s narrative as a powerful instance of intermodern ambivalence that has the potential to point us toward more complex, less mythical understandings of mid-century literature. Elsewhere, I define intermodernism and identify Hillary as an exemplary intermodernist;[10] here I want to suggest that it is the quality of oscillation, the constant implied movement of Hillary’s narrative between “before” and “after” images and experiences, that makes Hillary’s narrative such a characteristic text of intermodern London. His narrative ambivalently contests as it contributes to the ideal of the RAF fighter pilot, savior of the nation he yet despises, elite, aloof, aloft, and lovely, but only realized as such from his position on the ground, immobile, disfigured. Such ambivalence extends to the generic form of the book. It is a memoir that is also a novel, fact that is equally fiction, and history that is also myth. The Last Enemy demands that we join Hillary in attempting to negotiate between contrary identities and forms, understanding in our reading between genres the space of intermodern London that made it all possible. For Hillary’s imagined site of spiritual reformation, London, was the real site of his professional transformation into a writer. It is also the place where the three myths that so efficiently structured The Last Enemy — the myth of the Battle of Britain, the myth of the Blitz, and the myth of the beautiful Englishman — gained enough material support to win for the book a rapturous reception by common readers. These readers recognized and valued what scholars discounted: that the memoir “is affecting.” With this issue of Literary London focusing on intermodern London, it is possible to begin to analyze the sources and meaning of that affect, to turn myth into intellectual inquiry.


[1] Anecdotal support for this claim can be found in the successful efforts of governmental officials, both US and British, to block Hillary’s public speaking tour in the U.S. in 1941, prior to the Americans’ entry into the war. He was restricted to radio because these officials felt young American men and their mothers would be more horrified than inspired upon seeing the real form of the male body after it had engaged in the idealized masculine activity of combat. See Ross 211-12.

[2] Faulks judges that war “had become exactly what he had hoped: exciting, individual and disinterested. Up in the air the pilots were as selfishly engaged and motivated, as free from discipline, as it was possible for a fighting force to be. They accepted the concomitant risk not much without qualm as without thought. There was the possibility of fighting in a way that protected your friends but also gave you room for the most extreme form of self-expression” (133).

[3] That others besides Hillary found this masculine ideal fatally irresistible is evident from the fact that British authorities allowed Hillary back into a plane in November 1942 when he was unfit to fly. One medical officer’s comment about the injury to his self esteem were he denied a chance to fly again implies that there was something at stake for all these men that transcended common (or military) sense. See Faulks 179-84.

[4] Faulks’s belief in Hillary’s proud heterosexuality may be less stable than would appear at first glance given his sandwiching of his chapter on Hillary between two chapters on beautiful men, one of whom, Jeremy Wolfenden, was notoriously homosexual. The first chapter on Christopher Wood begins, “One day in the spring of 1921 a beautiful young Englishman set off for Paris” (3). Thanks to Nick Hubble for pointing out how the structure of Faulks’s book impacts its representation of Hillary’s sexuality.

[5] We see evidence of the power of this mythic, naturalized chain of associations at work in the following passage from a biography of Alexander Korda’s wife, the film star Merle Oberon, with whom Hillary had a passionate affair during his stay in New York in 1941:

[Merle] wanted to give Hillary back a sense of his lost manhood; that he could still be attractive to a woman of great allure. She knew that by reawakening his dampened and suppressed sexual fires she could give him back his virility and self-confidence. …
One day at the Hotel Sherry-Netherland, Merle drew Tessa [her publicist] aside and instructed her to clear away all appointments, everything, even war work, for two full weeks, which she could devote to Hillary utterly. Alex [Korda] was in England, but there must be no gossip and Tessa in her role of press agent must make absolutely sure that not a soul among the columnists and gossip-mongers obtained even a hint of what she was planning. …
Merle spent nights with Hillary at a hideaway apartment in the Ritz Towers. From what she said later to Tessa, it is clear that she restored Hillary’s virility. (qtd. in Ross 218-19)

[6] Struggling to identify what “particular quality” adhered to the Royal Air Force, Hillary reflected in a letter of 5 June 1942 to Mary Booker that “To say that it is an ethereal quality is both whimsical and untrue, yet I can think of no better word. … Perhaps in the end it is this. Any human being lies closer to the unseen than any organization, but as an organization the Air Force leaves more scope for the human being as such than any other” (Koestler 56).

[7] Koestler neatly summarizes what Hillary’s winter 1942 letters document: he couldn’t work the brake of the heavy twin-engined Blenheim on which he was training; he couldn’t release the plane’s undercarriage, he couldn’t always fasten the seatbelts, his lidless eyes sometimes misread the altimeter, flying gave him splitting headaches, altitude made him sick, taxiing the aircraft in heavy winter gales tore the skin off his burned hands (57).

[8] The unknown cause of the failure of Hillary’s plane and his and his radio operator’s fiery deaths retrospectively contributed to the popular reception of Hillary’s life story. In the words of Faulks “If Hillary’s life fitted the high cultural patterns these writers [Auden, Eliot, Pound] had created, his death appealed to a more popular taste: the mystery story” (200). According to Ross, his death will remain a mystery because the dense fog above Charterhall on the night of the crash prevented any witnesses on land from seeing what was going on in the skies immediately prior to the crash. Ross speculates that Hillary’s friend and fellow RAF pilot Sgt. W. H. “Andy” Miller is correct in believing that Hillary’s plane probably experienced icing, then stalled, and quickly went into a spin dive. Miller participated in the same training exercise that killed Hillary, used the same kind of plane, and narrowly missed a crash due to icing. See Ross 328-33.

[9] See Faulks for references to Hillary’s correspondence documenting his decision to invent the ending to The Last Enemy.

[10] Please see my introduction, “What Is Intermodernism?” in the forthcoming Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain. There I discuss the implications of Hillary, an Australian, fulfilling English ideals.

Works Cited

Bluemel, Kristin, ed. Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP (forthcoming).

Calder, Angus. The Myth of the Blitz. London: Jonathan Cape, 1991.

Deane, Patrick, ed. History in Our Hands: A Critical Anthology of Writings in Literature, Culture and Politics from the 1930s. London and New York: Leicester UP, 1998.

Dickson, Lovat. Richard Hillary. London: Macmillan, 1950.

Faulks, Sebastian. The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Hewison, Robert. Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Hillary, Richard. The Last Enemy. 1942. Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books, 1997.

Koestler, Arthur. “In Memory of Richard Hillary.” 1943. The Yogi and the Commissar. New York: Macmillan, 1965. 51-70.

Ross, David. Richard Hillary: The Definitive Biography of a Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot and Author of The Last Enemy. 2000. London: Grub Street, 2003.

To Cite This Article:

Kristin Bluemel, ‘The Making of a Londoner: Richard Hillary and the Myths of War’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]