Fleming, Ian Lancaster 1908-1964, writer, was born in London 28 May 1908, the second of the four sons of Valentine Fleming, who became Conservative member of Parliament for South Oxfordshire in 1910 and was killed in France in 1917, when he was posthumously appointed to the DSO. His mother was Evelyn Beatrice Ste. Croix, daughter of George Alfred Ste. Croix Rose, JP, of the Red House, Sonning, Berkshire. She was ambitious for her sons and her dominant personality was perhaps in some part responsible for Ian Fleming's early lack of confidence. Peter Fleming, the traveller and writer, was his elder, Richard Fleming, merchant banker, a younger, brother. Ian Fleming was educated at Eton where he was overshadowed by Peter's brilliance but proved an outstanding athlete, becoming victor ludorum two years in succession, a feat only once equalled. By the wish of his mother he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, but he withdrew in the following year and continued his education privately in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
Having failed to enter the Foreign Office in 1931, he joined Reuters news agency and in 1933 reported the historic trial in Moscow of some British engineers on charges of espionage and sabotage, an experience he was not to forget. Between 1933 and 1939 he worked successively as a banker and a stockbroker in the City of London. Throughout the war he held a key position in the Naval Intelligence Division in Whitehall as personal assistant to the director of naval intelligence, rising to the rank of commander. His particular interest was the organization of 30 Assault Unit dedicated to the task of seizing material of value to intelligence. Soon after demobilization he became foreign manager of the Kemsley group of newspapers, and continued to hold the post after Roy Thomson (later Lord Thomson of Fleet) acquired the concern, resigning finally at the end of 1959. For the last years of his life he worked only as a writer. In 1952 he had married Anne Geraldine Mary, eldest daughter of the Hon. Guy Lawrence Charteris, son of the eleventh Earl of Wemyss, and divorced wife of the second Viscount Rothermere. The Flemings' only child, a son, was born in that year.
The wedding had taken place in Jamaica, where Fleming had built a house in 1946, and where it was to become his habit to spend the winter months working on the successive adventures of his famous creation, the secret agent James Bond (007). Beginning with Casino Royale in 1953, one of these books appeared every year until 1966. The success of the series, though immediate, was not overwhelming until the publication in 1958 of Dr. No, the first of his books to be filmed. Thereafter his economic position and his worldwide fame were assured.
On the publication of Casino Royale it was apparent to many that a remarkable new writer had arrived on the scene, in the tradition of Buchan [qv.], Dornford Yates [qv.], and Sapper [qv.], although at that stage almost certainly more promising than any of these had been. Original in construction, the book contained many of the elements which were to become Fleming's hallmark: evident familiarity with secret-service activities (not least those of his country's enemies), portrayal of the kind of rich life to be found in exclusive clubs, smart restaurants, and fashionable resorts, obsessive interest in machines and gadgets and in gambling, an exotic setting, a formidable and physically repulsive villain, a strong sexual component, a glamorous and complaisant but affectionate heroine, and—of course—James Bond himself. Bond, at any rate on the surface, was a carefully constructed amalgam of what many men would like to be—and of what perhaps rather fewer women would like to meet: handsome, elegant, brave, tough, at ease in expensive surroundings, predatory and yet chivalrous in sexual dealings, with a touch of Byronic melancholy and remoteness thrown in.
Some would say that Fleming never surpassed, perhaps never quite equalled, his achievement in Casino Royale. Certainly there is a power and freshness about the book which in an age less rigidly hierarchical in its attitudes to literature, would have caused it to be hailed as one of the most remarkable first novels to be published in England in the previous thirty years. Yet, as the series continued, the author extended and deepened his range, attaining a new pitch of ingenuity and technological inventiveness while discovering in himself a gift for descriptions of landscape and of wild life, in particular birds and sea-creatures, pushing out in the direction of a more audacious fantasy, as in Goldfinger (1959), and also towards a greater realism, as in The Spy Who Loved Me (1962). In You Only Live Twice (1964) he produced a striking synthesis of these two impulses, though in narrative and other respects the book was unsatisfactory; and the last volume, The Man with the Golden Gun, published in 1965 after his death and written when his health had already begun to fail, was sadly the weakest of the series: it never received his final revision. It was during convalescence from a heart attack that he began to write the children's stories Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang which were later to be filmed.
It is arguable that Dr. No is at least as absorbing and memorable as any of the other books, with its unrelaxed tension, its terrifying house of evil, and the savage beauty of its main setting on a Caribbean island, a locale which Fleming made part of himself and which always excited his pen to produce some of his best writing. But one cannot forget Moonraker (1955) for the vivid, rounded depiction of its villain, Hugo Drax, and what is probably the most gripping game of cards in the whole of literature, nor On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) for its idyllic seaside opening and the vigour of its skiing scenes. Indeed, there is hardly a page in all the 3,000 and more of the saga that does not testify to Fleming's ability to realize a unique personal world with its own rules and its own unmistakable atmosphere. His style is plain and flexible, serving equally well for fast action, lucid technical exposition, and sensuous evocation of place and climate; if it falls here and there into cliché or the language of the novelette, it never descends to pretentiousness. The strength of his work lies in its command of pace and its profound latent romanticism.
Fleming travelled widely from an early age and his interest in foreign places is reflected in his journalism, of which two volumes are collected, as well as in his fiction. His pursuits included motoring, golf, bridge, and underwater swimming, but his reading and his cultural interests generally were wider and deeper than might be thought common in writers of his stamp. He acquired an unusual collection of first editions of books which marked milestones of human progress. His friendships were many and enduring. He was humble about his work and, though totally professional in his approach to his task, did not take himself seriously as a literary figure, perhaps to the detriment of his standing in critical circles.
He died in Canterbury 12 August 1964 less than a month after the death of his mother. A portrait of him by Amherst Villiers was reproduced in the limited, signed edition of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Fleming's own writings
John Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming, 1966
Burke's Landed Gentry.
Contributor: Kingsley Amis