Ian Fleming’s Masterpiece: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

In January of 1962 Ian Fleming began work on his 11th James Bond book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The previous year, Fleming had successfully sold the film rights to his novels to EON who would begin production on their first Bond film Dr. No starring Sean Connery in Jamaica not far from Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming had anticipated the commercial failure of his previous Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me (an experiment that entailed Fleming writing the entire novel in the first person from a female perspective), and decided to return Bond to his roots with this latest effort.  Indeed, Bond begins the novel at the French seaside Casino resort Royale –les-Eaux, which served as the setting for the very first Bond novel, Casino Royale.  Here, Bond encounters a woman about to commit suicide.  He had previously saved her from disgrace at the casino where she nearly welched on a bet at the Chemin De Fer table until Bond nobly stepped in to cover her debt.  Now, he found himself by the shore preventing Tracy from drowning herself only to be captured and taken hostage by mysterious men who had been following the two of them all along. From the very beginning of the novel, Fleming re-positions this latest Bond adventure using some of the very elements that had made Bond successful in the first place.  There’s a gambling scene, a woman, and the presence of danger – all the elements that had made the earlier Bond novels such successful thrillers. While on the surface it may appear as if Fleming was playing it safe to recover from the commercial failure of The Spy Who Loved Me “experiment,” as one reads the novel, it soon becomes clear that for this adventure Fleming’s inspiration had been renewed.  While all the familiar elements of Bond would be present, Fleming found new ways to take risks and thrill readers once again with his fictional hero.

Richard Chopping's original dust jacket artwork

Richard Chopping’s original dust jacket artwork

Fleming weaves together an intriguing plot for Bond to navigate through for this adventure.  Ernst Stavro Blofeld had been introduced in Thunderball as the mastermind of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), an independent criminal organization with no specific state sponsored alliance comprised of previous members of SMERSH, the Italian mafia, the Gestapo, and the Chinese Tongs.  The organization had previously attempted to hold the western powers to ransom by stealing a couple of atomic missiles until Bond thwarted their plans in Operation Thunderball. Since then, Bond had been charged with pursuing any leads to SPECTRE and specifically with bringing in its leader, Blofeld. Bond begins the novel frustrated with his assignment to the point where he contemplates resigning from the British Secret Service altogether.  It then that he encounters Tracy and becomes transfixed on her after she had daringly driven passed Bond in her vehicle.  The attraction to Tracy is instantaneous, however, he soon finds that she is connected to one of the most dangerous French criminals.  She turns out to be the daughter of Marc-Ange Draco, a capu in the French criminal organization, the Union Corse. It was his men who captured Bond near the shore at the beginning of the novel.

Draco explains his actions to Bond as resulting from concern over his daughter. He genuinely extends his hand to Bond in friendship and implores Bond to marry Tracy so that Tracy might have a man to look after her.  This obviously sounds fairly politically incorrect for today, but Draco details Tracy’s story as a heartbreaking tale explaining why his daughter had become prone to depression and attempts at suicide.  Tracy’s mother had been dead for ten years, and Draco had sent his daughter to Switzerland to finish her education where she soon fell in with the wrong crowd becoming prone to “scrapes and scandals.” Draco continues,

 “ … as I now see it, the worm of self-destruction had somehow got hold inside her and, behind the wild, playgirl facade, was eating away what I can only describe as her soul . . . You know that this can happen, my friend, to men and to women.  They burn the heart out of themselves by living too greedily, and suddenly they examine their lives and see that they are worthless.  They have had everything, eaten all the sweets of life at one great banquet, and there is nothing left.  . .  She went off without telling me, and married, perhaps with the idea of settling down. But the man, a worthless Italian called Vincenzo, Count Julio Vincenzo, took as much of her money as he could lay his hands on and deserted her, leaving her with a girl child. . . And then, my friend, six months ago the baby died – died of that most terrible of all children’s ailments, spinal meningitis.”

This explains the self-destructive pattern that Bond had observed in Tracy before.  One can imagine that if Fleming had continued his “experiment” from The Spy Who Loved Me that there might be enough in Tracy’s woeful tale for Fleming to have tried to construct the novel from her point of view.  There is no evidence that Fleming ever considered this, and everything we do learn about Tracy is usually from either the perspective of her father, Bond, or the narrator.  For that reason, Tracy is a bit elusive as a character.  We certainly can ascertain much of her personality from the events of the book, but compared to other women in the Bond series she’s more intangible.

Despite Draco’s generous offers, Bond initially declines to marry Tracy. Instead, he offers to briefly look after her before going off to his next destination.  In exchange, however, Draco gives Bond some vital information regarding the whereabouts of Blofeld.  Bond learns that Blofeld is in Switzerland, and further investigation concludes that Blofeld had been in contact with the College of Arms investigating his claim to a title of nobility.  This is where Fleming’s research into the subject of heraldry and genealogy comes into play and where Fleming gives Blofeld his Achilles heel.   As far back as 1960, Fleming had commissioned Robin de La Lanne-Mirrlees from the actual College of Arms to investigate possible family background origins for both Bond and Blofeld to include in a novel.  Before Sean Connery was ever considered for the role of James Bond, Fleming had been inclined to find a way to incorporate a Scottish origin for Bond.  While Mirrlees failed to find an appropriate real life Scottish bloodline for Bond, he did find a family motto that Fleming would use for Bond that happened to fit the very credo of the character, “The World is Not Enough.” For Blofeld, Mirrlees found several variations of the name and suggested that a physical trait be used by Fleming as a marker to identify the link to his ancestry, which became the lack of earlobes.

Bond therefore goes undercover as a representative from the College of Arms to supposedly help Blofeld validate his claim to the title of Count.   The pretense used to arrange his meeting with Blofeld would be that the representative, a Sir Hilary Bray, needed visual confirmation of this physical characteristic in Blofeld in order for the research to continue.  Essentially, Bond appeals to Blofeld’s vanity, which is a theme that continues throughout the book.  The object is to convince Blofeld to leave his hideout in the Swiss Alps on the pretense of validating his claim to a noble title so that he can be apprehended somewhere where the British Secret Service could get to him.

For the setting of Blofeld’s stronghold, Fleming introduces us to the remote location of Piz Gloria, which was in fact an amalgam of various locations including the Sphinx Observatory at Jungfraugoch, Kitzbuhel in Austria, and Schloss Mittersill, a sports resort located in the Alps near St. Moritz where Fleming had previously gone skiing on family holidays.  Fleming actually based one of the most memorable sequences in the book, Bond’s escape from Piz Gloria skiing away from an avalanche, upon his own experience when he had once gone down a slope in Kitzbuhel that had been closed due to possibility of an avalanche.

Bond is able to fool Blofeld by appealing to Blofeld’s vanity regarding his ancestry long enough to scope out part of Blofeld’s plot.   This is where suspension of disbelief is needed.  Blofeld happens to have gathered a group of simple women under the guise of scientific research to cure their allergies.  In reality, Blofeld wants to conduct biological warfare by hypnotizing these women into poisoning England’s agriculture.  Blofeld’s plot isn’t sussed out until after Bond’s daring escape, but it is perhaps the one part of the novel that seems far-fetched although Fleming does attempt to ground it in reality despite the fantastical nature of the villain’s scheme.

Fleming takes a bold leap with Bond in this novel, however, by giving Bond the genuine desire to settle down and marry Tracy once he’s reunited with her.  Tracy saves Bond’s life by helping Bond get away from Blofeld’s men after Bond had just narrowly escaped the avalanche at Piz Gloria. With Blofeld’s men on his tail, it would have been only a matter of time until Bond would have been discovered if it wasn’t for Tracy helping to disguise Bond and drive him away from danger in her vehicle.  This is one occasion where the Bond girl gets to do more than just be a damsel in distress.  It is Tracy who drives the getaway vehicle and Tracy who risks her own life to get Bond to safety.  In a move considered daring for a Bond story, Bond proposes marriage to Tracy:

“Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I’ll never find another girl like this one.  She’s got everything I’ve looked for in a woman, She’s beautiful, in bed and out.  She’s adventurous, brave, resourceful.  She’s exciting always.  She seems to love me.  . . . Above all, she needs me.  It’ll be someone for me to look after.  I’m fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with bad conscience.  I wouldn’t mind having children. . . We’re two of a pair, really.  Why not make it for always? . . . Bond found his voice saying those words that he had never said in his life before, never expected to say. ‘Tracy. I love you. Will you marry me?’”

It’s curious that the line about “untidy, casual affairs” recalls the words of Vivienne Michel in the very first paragraph of The Spy Who Loved Me.  Had Fleming decided to give Bond a touch of femininity? Perhaps the mindset of the character that Fleming explored in Vivienne Michel was a mindset that Fleming had desired to instill in Bond. Like Vivienne Michel, Bond had indeed become unsatisfied with his love life and now desired something more solid, a real partner for life.  This he found in Tracy.

Before taking the plunge into marriage, Bond was determined to capture Blofeld.  He visits Draco asking for his help in the matter as well as for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Draco assembles his men to help Bond invade Piz Gloria by helicopter.  Fleming actually avoids giving many details of the actual fight between Draco’s men and Blofeld’s henchmen and instead gives the readers the final thrill of Bond’s pursuit of Blofeld down a dangerous bobsled run.  The climax is very thrilling and the fact that Blofeld gets away as the resort of Piz Gloria explodes in the background lends eeriness to the prospect of Bond’s wedding.  The ending of the novel is undoubtedly the most haunting of all of Fleming’s books.  Tracy gets shot by Blofeld and his henchwoman, Irma Bunt, shortly after the banquet while driving herself and Bond to their honeymoon.  Heartbroken, Bond could only respond by telling the young man who approached them:

“’It’s all right.’ He said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child.  ‘It’s quite all right.  She’s having a rest.  We’ll be going on soon.  There’s no hurry.  You see’ – Bond’s head sank down against hers and he whispered into her hair – ‘you see, we’ve got all the time in the world.’”

Fleming captured the totality of Bond’s heartbreak with that final sentiment.  It could be interpreted in various ways, but I think the meaning I get from it is that Bond knows his fate as a loner is sealed.  The brief interlude with Tracy and the notion that he could have a family life had been a fantasy that he desperately clung to.  In her final moments, he did not want to let Tracy go.  He wanted that life that he imagined he’d have with her and he knows that the moment these first responders burst in and take her, their life together will be gone.  It’s probably the most poignant and emotional moment in the entire series.

Fleming later went on to say, “Well, James Bond couldn’t really be married.  I can’t have him settling down.  His wife would be irritated with his constantly going abroad, she’d want to change his way of life, his friends, and Bond would worry about the measles epidemic back home and his own faithfulness and – no it can’t be done.”

Only for a brief time, Fleming let Bond do what he would seemingly never do – marry a woman he loves.  Much is said about the character of Tracy being inspired by Fleming’s girlfriend during the war, Muriel Wright.  Wright, a naval dispatch rider and air warden, had been involved with Fleming in a long relationship.  By most accounts Fleming treated her poorly seeing other women, which had bothered her family.  Muriel Wright was killed in an air raid in March of 1944.  It was Ian Fleming who would later identify her body, an experience that seems to have echoed in the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Muriel Wright

Muriel Wright

I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading the Fleming novels that they read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  While the resulting film of the same name is very faithful to the book in spirit, the novel provides its own very thrilling experience from beginning to end.  The artistry of Ian Fleming is on full display here and I believe that it stands alongside Casino Royale and From Russia with Love as among Fleming’s best work.   The word “masterpiece” has a tendency to be overused today, but I believe the word most definitely applies to Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Here’s the ending of the 1969 film from youtube for anyone who wants to view it:

Sources

  1. Fleming, Ian On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Jonathan Cape, 1963
  2. Helfenstein, Charles The Making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Spies LLC, 2009
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Her_Majesty%27s_Secret_Service_%28novel%29
  4. http://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/muriel-wright-ian-fleming-james-bond-girls
  5. http://spartacus-educational.com/2WWwrightM2.htm
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