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Ian Fleming is best known as the creator of James Bond (Agent 007), a character that spurred the development of the spy-thriller genre in fiction. He was also, however, a journalist, financier, and collector of rare books, who during World War II served as the aide to the British director of naval intelligence.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Father Killed in Action
Ian Lancaster Fleming was born on May 28, 1908, in the Mayfair district of London. He was the second son of Valentine Fleming and Evelyn Beatrice Ste. Croix Rose. Fleming’s father was a wealthy investment banker in the firm of Robert Fleming and Company, which had been founded by Fleming’s grandfather. When Fleming was nine years old, his father was killed in action in World War I.
By Valentine Fleming’s will, Evelyn Fleming was given control of the income from her husband’s fortune as long as she lived and did not remarry. For Fleming, this stipulation meant that he would receive no money from his father’s estate unless his mother agreed, and this arrangement would continue even after Fleming reached adulthood. He was, therefore, obliged to conform to her wishes until he was able to achieve financial independence.
Tumultuous School Days
Fleming began his education in 1916 at Durnford School on the Isle of Purbeck. The cult of physical toughness received greater emphasis at Durnford than did academic studies, reinforcing Fleming’s lack of interest in scholarly pursuits. Fleming’s lackluster academic career continued after he went on to Eton in 1921. There, despite a stellar performance in individual sporting events, he had difficulty in yielding to authority and refused to follow the rules set by his housemaster. In 1926, disappointed with his poor academic performance, his mother removed him from Eton so that he could prepare at a special tutorial college for the entrance examination at the Royal Military College (now the Royal Military Academy) at Sandhurst in preparation for a career as an officer in the army.
Fleming never adjusted to the requirements of military discipline, and his habit of leaving the grounds without permission to meet women in town did not bode well for a career in the military. He contracted gonorrhea before completing his training course and left school to recuperate. Pressured by his mother, who feared that the truth of his illness would come out and bring shame to the family, he submitted his resignation to become effective September 1, 1927. After leaving Sandhurst he attended Tennerhof, an experimental private school in the Austrian Alps. There he read widely, traveled around Europe, studied languages, took up skiing and mountain-climbing, and continued his active pursuit of amorous adventures.
A Foray into Journalism
Fleming also spent some of his time preparing for the Foreign Office examination, which he took in 1931. He ranked twenty-fifth of the sixty-two who sat for the rigorous examination, not nearly high enough for any of the three positions available. Through his mother’s influence he obtained an interview with Sir Roderick Jones of the Reuters news agency. Fleming impressed Jones with his language abilities, wide-ranging knowledge, and manner, and Jones hired him on a trial basis at a salary of 300 pounds per year. Fleming reluctantly moved in with his mother at her Chelsea home until he could make enough money to live on his own.
Fleming did well at Reuters, and after more than a year of routine editing and reporting, he was sent to Moscow in April 1933 to cover the trial of six British engineers working in the Soviet Union who were being tried for sabotage, espionage, and bribery. Fleming knew enough Russian to communicate effectively with Moscow residents, and he was excited by the trial. He set up elaborate preparations to scoop the opposition when the verdict came in but was beaten out by twenty minutes.
A Career in Finance
When Fleming returned to England, Reuters offered him a position as assistant to the bureau chief in Shanghai at an annual salary of eight hundred pounds. Although it was a significant increase and he liked the excitement of the life of a foreign correspondent, he needed still more money to live in the style he enjoyed. When his grandfather Robert Fleming had died earlier that year, Fleming had not been provided for in the will. Fleming decided to follow his mother’s advice to seek a more lucrative career in the London financial world. Through the combined influence of his mother and his mistress, Maud Russell, he found a position with Cull and Company, a merchant banking firm. Fleming hoped to be made partner of the firm when Maud’s husband, Gilbert, retired, but two years later, Gilbert Russell postponed retirement indefinitely. In June 1935, Fleming moved to the brokerage firm Rowe and Pitman as a junior partner with an income that promised to be more than two thousand pounds a year.
In early 1937, Fleming moved out of his mother’s Chelsea home and into an unusual flat in a converted Baptist chapel constructed in 1830. He began to entertain frequently, particularly a group of friends to which he gave the title Le Cercle gastronomique et des jeux de hasard. He also began to collect books, encasing them in expensive black boxes with which he lined the windowless walls of the converted nave that served as his living room.
With the outbreak of World War II, Fleming obtained a position in the naval intelligence division, rising to the rank of commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the rank that he eventually assigned to James Bond. The life that he lived and some of the people he met during the war would find their way into his novels. For example, Fleming once attempted to take the money of some German agents in a card game just as Bond did with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale; where Fleming failed, however, Bond succeeded. When in 1941 Fleming accompanied Admiral John Godfrey, the director of naval intelligence, to the United States to establish relations with American intelligence services, he was allowed to take part in a clandestine operation against a Japanese cipher expert. Fleming later embellished this story as well and used it in Casino Royale. Critics have been tempted to see Bond as the personification of his creator. They do have certain interests in common, such as gambling, sports, and cars, but Fleming maintained that Bond is simply the incarnation of his own adolescent fantasies.
Among the places Fleming visited during the war was Jamaica, and at the end of the war he purchased shoreline property there, built a house, and named the estate “Goldeneye.” Although Fleming returned to journalism after the war, serving as foreign manager of the Kelmsley group of newspapers, it was at Goldeneye that he began to work on the James Bond novels. It was these works that finally gave him the financial independence he had so long desired.
James Bond and Other Successes
Using his experience with British intelligence as a basis, Fleming began turning out spy novels featuring secret agent 007, James Bond. Although not an immediate hit in America, sales of the books took off after President John F. Kennedy put From Russia with Love on a list of his favorite books.
Between 1953 and 1966, Fleming wrote a total of fourteen Bond books, all of which would eventually be made into film adaptations. Film rights to all published and future Bond books were sold in 1961; Dr. No, the first Bond film, premiered in 1962. Not expected to do particularly well, the first Bond film was an instant smash hit and kicked off a ”spy craze” that would permeate popular culture for the remainder of the decade.
Fleming also wrote the popular children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was made into a live-action Disney movie, and a nonfiction book on diamond smugglers. Fleming died on August 12, 1964. Although the official cause was a heart attack, he had been a heavy smoker and drinker throughout his life and had long been in poor health.
Works in Literary Context
The Spy Thriller
The genre that would come to be known as the spy thriller began with the twentieth century. Books like Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Orczy delved into the exploits of undercover agents. Several Sherlock Holmes stories follow the pattern of spy stories more closely than detective stories as well.
With the coming of World War II, the first ”authentic” spy novels, often written by retired intelligence officers such as W. Somerset Maugham, began to appear. But it would take the cold war between Soviet Russia and the United States to truly ignite public interest in the genre.
The 1960s were the high point for the spy genre, as it spread beyond books into movies and television. For many, the Bond books and movies remain the definitive benchmarks of the genre.
The formula of the Bond novels gave birth to a whole genre, the spy thriller, which has been imitated ad nauseum ever since. Many spy novels are actually “anti-Bonds,” in which the heroes display a rather loose view of morality and a cynical worldview; the novels of John Le Carre were an early example of this. Later writers such as Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy honed and perfected the spy thriller.
Works in Critical Context
Critical response to Fleming’s books has varied. Some reviewers have commended Fleming’s ability to build suspense and his sense of place and atmosphere; others have castigated him as a purveyor of bad fiction and an offensive code of moral principles. In a 1958 attack on Fleming’s work, Bernard Bergonzi criticized the Bond adventures as morally destructive. Paul Johnson focused this attack when he called Doctor No the ”nastiest book” he had ever read, and then went on to denounce Bond and his creator for excessive displays of ”sex, sadism, and snobbery.” Christine Bold has written that ”it is no secret that Fleming’s fiction ritually works to objectify and infantilise its ‘girls,’ as these sexually mature women are routinely named.” Kingsley Amis’s book The James Bond Dossier is an extended defense of Fleming and a laudatory examination of his works. The Bond books have also been analyzed as modern treatments of ancient myths and legends. Despite this attention from critics, Fleming insisted that his intent was not to write literature, but to keep the reader turning the page.
The first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953 to largely agreeable reviews and sales. Anthony Boucher, in a review for the New York Times, saw promise in certain passages but not in the cliched plot, concluding, ”You should certainly begin this book; but you might as well stop when the baccarat game is over.” In 2006, with a new film adaptation of the book just released in theaters, Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian recommended the book to modern readers, both for its glimpse at English society just after World War II and because the book, like all of Bond’s adventures, is ”enormous fun.”
- Benson, Raymond. The James Bond Bedside Companion. New York: Dodd, 1984.
- Campbell, Ian. Ian Fleming: A Catalogue of a Collection: Preliminary to a Bibliography. Liverpool, U.K.: 1978.
- Contosta, David R. The Private Life of James Bond. New York: Dodd, 1993.
- Lycett, Andrew. Ian Fleming: The Intimate Story of the Man Who Created James Bond. London: Turner, 1996.
- Pearson, John. James Bond: The Authorised Biography of 007. London: Granada, 1986.
- Sauerberg, Lars Ole. Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John le Carre and Len Deighton. Detroit:St. Martin’s, 1984.
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