Is it acceptable to be both happily married to a living man and physically attracted to a long-dead author? I know I’m not the only one. I have one friend who goes weak at the knees when she shows me photos of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, and another who has a lasting physical pash for Joseph Banks (1743‒1820). Mine is for Peter Fleming (1907‒71), older brother of Ian.
The good thing about being in love with a dead person is that you can’t be unfaithful; nor can you feel too jealous of the person’s love affairs with other people. On the contrary, it’s almost a pleasure to luxuriate in imagining those love affairs. So I think: lucky, lucky Celia Johnson! In real life, the man who adored her was not Trevor Howard of Brief Encounter but Peter Fleming of the joyously laughing smile, the sinewy forearms and the sublime prose. While Fleming was halfway through the seven-month journey from Peking to India in 1935 that he would immortalize in News from Tartary, Celia received a letter from him that included the words, ‘My darling Celia, whom I love . . .’ I like to imagine her opening the envelope and reading and rereading those words, in his handwriting.
I also derive a guilty pleasure from luxuriating in the fact that Fleming was very much not in love with the rather masculine woman he was travelling with on that journey – the woman who would also immortalize it, in her book Forbidden Journey. That woman was Ella Maillart (1903‒97), nicknamed Kini, an international skier and Olympic sailor who also played hockey for Switzerland. The two had met in 1934 when they found themselves drinking beer together in a London nightclub; Kini had casually asked Fleming, ‘How do I get into the Soviet Republic in South China?’ and Fleming had replied, ‘You don’t.’ The exchange turned out to be the catalyst for embarking on a journey together to prove the statement false.
When Fleming introduces Kini in
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