Fleming Reading Challenge – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

By the time Ian Fleming completed his seventh James Bond novel Goldfinger, he believed that he had exhausted all of his inspiration for writing in that format. Attempts to adapt Bond for television and the big screen would fail and end up with Fleming adapting the ideas into the short story collection For Your Eyes Only and the novel Thunderball respectively, the latter being originally conceived by Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham in collaboration with Fleming. After experimenting with the different writing style for The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming would find new inspiration for writing Bond after his goal of making a James Bond film was finally becoming a reality. Whilst EON Productions began work in Jamaica filming an adaptation of Dr No starring Sean Connery, Fleming was also on the island at his GoldenEye Estate, working on the new novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Whilst on an annual pilgrimage to Royale-Les-Eaux to pay his respects to deceased loved Vesper Lynd, Bond encounters the mysterious and troubled Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo. Bond is sexually attracted to Tracy, but quickly realises how unstable she is and fears for her being a danger to herself. After Bond saves Tracy from a suicide attempt by drowning, the pair are abducted at gunpoint and taken on a boat. Bond is brought before Corsican crime lord Marc-Ange Draco, who also happens to be Tracy’s father. Draco explains how he wishes for Bond to marry Tracy as an attempt to cure her suicidal depression. A very apprehensive Bond agrees to still see Tracy, as long as she seeks professional help. To sweeten the deal, Draco reveals to Bond that the fugitive Ernst Stavro Blofeld is in Switzerland, and Bond discovered he is using the alias Comte Balthazar de Bleauville, of which he is trying to have the title authenticated for him by the College Of Arms. Undercover as a representative from the college, Bond discovers that Blofeld is performing strange research on beautiful women with allergies related to agriculture. Once Bond’s cover is blown, he escapes Blofeld’s mountaintop clinic and encounters Tracy. The couole flee across Europe, and realising their love for each other along the way, Bond proposes martiage to Tracy, but first he has to stop Blofeld, who is holding the UK to ransom as his allergy patients have been unknowingly trained to infect crops and livestock with a deadly virus.

Ian Fleming was so taken with Ursula Andress when they met during filming for Dr No that the author included her in his next novel as a visitor at Piz Gloria.

Fleming’s typical three act structure is mildly tweaked in the narrative, as the first and third acts deal with Bond’s relationship with Tracy whilst the second act removes Tracy almost entirely and focuses on Bond’s undercover mission to lure Blofeld out of Switzerland so that he can be arrested for the “Thunderball Affair”. This could have led to the story feeling quite disjointed, but the two plots converge in a highly satisfying albeit tragic conclusion. Despite Tracy’s absence through the middle of the story, she is not forgotten as Bond wrestles with his conscience of how to have an actual relationship with Tracy, whilst needing to charm and seduce other women to gain information. Although a huge factor of the story deals with Tracy’s mental issues, when the focus shifts to Bond’s thoughts, it is clear he is in denial of being able to give up his dangerous life to have a family, effectively wiping the slate clean without there being any past repercussions for everything he has done in his life as a spy.

Bond’s inner monologues throughout are some of the most impressive character writing Fleming has done. With a future secured for his creation in film, and a new audience to be reached, Fleming appears to have his inspiration rejuvenated and so James Bond appears as the most complex he has been, questioning his future and his actions with a level of uncertainty that makes him feel fallibly human. He not only wrestles with his conscience over the methods he must use in the field, but whether or not he even wants to do the job anymore. The reader can sympathize with Bond as a person, after all he is given to Her Majesty’s Secret Service in his previous adventures, to see Bond wish for an idyllic married life is reasonable and makes the fate of his marriage even more tragic. Whilst undercover at Blofeld’s clinic, there is amazing sense of dramatic tension that is anxiety inducing; at every turn when Bond thinks he may have made a mistake and blown his cover his inner monologue is consumed by paranoia. Fleming has put the reader in Bond’s dangerous position many times before, but it is most effective in this book, as instead of being physically tortured by the villain, he is mentally torturing himself with the paranoia necessary to be a spy.

Returning villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is a surprising choice from Fleming, considering the ongoing legal troubles with Kevin McClory, including rights to the intellectual property of the character. Fleming might have found a loophole around this issue, by completely changing the character from how he was previously written in Thunderball. Even though this does tally with the plot of Blofield trying to have himself declared as Comte de Bleuville and essentially becoming a new person, entirely dropping his history given in Thunderball and drastically altering his appearance makes him difficult to associate as the same person from both books, despite ramping up the tension of Bond questioning whether or not he has the right man. The back and forth “Is he or isn’t he?” plot keeps the reader invested, but when the inevitable confirmation comes, it can be seen that there is not much more to the character. Blofeld appears as eccentric as any other villain from previous novels, but seem very striking or memorable here, which is disappointing considering the character will become James Bond’s ultimate nemesis.

Fay Dalton‘s illustrations of Vesper Lynd (left) and Tracy (right) show two women drastically different in appearance, but their mental health issues are reflective of each other.

What the novel is most famous for is the character of Tracy, who would become Mrs James Bond. Mostly associated in pop culture through Diana Rigg’s portrayal in the 1969 film adaptation, Tracy as written by Fleming has a less in common with her cinematic counterpart by not having her strength or personality. Despite being the woman who makes Bond decide to settle down, she lacks the complexities of Bond’s formee romantic partners,  such as Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever. Even though Tracy is clearly one Fleming’s tortured heroines, what makes her more unique than other female lead characters in the series is that her trauma is not linked to sexual violence. Her descent began when her husband left her for another woman, only for the pair to be killed in a car crash shortly afterwards, and then Tracy is plunged into the despair when her daughter dies of spinal meningitis .

When Bond encounters Tracy, his thoughts have been on Vesper Lynd, and while in the same surroundings where their relationship bloomed and ended in tragedy, Bond’s subconscious makes him intervene and save Tracy from drowning herself to gain retribution for failing to save Vesper from suicide. Vesper and Tracy are like a reflection of each other in the mirror; the outward appearances are reversed, but it is the same damaged person in the mirror image. Vesper’s dark hair and Tracy’s blonde locks mean that the two women do not look alike, but Bond connects the two by the attempted suicide in a familiar location. Bond makes mention of Tracy’s erratic behaviour concerning him, as Fleming calls back to Bond being dismissive of Vesper’s bizarre actions before she took her own life. Both women have thin back stories but exist in the narrative to represent the hope that Bond has to have a normal life. Tracy is his second chance and saving her from suicide mean he can forgive himself for missing the warning signs in Vesper and move on, however Bond has to learn the hard way that he cannot have his life of danger and risk as long as he has someone to come home to. With the prospect of a new future in front of her, Tracy’s death is the ultimate tragedy, and ironically it is Bond’s fault indirectly for involving himself in her life. It can be debated that it would have been more humane to let Tracy end her own life when they had just met and she believes she had lost everything than to build her back up with hope and love, only to be taken away in a shot .

With very few faults to the book, it is easily one of, if not the best, of Ian Fleming’s writing career. There is a passion in the description of locations, characters and events which is richer than ever before. You can sense that the future release of Dr No inspired Fleming to reach a wider audience with his writing. Knowing that people would start to read his books if they enjoyed the film, Fleming crafted the perfect extension to his first novel, Casino Royale. The ideas of love and marriage, suicide and double lives are explored in both novels, but here it does not feel like retreading old ground but instead has evolved organically, just as Bond’s character has since his first written adventure . By having Bond get married, even for so briefly, the character moves to a new level of depth and emotion, and leaves a cliffhanger ending with so many possibilities for the future (or what could have been the end altogether)  which makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service not just a great James Bond novel, but an essential one as well.

If you are interested in more about Ian Fleming and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, check out The Bond Book Club hosted by The Bond Experience.

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