The back cover of Dick Francis: A Racing Life, a biography by Graham Lord, calls it “warm, affectionate, yet sharp and perceptive.” I usually read the jacket information before starting a book. This time I didn’t. I’m glad because I know it didn’t skew my impressions of the book.
The only word of that description with which I would agree is “sharp.” I found the book sharp to the point of nasty and petty. The first page puts the thesis forth that Dick’s wife Mary probably wrote the novels. Throughout 373 pages of text, Lord jibes and pokes about it at every chance.
The argument is that Dick Francis did not like or do well in school and that Mary did. Dick quit school as soon as he could to become a horseman. Mary went on to university, gaining a degree in French and English. Lord illustrates with facts and speculation what he calls “the most amusing literary camouflage since Marian Evans pretended to be George Eliot.”
An apparent fact is that Dick repeatedly said that Mary should be named as co-author. But Mary and the publishers thought the books were more marketable under the name of a champion jockey. Lord does paint a picture of the personalities of both Dick and Mary. What I take from his portrayal of Dick is of an unassuming man who was honest as a jockey and in all other aspects of his life. The impression of Mary that I gained from Graham Lord is that, as they say, she wasn’t backward about putting herself forward.
Mary Francis – Researcher or writer?
There has never been any hiding of the fact that Mary did much of the research for the books. In Lord’s book, I learned that she turned many of the novels’ subjects into businesses or avocations for herself. She became a pilot and ran an air taxi service, she bought into a wine importing business and she took up photography to the professional level. All this was to better research Dick Francis books. With the literary aspirations that Lord says she had, I am amazed that she did not claim the credit for them if she believed herself to be the sole or major author.
Lord says that the physical afflictions suffered by characters are those suffered by Mary, not Dick. She had polio as a young woman, so does a character. She suffered from asthma, so does a character. Literary allusions are ones that would only be known to Mary with her education, not Dick with his. The portrayal of the male heroes and the female characters seem to be written more from a woman’s perspective than a man’s. It is Mary’s sensibilities, interests and afflictions that fuel the books, Lord says.
Racing and horses are central
Ok, but I would argue that those are story elements attainable through good research and from drawing on experiences of others. At the heart of Dick Francis novels is racing and horses. You are riding in the Grand National with the book’s hero. You know the horses as sentient beings through the eyes of jockeys or grooms. And that is not Mary’s experience. She didn’t particularly like horses or racing. And physical afflictions? The descriptions of broken collarbones and dislocated shoulders are from Dick’s experience.
Lord is disparaging toward Dick about his respect for the Royal Family. As an example of what he sees as Dick’s fawning, he says that Dick asked the Queen Mother’s permission before entitling his autobiography The Sport of Queens. Why, Lord asks, should Dick think it necessary to ask permission to use that phrase? Perhaps because the phrase is actually The Sport of Kings? By changing it to Queens, Francis was making direct reference to his riding career. At that time there were two Queens and no King. As well, he rode for the Queen Mother. Perhaps he was just being polite.
Graham Lord makes much of Dick saying that writing was hard for him. Hard to believe, Lord says. Maybe, but I’ve read more interviews with best-selling authors about the difficulty of writing than those saying oh, it’s a snap. There’s also cringe-making recitations of interviews with Francis by writers for literary journals where Dick could not discuss concepts of formalism or semiotics in literature. Oh, for heaven’s sakes, not being au courant with literary analyses is hardly proof that someone can’t put pen to paper and write a good story.
Before and after reading Lord’s book, I did not think that Dick wrote the books entirely on his own. Why wouldn’t Mary contribute, edit, add her own words? Especially with their long symbiotic marriage, it seems they became almost inseparable. Their son Felix also became part of the writing machine. But at the core of all Dick Francis books are horses, racing and jockeys. Neither Mary nor Felix lived in that world. Dick did.
Graham Lord better on James Herriot
In 1997, two years before A Racing Life, Graham Lord published James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet – the “warm but incisive” biography its cover promised. Dick Francis: A racing life is not. At 262 pages, his Herriot biography is the length A Racing Life would be if Lord cut out the waffle. That would be most of the first three chapters and the long descriptive word lists throughout. I began skimming very early.