Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 4 – The Sign of the Alpine Rose


In my younger years, I had five out of the six Jillies books and read them several times over. For some inexplicable reason I never got hold of The Sign of the Alpine Rose, and me such a stickler for complete sets. So the fourth book of the series represents another Saville story that I can only consider as an adult.
The Sign of the Alpine Rose is an anomaly in several ways. For one, it is the only book of the series not to feature Guy and Mark Standing, not even by passing reference. For a second, it takes the Jillies out of England for the only time, to Austria, the first of Saville’s characters to venture abroad. For a third, the book leans heavily on J.D. instead of his children, playing a more substantial and direct part than any of the adults in Saville’s fiction that I have read. And this is because, fourthly, the subject of the book is politics, and the Iron Curtain.
Instead of the Standings, Mandy and her family are going to a picture-book Austria, high in the mountains, to stay with her pen-friend Lisbeth Schmidt and her mother in the Alpine village of Bercht. At the time the book was written, 1950, Austria was still under quadripartite control, divided into four Zones, administered by the Allied Powers, America, Britain, France and Russia, though Saville mysteriously omits the Americans, and indeed writes as if there are effectively only two Austrias: free and Communist-controlled.
He blurs the matter further in his introduction, which for once is not about the characters but about the utterly-foreign country where it takes place, a mystery to all his readers. He then suggests the readers imagine Bercht as being in either the British or French Zone, only for it to be certain, if not telegraphed, in the book that this is the French Zone.
This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. I get simplifying the political background for an audience in which only a tiny minority will care, but there’s simplification and confusing obfuscation and Saville errs too much to the latter.
Still, the story. Lisbeth, a rather serious sixteen year old, and her elder, somewhat standoffish brother Franz, live with their mother, who runs a small but homely guest-house for visitors. Her father used to be the village schoolmaster, until he went away to war ten years before: he has long been believed dead. But Herr Schmidt is alive and well, albeit in the Communist Zone (Saville does not use the word Russian, he is being polemic in this story). And with the aid of a local underground, who are operating Scarlet Pimpernel-style to get refugees back from the East, Herr Schmidt is trying to get back to his family.
Enter the Jillies. J.D. has decided they are going on a holiday abroad, Mandy has nominated Austria to meet Lisbeth, it’s going to be so much fun. And at first it is, with beautiful mountain country all around, enough that I wanted to see it for myself. But already there’s trouble brewing of a kind I was actually ashamed to see.
Bercht, it’s valley and it’s higher satellite, Ober-Bercht, reached by a narrow cable car, is dominated by its prominent mountain, Bullshead, so called for its twin peaks, like horns at either end of a flat, snow-capped plateau. Bullshead? Not even a stab at an Austrian name? Bullenkopf? Mandy immediately wants to climb it. She, and J.D., get warned off: it’s a dangerous mountain for one thing, especially for completely inexperienced English schoolgirls, and besides, the border to the Communist Zone runs along its top.
But this is where I found myself feeling that shame. As far as Mandy’s concerned, and later J.D., they are British. They can go where they want, they can do what they want and no-one can touch them because they’re British. The arrogance and the ignorance overwhelms me. It makes the whole family look like egotists, blundering into a delicate situation that they have no understanding of, wilfully going their own way despite the manifold warnings of people who know the situation intimately, and who keep warning that the Jillies’ actions are endangering the organisation, it’s people and, what is worse, the refugees from the harsh Communist regime who are being smuggled back to freedom one by one.
Despite all this, the British know better. It’s one thing to see this in the impetuous and impulsive Mandy, whose heart is always in the right place even when her desire to prove her competence and independence leads her into foolish proclamations. But J.D. is an adult, old enough to have fought in the last war and owing his slight limp to a 1917 wound. That makes him somewhere around his early-to-mid-fifties, for all he plays a good decade younger, and therefore something like 37/38 when Mandy was conceived (I bet Saville didn’t think of that when he was writing this).
The point is that he is old enough to know better. I know he’s an artist, which is a shorthand for unconventional, but in the face of warnings he persists in invading the Communist Zone himself, despite his oblivious lack of knowledge. He even drags the heroic Johann, our Pimpernel-manque, along with him, promising to obey orders and follow his lead, only to ignore sanity and his own commitments at every turn to near disastrous effect.
The book’s supreme irony is that Herr Schmidt does escape and return to the bosom of not only his family but his village, a village that has identified the traitors among it, and run them out of town, but that he does it with no assistance from the Jillies greater than his leaning on Mandy’s shoulder as a stranger.
Of course, you could argue that J.D.’s nonsense played a part in distracting the Communists, but the timescale doesn’t work as Herr Schmidt has gotten across the Bullshead before J.D. goes off on his quixotic mission as the self-appointed British Saviour, superior to Johnny Foreigner.
I’m sorry to be so savage about this book, which did reflect the mood and morale of its time. Britain was five years out from winning the War, though it was still observing food rationing at home, an unmentioned fact though Saville has Tim goggle at the size of breakfasts etc. in the defeated enemy country of Austria. Saville clearly feels strongly about Communism, especially as practiced by the Russians, and especially from his position as a devout Christian, and he’s neither the first nor last author to allow his passions to override his writing skills.
The truth is that his chosen subject is far too weighty for his characters. There’s a limit to what Mandy, Prue and Tim can do. They can wander the mountain trails, they can draw the attention of an unpleasant man to them, they can act as red flags to bulls, but when it comes to helping Herr Schmidt return to his native village, they can’t do a damned thing. And J.D. not only comes close to borking Schmidts’s rescue, but he puts the entire operation at risk, and jeopardises his own freedom through his insistence on doing what he wants to ahead of the advice of experts with extensive local knowledge.
To complete the heaping of coals on Saville’s head, the book misses the Standings. Not just the sparks between Mandy and Guy, a safe figure against whom to kick, but the sense that all the cast are operating on a level together, not dividing between children and adult levels.
Saville would not make that mistake again.
I’ve no idea what I would have made of this book in that pleasant country we call the Sixties, probably far less than I’ve done now. But I think I made an unconsciously sensible idea not to go there then.