In his youth, the late-flowering historical novelist Alfred Duggan (no relation) resembled a “dashing, Restoration rake”. So thought the literary critic Peter Quennell, who knew Duggan from Oxford. Similarly, Evelyn Waugh recalled his dissipated university friend professing both Marxism and atheism at the age of 20, and living “flamboyantly for pleasure”, alternating between the hunting field and the seedier corners of the West End. There was nevertheless, recalled Waugh, “a gravitas in him, a dignity and courtesy which transcended his weakness”.
Things changed after Duggan’s stepfather, Lord Curzon, called a halt to this lifestyle. Curzon withdrew funds with the words: “the Randolph Hotel, the tarts, and the night club will not be paid”. (Tradesmen and debts of honour were treated differently.) There followed a life as quirkily un-rakish as one could imagine. First, Alfred Duggan got a job at the Natural History Museum and sailed for the Galapagos and the West Indies to collect specimens. In 1935, he helped to excavate Constantine’s palace in Istanbul.
When World War II broke out, he served in the London Irish Rifles, part of the Territorial Army, and saw active service in Norway. Discharged later as medically unfit, he spent the rest of the war working in an aeroplane factory. By 1948, he was to be found in Cambridge, in a government scheme helping ex-servicemen return to civilian life, training to be a dairyman. Waugh, however, thought Duggan should turn to writing.
And he did. Between 1950 and 1964, the year of his death, Duggan burst into literary life. He published 15 historical novels, paying greatest attention to the Normans and the Franks, with the Romans and Saxons not far behind. The New York Times praised his “zestful storytelling laced with reliable scholarship”. Duggan returned to the Catholic faith of his childhood, got married, and went to live in rural seclusion in Herefordshire.
With this, Alfred Duggan took his place in the long, winding procession of illustrious literary hedonists of the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th – Baudelaire, Wilde, Huysmans, Beardsley, Waugh himself, to name a few – who made their way into the Catholic Church. Or indeed, as was the case with Duggan, who made their way back.
Alfredo Leo Duggan was born in 1903 in Buenos Aires, the grandson of wealthy, land-owning Thomas Duggan, originally of Ballymahon, Co Longford. His mother, Grace, was the daughter of an American diplomat. In 1906, his father was appointed attaché at the Argentine embassy in London and the family moved to England. After her husband’s death in 1915, Grace went on to marry George Nathaniel Curzon, former Viceroy of India. Alfred was sent to Eton and went on to Balliol College to begin his career as a rake (and his friendship with Waugh).
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