This is one of the 99 Novels that Anthony Burgess recommended in 1984 (Ninety-Nine Novels, Allison & Busby); this edition, 1982, also includes an introduction by Burgess comparing favourably it to Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four which was published eight years after The Aerodrome (1941).
Burgess considers the village represents fallen man, reflecting ‘the wretched or joyful human condition’. While outside the village is the ‘great aerodrome dedicated to cleanliness and efficiency. It is a self-sufficient totalitarian state with its eyes on the air not on the earth.’
Rex Warner explains that he does not aim at realism and considers both worlds (the village and the aerodrome) repulsive.
At the heart of the story is the narrator, Roy, who has attained his eighteenth birthday only to learn that the Rector, the man he considered his father was not, after all. A few subsidiary characters have names but not much description – Tom, George and Mac, for example. Yet we’re not made aware of the names of the remainder, the more significant characters: the Rector, the Rector’s wife, the Squire, the Squire’s daughter, the Flight-Lieutenant, the Air Vice-Marshal and the Landlord. However, the Landlord’s daughter is blessed with a name: Bess. Roy is drawn to her. And the sub-title of the book tells us why: it’s ‘a love story.’
Disillusioned, parentless, Roy seeks solace in the arms of Bess. Yet a further betrayal is not very far away, involving the Flight-Lieutenant.
There are several mysteries to be resolved: the Rector’s confession of murder; Roy’s true parents; Bess’s birth-right; the Flight-Lieutenant’s past… There are some twists towards the end, too. Interwoven are farcical scenes, the Flight-Lieutenant riding the bull Slazenger and the drunken revelries, and also some poignant moments too.
The Air Vice-Marshal is an unbending martinet who demands obedience from his men. He has plans for the village and even the country. He has a very low opinion of most of the population: ‘We shall destroy what we cannot change!’ (p223)
As for Roy, initially he was besotted with the Air Force and its charismatic leader, the Air Vice-Marshal; so much so that he is willingly recruited. He excels in his training and is ideal material for promotion. Yet, in time, the scales fall from his eyes: ‘It was as though there had been something in me like snow and ice which were now melting and gradually revealing a landscape whose outlines I had not seen for some time and barely remembered.’ (p245)This is an unusual imaginative study of power and human nature.