Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, published in 1939 as Europe descended into war, is a peerless thriller and a brilliant piece of landscape writing. It’s also an exploration of a wounded human forced to resurface long-buried self-knowledge, and a novel of more-than-human relationships.
The plot is taut. A wealthy English landowner and big game hunter, who never reveals his name because his fame threatens reprisals on his friends if his private account – his ‘confession’ – is ever discovered, is hunting in Europe when he slips into an unnamed country and stalks its dictator to his closely guarded country retreat. Like the hunter, the nation and tyrant are never identified. Setting out to test whether his stalking skills are up to this ultimate prey, our narrator is a hair trigger’s breadth from succeeding when over-confidence and a slight change in breeze result in his capture, interrogation, torture and attempted murder by the dictator’s henchmen. From that moment on, he’s in flight for his life, moving painfully, cautiously across a continent that’s closing down on freedom, back to London and then a secret hideout in the Dorset countryside. His hideout is, like much about his past, a secret he keeps even from himself until he is almost at the threshold. Although he is in a state of denial about his actions and motives, as the title suggests, he’s a “solitary beast, exasperated by chronic pain or widowerhood … separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.”
‘That safe pit of darkness’
As he digs deeper into his memories – literally deeper, as he lies in the burrow he’s made for himself in the high banks of a long-forgotten lane that’s cut deep and overgrown between two mutually suspicious farms, and waits to see if his equally cunning and ferocious pursuer has discovered him – his journalling uncovers just how much he’s been deceiving himself. He experiences
“the blankness which descends upon me when I dare not know what I am thinking. I know that I was consumed by anger. I remember the venomous thoughts, yet at the time I was utterly unaware of them. I suppressed them as fast as they came up into my conscious mind. I would have nothing to do with them, nothing to do with grief or hatred or revenge … I had not admitted what I meant to kill.”
He represents himself in his pencil-and-exercise-book confession as a blameless, adventuring sportsman. But he recognises that his hope is to understand his own actions, whose “reasons were insistent but frequently obscure”; to “get some clarity. I create a second self, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured.” This doubling, and the regarding of a reflected self it enables, is anticipated in the moment he first sees his broken face.
“I didn’t recognise myself. It was not the smashed eye which surprised me – that was merely closed, swollen and ugly. It was the other eye. Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt.”
He spends much of his account not recognising himself. And yet, if his relationship with his inner life seems as evasive as his cross-country false trails right up until the final confrontation with his pursuer and the “second enemy dogging my movements – my own unjust and impossible conscience”, his relationship with society at large seems self-assured, if cynical. He scorns the ideologies of ‘the masses’ or ‘the State’ that are taking hold abroad, of course, but also an anti-individualist conformism closer to home.
While he doesn’t escape the male, privileged attitudes of his time, class or country, he’s no misanthrope or xenophobe. He has a keen eye for the character of individuals he meets, a respect for their lives, and a dry and understated humour at his own expense. Nor is he a classic British imperialist in the style of other ‘rugged loners’ from pre-war thrillers. But his view of people and society is heavily skewed to his own – very male and individualistic – philosophy of nature.
As for his relationship with the animal kingdom, this is for the most part that of the hunter; his trek on the continent “quite a conventional course: to go out and kill something in rough country in order to forget my troubles.” But his relationship with the physicality of his environment – not just his native countryside, but wherever he exists, as hunter or hunted – is something far more elemental.
Barely conscious after his capture and questioning, his captors take him to a remote precipice, leaving him hanging by smashed fingertips so his ‘accidental’ death can be ‘accidentally’ detected. Further torn and mangled by the long fall down the cliffside, he’s saved only by falling into a marsh. As he comes back to life – it is a form of resurrection – he’s unable to differentiate body from bog.
“I had parted, obviously and irrevocably, with a lot of my living matter … it was revolting to imagine myself still alive and of the consistency of mud. There was a pulped substance all around me, in the midst of which I carried on my absurd consciousness. I had supposed that this bog was me; it tasted of blood.”
New skins, old connections
That same muddy mess, caked to him as a second skin, binds his wounds: its substance melding with his to keep insides in, outside out even while he cannot completely separate the two in his own mind.
There is nothing cozy about this self-identification with intimate surroundings. Rather than romantic notions of the hunter as organic extension and master of his terrain, it’s a more primal experience; the wounded prey at once part of and apart from an elements that can both kill and protect. Later, lay a false trail, invisible to the eyes of a police and populace who have been cleverly roused by his pursuer, the only cover is the sodden clay of a cabbage field in plain sight of the road he knows his pursuers will use.
“It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where … the half-alive remember hills and sunshine …To lie on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe! If the owner of that vile field had been planting, he’d have stuck his dibber into me before noticing that I wasn’t mud.”
As with earth, water plays a crucial role in his survival. At different points on his slow journey, stream, river, sea – even absent water in the case of a ship’s disused water tank – conceal him, offer the means to clothe himself, or provide his mode of transport through hostile country.
Trees and hedges also assist him. In the first hours after near-death, he struggles to raise himself high into a larch, single-mindedly abusing his tortured hands so as to leave the bark free of tell-tale mud from his boots, and waits out the day. While he recovers, a search party looks for his body below. “When I became conscious, the tree was swaying in the light wind and smelling of peace … I felt as if I were a parasite on the tree, grown to it.” Unable to make sense of what is around him, he can “only receive impressions. I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature.”
Later, cornered in his burrow by the hunter who offers sweetened lies about the freedom he will find again if he signs a confession of his assassination attempt, he tries to tunnel his way out of the death-trap he’s made for himself. The air supply restricted, his digging is constantly interrupted by imminent suffocation from his own spent breath and the foul air of his faeces, which he’s been forced to live with in the dank, claustrophobic cell. “Then I would begin to dream of the root or the stone or the water that was beating me, and I would get up again and go to work, half naked and foul with the red earth, a creature inhuman in mind and body.”
Until this point, he has shared his den with an older inhabitant of the decrepit holloway between farms: another cunning and ferocious beast, a feral black cat. This creature proves to be a great ally.
“I was so prepared to frighten any dogs which investigated me that they would never come back, but it appeared that something had already scared them for me; dogs gave the lane a wide berth. The cause was Asmodeus. I observed him first as two ears and two eyes apparently attached to a black branch. When I moved my head, the ears vanished, and when I stood up the rest of him had vanished. I put out some scraps of bully beef behind the branch, and an hour later they too had vanished.”
As the novel plays out, the man’s world has shrunk from his summer’s freedom to roam, a privileged and skilled loner; to a furtive hide-and-seek testing of those skills; then the hoped-for autumnal rural cover, where he can live off his wits until danger has passed; finally to a dank, filthy pit scraped into the cold red earth beneath a thorn hedge: an isolated and hollowed out existence in a holloway known only to his enemy and to no human friend. The cat seems a last link between him and something like a liveable world that a rogue male might choose rather than be forced to endure.
The two beasts, wary at first, gradually become respectful and then sympathetic with each other.
“Asmodeus, as always, is my comfort. It is seldom that one can give to and receive from an animal close, silent, and continuous attention. We live in the same space, in the same way, and on the same food, except that Asmodeus has no use for oatmeal, nor I for field-mice. During the hours while he sits cleaning himself, and I motionless in my dirt, there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us. I cannot ‘order’ or even ‘hope’ that he should perform a given act, but back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action. I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.”
How this confinement ends for the three hunters – would-be assassin, feral cat, fascist agent – is not something to let out of the bag here.
Rogue Male is a novel of slowly revealed relationships. Between individual and society. Human and more-than-human habitats and cohabitants. Surface and subterranean. Cunning and culture. The self and itself. Memory recovered and memory constructed. Between the man and the loss which turned him rogue and in pursuit of a vengeance he cannot admit to himself.
The Dorset holloway is not his first hiding place. From the leafy cover where he trains his rifle on Europe’s notorious mass murderer – just “for the fun of the stalk”, he insists – to the muddy bog where he lays his first misleading tracks, the tree where he hauls his broken body, the lakeside foliage from which he dashes to steal bathers’ clothes, his stowaway on a cross-channel ship, the black tunnels of the London Underground or the night cover of Wimbledon Common, to cabbage field and secret burrow, he excels at using his environment to cover, recover, survive. But finally, even with all his skills and instincts – and occasional flashes of imagined ‘simple thought-transference’ between his unstable mind and the unknowable one of Asmodeus – he cannot extend his physical senses out into the light spaces beyond his underground cell. Neither can he hide forever in the dark internal spaces of denial he’s carved out: mental sanctuary from a buried anguish the dictator’s regime brought down on him. He must burst out, into a future and a fate he cannot judge ahead of their reality.
“Now luck, movement, wisdom, and folly have all stopped. Even time has stopped, for I have no space. That, I think is the reason why I have again taken refuge in this confession. I retain a sense of time, of the continuity of a stream of facts. I remind myself that I have extended and presumably will extend again in the time of the outer world. At present I exist only in my own time, as one does in a nightmare, forcing myself to a fanaticism of endurance … I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object.”
Find out more
Rogue Male has been written about many times over the decades since its 1939 publication, and more than once by no less a figure than Robert Macfarlane. The fact that it’s has been a little intimidating to follow that skilled literary tracker’s footsteps is part of the reason for taking so long to even start on this review. Another is that I kept wanting to reread and relisten to the book itself; so I did, and always found something new. You can read his review of Rogue Male and of his attempts to locate the famous sunken hideout of Household’s hero; and if you have the 2014 Orion edition of the novel, you can read the extended version which forms Macfarlane’s introduction.
A limited edition hardback issue was produced alongside the Orion edition in 2014, with cover art by Stanley Dornwood as shown above.
Dornwood also collaborated with Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards on a 2012 book, Holloway. A masterpiece, this slim book of words and images is another, fuller telling of the quest for the Dorset hideout and a meditation on the nature and history of England’s sunken lanes and tracks. I’ve not made much here of the landscape of ancient tracks and sunken lanes that criss-cross Household’s novel, although it is central to the novel’s character, because it is so well (un)covered in Macfarlane’s own words. Holloway book deserves its own review here; but in lieu of that, there’s an excellent Guardian photoessay on holloways, by none other than Robert Macfarlane himself.
And for another analysis of where this semi-fictional sunken lane might be located in fact, with a map, see Chris Newall’s The Rogue Male’s Hideout?,
Rogue Male also exists in an Audible audiobook format; and another excellent reading, by Michael Jayston is regularly rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. It’s worth keeping your good eye open for the next airing; this was my first encounter with the story, and I still think it’s the best way to experience it. Maybe through earphones, lying in the dark under stars between the hedges (or if you’re feeling particularly authentic, dug in beneath the roots and earth) of a secret holloway in south west England. Take a cat.
The book was adapted for film in the 1940s and 70s: Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) starring Walter Pidgeon, and Clive Donner’s Rogue Male (1976) with Peter O’Toole. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with either unless you’d a completist. Apparently, there’s a third adaptation on the cards, with Benedict Cumberbatch…
Rather than watch adaptations that are doomed to fail the original, you could explore another, more recent classic of a very different kind. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is his account of what he knew was an always doomed-to-fail attempt to experience land, water and air as a non-human animal. “What’s an animal? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists. What’s a human? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists – but a more stilted, stuttering conversation than that of most wild animals.” You can read my mini-review of Being a Beast, which I contributed to the Happy Museum Project.