This article originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle Volume 18, Issue 1 (Spring 2017)
An unusual entry into our Wessex Worthies series of biographies of prominent Wessaxons this time, as there is some doubt as to whether its subject actually qualifies for entry. Most “about the author” blurbs on the covers of his 30 novels and 9 collections of short stories will tell you that Percival Christopher Wren was born in Devon in 1885, a direct descendant of the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren. However, Wren was notoriously secretive about his life, and something of a fabulist to boot, so this could well be what we nowadays refer to as an alternative fact. Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, gives his birthplace as Deptford, London; Percy Wren, a humble schoolmaster’s son. It also lists his birth as being 10 years earlier, in 1875. He graduated from what is now St Catherine’s College in Oxford, but which was then St Catherine’s Society, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. Could it be that the connection to Sir Christopher Wren was a way of elevating the status of a man who was self-conscious about his lowly origins? And who could blame a man who had the misfortune to be born in That London for wishing he had been born in Wessex instead?
Whatever his place of birth, Wren is chiefly known as the inventor of a genre of adventure fiction that was once hugely popular, but which has now fallen into disuse: the Foreign Legion story. Again, Wren’s own service in the Legion is a matter of controversy. No corroborating evidence exists to support the speculation that he had served as a legionnaire, and he refused to either confirm or deny it. It would appear, at least to my eyes, that he didn’t actually serve in the Legion, but wasn’t too upset by people thinking that he did. But his stepson, Alan Graham-Smith, always maintained that Wren was indeed a legionnaire, and was reportedly very upset by those who said otherwise.
He definitely served in World War I, however, in the 101st Grenadiers, a unit of the British Indian Army active in East Africa. After being invalided out in 1915, he concentrated on his fiction, though he had previously written a number of educational textbooks used in India. By far his best-known work is the 1924 novel Beau Geste, which has been filmed a number of times, and which spawned four sequels, two of which were also filmed. It was parodied by the Carry On team in Follow That Camel, and by Marty Feldman in The Last Remake of Beau Geste. The title of the latter proved to be prophetic as far as film is concerned, but it was adapted again for television in 1982 in an 8-part BBC serial written by Alistair Bell & Terrance Dicks and directed by Douglas Camfield.
PC Wren died in 1941, and is buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, Amberley, Gloucestershire. Whether or not he was born in Devon, he certainly loved the county. Consider this passage from Good Gestes:
“What would be the loveliest thing his mind could possibly conceive? What about a drive in the high dog-cart with Isobel?—through the glorious Devon countryside; the smart cob doing his comfortable ten miles an hour; harness jingling; hoof-beats regular as clockwork; Isobel's hand under his right arm; Devon lanes; Devon fields and orchards; Devon moors; glorious—beyond description.”
So whilst his birth in Wessex may be open to dispute, the fact that his heart, soul, and ultimately body belonged here is not.