Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


Philip Stenning

By Johan Bakker

Also appears in "So Disdained", "Mysterious Aviator" and " Lonely Road"

Stenning was the earliest of Shute's fully-developed characters in a published novel. He appears as the main character in Marazan, as a somewhat-significant supporting character in So Disdained/The Mysterious Aviator and as a more-significant supporting character in Lonely Road. He is also an important supporting character in the early novella Stephen Morris, which predates all three novels but was published only after Shuteís death.

Stenning is described as the child of a short-lived marriage between a naval officer and a chorus-girl; a marital situation which Shute used several times in various novels. As such, he squarely spans the gap between upper and lower classes in the Britain of the time. He is brought up by middle class relatives but breaks away from them as soon as he can and goes into the motor trade; definitely not the choice of a well-brought up young man, especially if he is doing it for profit. When the First World War comes, he enlists, is rapidly commissioned and decorated for bravery, becomes a pilot and commander, and ends the war with rank and distinction. After a failed venture in aviation with a couple of partners, described in the novella Stephen Morris, he becomes a professional pilot-for-hire, and it is in this capacity that he appears in the three main novels in which he is featured.

When we meet him first, in Marazan, he is a man in his late twenties, unattached, who lives a lively bachelor existence on a very good salary. He plays golf and Rugby at a high level, but strictly as an amateur; in those days, playing sports for money was considered definitely infra dig. He is also no stranger to the bottle. Altogether, a rather tough and capable man. He has a strong moral code, although his morals are rather situational in nature; yet, in Marazan at least, he is much troubled by his own insecurities.

Shute has written that Stenning was based upon an amalgam of the professional pilots he knew while working for de Havilland's in the early 1920's, especially (Sir) Alan Cobham. Pilots in those days were almost exclusively commissioned veterans of the First World War, but mostly ex officers of lower rank who needed to work for a living. The unpredictable and disorganized state of aviation at the time no doubt produced a group of resourceful and self-reliant men, but men who spanned a social divide; not quite working-class, although they worked at dirty and dangerous work, but not quite gentlemen either; men very much as Stenning is described. It may be interesting, for example, to note the reversal of roles between Stenning and the character Stephen Morris. When we first meet Stephen Morris, in the novella of the same name, he is going to work for Stenning as a pilot. Four or five years later, the roles are reversed and Stenning works for Morris as a pilot. Morris, an ex-officer, a pilot, but also the product of a good family and an Oxford graduate, has moved ahead. Stenning, also an ex-officer and definitely the better pilot, but the product of a broken home and without the advantages of a university education, has not.

This social divide is at the heart of Stenning's insecurities when we first meet him as a fully-described character, in Marazan. He knows that he is a highly-skilled technician as a pilot, and much valued for his skills, yet he is haunted by what he sees as his deficient upbringing and background, and by his occupations and behaviour before and since the war. He sees himself as unsuitable to be accepted in polite society, and he especially feels himself unworthy of the upper-class girl, Joan Stevenson, who he meets and woos as the story unfolds.

When we meet him again, in So Disdained/The Mysterious Aviator, set about two years later, he is in many ways a different man, married to Joan Stevenson and apparently secure and settled in his work. Yet those same elements of toughness and situational morals are still very present; he has no qualms about beating a prisoner in custody to extract information from him, and indeed, in the last pages of the story, he shoots a man in the back without hesitation.

In our final meeting, in Lonely Road, set about four years later, he seems to have finally cast off his insecurities about the social divide, and with it, the tough, two-fisted persona that went with it. Now Sir Philip Stenning; his reward for completing a dangerous round-the-world flight in all the traditions of Johnson, Mollison and Earhart; his place in polite society is assured. He is not above discomfort, danger and hard labour when it is called for, and his ethics remain very situational, yet the tough, careless side of his persona is gone.

Stenning is interesting as a character, not just because of the insight that we get into young men of that sort in those times, but also because of the development that we see in Shutes characters in three novels spread over six years; the only such opportunity that we get in all his novels. In many ways, his development parallels that of Shute's own life at that time, and it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that Stenning is what Shute would have wanted to be, had he had the physique and the upbringing that would have led him that way. But Shute is Stephen Morris; the product of a good family, an Oxford graduate; and his development is in a direction different than Stenning could ever take.

It is easy to dismiss Stenning as just another example of the square-jawed, two-fisted action hero so popular in the fiction of the 20's and 30's; another Bulldog Drummond, Dick Tracy or Sam Spade, only wearing a pilot's helmet and goggles instead of a suit and a roscoe. Such comparisons are easy because of the dated language and social mores of the time which fill the narrative, and to be sure, Stenning's character borrows from comparable contemporary fiction heroes. But to do so is to overlook the considerable character development which went into creating him, which may be seen as a sign of Shute's growing skill at painting his characters as complete persons, where similar contemporary heroes are merely predictable automatons used to center a plot and move it along. And, in each of the three major novels in which he appears, Stenning is a central part of the moral and ethical dilemmas on which the plot turns; when each story reaches its central question of the right thing to do vs the legal, moral or socially-accepted thing, Stenning is there in the middle of the question.