Alfred Leo Duggan (DEW-guhn) was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1903. His father was British; his maternal grandmother had been born in Argentina of British parents, and his maternal grandfather was an American who had been appointed consul general at Rio de Janeiro. At the age of two, Duggan was taken to England, where he spent the rest of his life. He was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford; subsequently he worked for the British Natural History Museum. In his assignment as collector of specimens he crossed the Atlantic in a sailing vessel, the barkentine St. George, his itinerary including Madeira, Trinidad, Panama, and the Galápagos Islands. He later did archaeological field work in Turkey and Greece, studying remains of the Byzantine Empire, where he was to set several of his fictions; in 1935, under the auspices of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, he assisted in the excavation of Constantine’s palace at Istanbul. Duggan joined the London Irish Rifles in 1938, later saw active service in Norway, and received a medical discharge in 1941. He worked in an aircraft factory during the remaining years of World War II, and in 1946 he wrote his first historical novel, Knight with Armour, published four years later. It was an immediate success, and Duggan wrote steadily after its appearance; he achieved a production rate of slightly over one book per year.
Duggan could re-create historical times and occurrences in terms of solid reality, with all the immediacy of contemporary events; he seemed able to think like a person of the era he was writing about. Thus his re-created worlds and their inhabitants can be experienced on their own terms, rather than in retrospect, and the characters become authentic personages whose experiences and feelings are universal. Characterization of his principal actors is always sound, although his secondary figures have been likened to pieces on a chessboard—they move as the pawns of history. Duggan’s terse and graphic style has been compared to that of Daniel Defoe.
Duggan’s historical fiction is also characterized by his interesting choice of particular settings. Duggan was not one to explore obvious or frequently chronicled eras of the past; instead, he explored neglected corners, aspects of history often ignored in modern culture’s hankering after the monumental and “major.” In Three’s Company, for example, he explores the life of the Roman triumvir Lepidus, whose far more famous colleagues were Mark Antony and the later Augustus. The obscure and bizarre Roman emperor Elagabalus is the subject of Family Favourites. Lord Geoffrey’s Fancy is set in Crusader-era Greece, and The Lady for Ransom is set in Byzantium around the time of the Battle of Manzikert. Duggan also wrote about the history of his own country; The Little Emperors chronicles Britain shortly after the Roman withdrawal in the fifth century.
In addition to his historical novels, Alfred Duggan wrote several works of biography and history. These included studies of Mithridates, Henry II, and Thomas à Becket; a one-volume history of the Crusades; and a book on castles for children. Duggan’s historical fiction may be seen as part of the mythopoeic revival that occurred in British literature during the 1940’s. It included such writers as Henry Treece and John Heath-Stubbs and was influenced by the example of John Cowper Powys. Like these writers, Duggan combined an idiosyncratic and encyclopedic knowledge of cultural lore with his own sharp and individual sensibility.
Hutchens, J. K. “On an Author.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review, January 17, 1954. Includes references to Duggan.
Hutchens, J. K. “Some Important Fall Authors Speak for Themselves.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 24, 1954. Includes references to Duggan.
Kunitz, Stanley J., ed. Twentieth Century Authors. First Supplement. New York: H. G. Wilson, 1955. Biographical material.
Powell, Anthony. To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. Contains affectionate biographical reminiscences of Duggan that also give insight into his literary production.
Steinberg, Theodore. “The Use and Abuse of Medieval History: Four Contemporary Novelists and the First Crusade.” Studies in Medievalism 2 (Fall, 1982). Contains a discussion of Count Bohemond.