I have a signed copy of Niccolo, a children’s book written by my quixotic fencing master, Karel Jaeger. It wasn’t until after his death that the budding D’Artagnan learnt about the adventurous life his teacher had led.
Cyril Karel Jaeger was born 13 March 1912 in Bradford, England. He was adopted by the poet and children’s author Lady Margaret Sackville (1881-1963), who frequented Edinburgh’s salons and became the first president of Scottish PEN and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Karel Jaeger spent his early life hobnobbing in Scottish literary society and by the age of 12 had started writing short stories.
When he was 15, his adoptive mother entrusted his upbringing to her friend the sociologist and town planner Sir Patrick Geddes and his wife. Jaeger was educated together with six other boys in the Outlook Tower near Edinburgh Castle. He later pursued French at Montpelier University, but spent less time studying than in the cafés, where he developed a close friendship with the Bengali poet and future Nobel Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore.
A combination of asthma and tuberculosis prompted a two-year spell in a Swiss sanatorium. On the recommendation of doctors, he moved to the south coast of England, funded by a generous inheritance that he immediately set about spending. His extravagances included a white sports car, in which he hurtled around the Sussex lanes with Lydia Nicholls, the glamorous young actress he married in 1936. Through her, he joined an artistic circle that included performers such as Alastair Sim and Herbert Marshall but also her father, who was an established sculptor and Royal Academician.
In 1940, a few months before the publication of his debut novel, Angels on Horseback, Jaeger was conscripted into the army. Following a stint as a bombardier with the Royal Artillery, he became a dispatch rider in the North Africa campaign. He was ultimately invalided out of the military after he rode over a German mine. Recovered from his injuries, Jaeger resumed his life in the seaside resort of Bognor Regis. (In 1929 King George V, asked to bestow the suffix “Regis” – meaning “of the King” – on Bognor, allegedly replied, “Oh, bugger Bognor.” The King’s Private Secretary informed the petitioners that, “The King has been graciously pleased to grant your request.”)
Jaeger produced a second novel entitled The Man in the Top Hat (1949) before trying his hand at writing a script for a film. When that failed, he turned to working as a labourer, meanwhile playing cricket for the Sussex Second Eleven and penning a succession of charming children’s books.
These books, many of them illustrated by Margret Rey (who did the Curious George series), included Men of Fine Parts (1950), Sweet Fanny Adams (1953), The Bull that was Terrifico (1955), The Little Bandita (1957), Niccolo (1959) and Pinook (1960). Critics likened them to the works of Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame.
In 1958, Jaeger got a job teaching French, cricket, and fencing at Oakwood Preparatory School in the village of Funtington, near Chichester, West Sussex, where he and his wife moved into a cottage. With outstanding success he also taught fencing to three unlikely musketeers at Midhurst Grammar School, remaining a teacher until his retirement in the early 1980s. Jaeger’s characteristic ebullience, wit, and joie de vivre never left him and he lived to see the republication of Niccolo in a parallel French/English edition. He died on 8 September 2008 in Chichester, West Sussex, aged 96.