A Book for the 1930 Club: Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole

High Walpole was a  popular and prolific author in his day, and he was one of those very traditional story tellers who fell out of fashion when modernism came to the fore. I liked the one, quite early, novel of his that I read, a few years ago, and so I had high hopes for this much later work.

It had much to recommend it to me.

It was a big book; it was a family saga; it was a historical novel; and it was set in a part of the country that the author loved; the place he moved to in middle age, to live for the rest of his life.

I wish I could say that I loved it, but I’m afraid that I can’t.

What I can say is that though I saw many weaknesses I was sufficiently interested to read to the end.

The story opens in 1732.

Francis Herries, a man who has clearly done much to earn the sobriquet ‘Rogue’, has uprooted his family from their Yorkshire home, because he knew that his sins would soon catch up with him if he stayed. The travelling party includes his wife; his two daughters, Mary and Deborah; his only son, David; his loyal manservant; a woman who carries the title of housekeeper but is in fact his mistress; and a priest who held some very strong views….

9322179He plans to settle in his childhood home, near Borrowdale. His brother, who lives nearby is horrified, because the house is remote, the land is poor, and the property has been decaying for a great many years; but Francis Herries is set on his plan and will brook no argument.

In the years that followed the two families would meet and cross paths, but Frances Herries would never again set foot in his brother’s house.

He was a proud and independent man, he was slow to trust and slower to love, but he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and he was strong and prepared to work to establish his family in their new home.

Margaret Herries loved her husband dearly, and forgave him everything; and though he didn’t feel the same way he appreciated that and did his best to look after her. He sold his mistress at a country fair after she upset the household, and the scene rang true but it made me compare Walpole with Hardy, and that comparison did not flatter him.

I thought that sale might have consequences later in the story, but it didn’t. Nor did the departure of the priest, or the compassion shown to a woman judged to be a witch, or the introduction of the wider family, or the flight of Mary, who had inherited her father’s pride and independence, and who thought that she deserved a better life.

David would have liked to make his own way in the world but he felt tied to the family home. He was his father’s pride and joy, he had promised his dying mother that he would always watch over him, and he didn’t want to abandon Deborah, who had inherited her mother’s reserve.

In time though, things changed. Deborah fell in love with a clergyman, who told her that he was prepared to wait until she was ready to leave her family. David fell in love with a young woman who he had to wrestle away from her cruel guardian – quite literally. And – most extraordinarily – Francis Herries developed a passion for Mirabell, the daughter of a gypsy woman he had helped and who had asked her to watch over her daughter after her death. He loved her as he had never loved before, she didn’t feel the same way, but she was buffeted by life and he became her refuge.

Time and place were wonderfully evoked, the descriptions were wonderful, but the book fell down for me on character and relationships. There was no depth, there was no evolution, and there was little to suggest that they were active in setting the course of their own lives. They were simple people, so I wasn’t looking for too much, but many of the moments that would have illuminated their lives, were rushed over or even missed completely.

I might make an exception for the man who gave the book its title. On one hand he was a wonderful character, but on the other I can think of other more interesting rogues.

Time passed, things happened, but no more than that. There was little progression and there were rarely consequences.

The skill of the storyteller and interest in what might happen kept me going.

I couldn’t help thinking that this read like a draft, and that the author hadn’t troubled to go back over what he had written and think about the book as a whole. A good editor could have made such a difference.

The final act was the strongest part of the book. It led to a wonderful – if melodramatic – ending that set things up beautifully for the sequel.

I’m curious, but I am in no hurry to read it.

Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold (1930)

I started reading this  purely by chance, after spotting it when I was looking for another book. Once I had started I had to keep going and  it wasn’t long before I was kicking myself for keeping it waiting for a very long time. Ianthe Jerrold wrote beautifully and she told an intriguing tale.

That tale opens on the last day of a cycling holiday on the Welsh borders. The cyclists were Dr. Browning; his daughter  daughter Nora and her friend Isabel; his young son Lion; his nephew Charles, who had returned from exile  in Canada after inheriting his father’s title and estate; and his cousin Felix, who was adored by Nora and adoring of Isabel.

When the group arrived at the top of hill  and saw a long descent ahead of them, they agreed that they would free-wheel down, setting off at regular intervals to reduce the chance. Reassembling at the bottom of the valley, they found that two of the group were missing. Isabel, who had set off first, soon reappeared; but there was no sign at all of Charles, who should have set off last.

He was found the next morning, face down at the bottom of a local quarry, shot in the back of the head, with his signet ring missing and somebody else’s bicycle lying next to him.

Felix’s father, Morris Price, the prime suspect. He would inherit the title after managing the estate for many years; he had been in the area when Charles was last seen; he refused to give an account of what he had been doing on the day in question; and his revolver which was used to fire the fatal shot.

He was belligerent and uncooperative at the inquest; an inquest that ended with a guilty verdict being brought against him.

Luckily, there was one man outside his family circle who believed him to be innocent. John Christmas, was holidaying in the area with his cousin Sydenham Rampson; and he saw the weight of the evidence but he also observed the reactions of the accused man, and that was what made him quite certain that he was not the guilty party.

He found many lines of enquiry. The dead man had not made himself popular, firing a long serving member of staff and shooting his sister’s dog without a hint of remorse; and maybe someone had followed him back from Canada. The mystery of what the accused man had been doing on the day of the murder had to be resolved. There were also questions to be asked about the changed bicycle and the whereabouts of the murder weapon.

Those enquiries drew in family and friends, the staff of the house and the estate, local people, and a mysterious visitor to the area.

They also threw up some wonderfully disparate clues. I could fit some of them together, I had some idea how the story might play out, but I couldn’t work out everything and I was by no means certain. John Christmas had to think long and hard, but in the end he explained everything and solved the mystery.

I liked the detective and his somewhat reluctant sidekick. It was clear that they were good friends as well as cousins, and I loved their dialogues and that each of them could be both witty and cynical. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and I was always interested to find out more about the people in this story. They came from right across the class spectrum, so I could see just how life was in the big house and in the nearby village.

I could have happily spent more time in this part of the world and with many of the people who lived there.

This is a mystery that works because the human story is so good, and because Ianthe Jerrold wrote very well, created a distinctive plot and paced her story perfectly, so that I was always asking different questions and concerned about different characters and incidents and possibilities.  She picked out exactly the right details, there were some lovely touches, and I particularly liked the way she left some subtle clues that I could spot before they were picked up on by her characters.

The ending doesn’t quite live up to what came before – it was a little too contrived and a little too melodramatic.

As  a whole though, the book works.

Ianthe Jerrold was invited to join the Detection Club based on the success of her first two mysteries – this is the second – but though she continued to write for many more years this is the last recorded case of John Christmas and her last work of detective fiction.

I’m interested to see what else she wrote, but I can’t help being a little sorry that she changed course and that I only have one more of her mysteries to read.

Kingdom Lost by Patricia Wentworth (1930)

I had intended to make steady progress through Patricia Wentworth’ Miss Silver mysteries, but I was distracted from that plan when one of her stand-alone novels caught my eye. It sounded quite unlike any of her other books that I’ve read, it sounded a little like a certain other book that I loved, and it sounded far too good to resist.

It sits somewhere between a golden age mystery and romantic suspense, and I would say that the vintage cover that proclaimed it as a ‘romantic adventure’ got it about right.

What I want to say is that this is the story of the most spirited and engaging heroine you could ever hope to meet.

Valentine Ryven was born on an ocean liner and she was shipwrecked on a small island in the South Seas not very much later. She was picked up and carried to safety by Edward Bowden, a distinguished scholar taking long and rambling holiday after working much too hard.

Edward was wonderfully resourceful, salvaging a great deal from the wrecked liner and harbouring the islands natural resources. He also educated Valentine and brought her up to be ready to take her place in the world he had left behind. He was sure that one day another boat would pass by to rescue them; but he prepared Valentine for the possibility that he might die before that day came.

4449347This story begins some twenty years later, when a young man named Austin Muir came ashore and heard a young woman reciting Matthew Arnold. He was amazed and when Valentine recovered from her initial fright she was thrilled that she was being rescued and that she would have a chance to meet more people and to see so many things that she had only been told about by Edward.

Austin had been sent ashore by his employer, Nicholas Barclay, who had set out to find the island not on any map  that one of his ancestors swore he had discovered.  He was delighted with Austin’s discover, he was charmed by Valentine, and when he saw the papers that Edward had told her to present to her rescuer he knew who she was straight away.

Valentine was the missing heiress to a vast fortune!

Barclay took Valentine home via a Caribbean island, where he bought her clothes, shoes, and all of the other accoutrements a young woman going home to England should have. Valentine was delighted with it all, and she was smitten with the two very different men who were taking her back to her family.

It didn’t occur to Valentine for a minute that her family might not be pleased to see her.

She didn’t know that society had changed a great deal in the years since Edward left England.

Helena Ryven – Valentine’s aunt – was very correct and proper. That was a shock to the warm- hearted Valentine, who had been so looking forward to having a family she was sure she would love and would love her back.

She thought that the problem might be that she was disinheriting Helen’s son, Eustace, and so she offered him as much of the estate as he wanted. She explained that she needed very little to be happy, that all she needed was food and shelter and the lovely countryside around her. Her offer was rejected out of hand!

When she saw the wonderful work that Eustace was doing, restoring run down properties and looking after poor families in the East End of London, she knew that she had to find a way for him to carry on. She realised that the answer was simple – she and Eustace should be married and then everything that was hers would be his.

She loved Austin but he had rejected her – explaining that their family backgrounds. She didn’t understand but he stood firm, and after that it really didn’t matter who she married.

Her proposal was accepted.

Valentine tried to be happy but she couldn’t.

She loved the warm family home of Aunt Helena’s elder sister, Ida Cobb. She loved spending time in the country cottage where Aunt Helena’s younger brother, Timothy Brand, lived with his soon to be married half-sister, Lil. But she knew that Aunt Helena – a knitter who thought that wool-winding was an excellent occupation for her niece – would never understand her, and that she would never quite understand Aunt Helena. She also began to suspect that Eustace wanted to marry another woman, and that he was marrying her from a sense of duty.

She could never quite fit into the role life had given her.

As the wedding day drew nearer she knew that she couldn’t go through with it, but she wasn’t sure how to get out of it.

And one or two things happened that made her think she was in danger ….

I found so much to love in this book.

Patricia Wentworth is always good at clothes and in this book she must have had a lovely time writing about the joy Valentine found in so many lovely things in her new world.

She understood Valentine so well; and she created a wonderfully diverse band of characters to populate her world.

Eustace’s work in London gave the story just enough serious underpinning.

And I should say that ‘Kingdom Lost’ was not so like that certain other book – ‘Miss Ranskill Comes Home’ by Barbara Euphan Todd. They had similar beginnings, they had some themes and ideas in common, but the two heroines and their stories are different and distinctive.

I loved – and can recommend – both!

This particular story was improbable but it was so engaging; it rang true logically and emotionally.

I really didn’t know how the it would play out, and I so wanted to know, I was so concerned for Valentine, that I had to turn the pages very quickly.

There was romance, but I couldn’t even predict how that would play out.

Some might consider the twist at the end of the story to be a little too convenient, but I loved that it had the roots in the very first pages of the book, and it made me realise that Patricia Wentworth had plotted very cleverly.

Most of all, I loved spending time with Valentine.

I’m thinking now that maybe I should alternate Miss Silver books and Patricia Wentworth’s other stories ….

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (1930)

History records that Vita Sackville-West wrote ‘The Edwardians’ on holiday, targeting popular success. Her book was a huge hit, it was adapted for the stage, it was translated  into several languages, but neither its author or its publisher saw it as having any claim to literary greatness.

They were probably right, but it is a  lovely entertainment that captures a particular time and a particular class wonderfully well.

The author wrote what she knew, and at the very beginning of the book she notes that:

“No character in this book is wholly fictitious.”

If you have knowledge of her and her circle you will appreciate that; and understand that she is looking back at the world that she grew up in, comparing it with the world that her mother knew and the very different world that her children knew; and knowing that, while she loved it dearly, it was fatally flawed.

But it doesn’t matter if you know nothing at all, because the book is such a lovely period piece.

edwardiansThe story opens in 1905, with Sebastian, the nineteen year-old Duke of Chevron ascending to the roof of his country home to escape the guests at his mother’s house party. She loves society, while Sebastian isn’t quite sure how he feels. He is drawn to the glamour of his mother’s social set, but he can’t help being aware of how shallow their lives and their values really are.

His estate, Chevron, is a working estate, and Sebastian loved everything he can see and hear from his high vantage point.

“The whole community of the great house was humming at its work. In the stables, men were grooming horses; in the ‘shops’, the carpenters plane sent the wood-chips flying, the diamond of the glazier hissed on the glass; in the forge, the hammer rang in the anvil, and the bellows windily sighed … Sebastian heard the music and saw the vision. It was a tapestry that he saw, and heard the strains of a wind orchestra.”

It had been that way for hundreds of years, with sons following their fathers into the shops to learn a trade, and with positions within the house filled by the daughters and nieces of those already employed;  with staff claiming – and constrained by – their inheritance just as much as the family they served.

All of this is so vividly evoked, and the early chapters are rich with details of the life of the house, the party arrangements, the family, and a veritable army of servants.

One of the weekend visitors to Chevron, Leonard Antequil, didn’t belong to that world; but his adventurous life, including a winter spent alone in a snow hut in the Arctic Circle, and had brought him fame and made him a very desirable guest for the fashionable set.

It may not have occurred to the other guests that he was there as the result of his own of his efforts while they were there only by chance of birth or marriage. Or that he thought little of them.

One night Sebastian invited him up onto the roof, and he spoke to him openly and honestly, sensing his dissatisfaction and urging him to recognise the limitations of his lifestyle and to consider breaking with tradition.

“Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid – too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which are sometimes artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens the world must be served first.”

Sebastian is torn between his deep love of his home and his knowledge of the truth of Antequil’s words.

The arguments are beautifully expressed and perfectly balanced.

Sebastian regretfully declines Antequil’s invitation to accompany him on his next trip; but he never forgets their conversation.

He is seduced by an older woman, a society beauty of his mother’s generation; when their affair is ended by an ultimatum from her husband he drifts into a shallow life as a man about time; and then he draws a middle-class doctor’s wife into his life, and makes the mistake of inviting her to Chevron ….

“He had tried the most fashionable society, and he had tried the middle-class, and in both his plunging spirit had got stuck in the glue of convention and hypocrisy.”

All of this says much about Sebastian’s world; but it isn’t quite as engaging as those early chapters about life at the family estate.

Meanwhile, the world was changing.

Sebastian’s sister, Viola, knew that, and she was glad.

“For what have our mothers thought of us, all these years?” said Viola; “that we should make a good marriage, so that they might feel that they had done their duty by us, and were rid of their responsibility with an added pride. A successful daughter plus an eligible son-in-law. Any other possibility never entered their heads – that we might consult our own tastes for instance ….”

The author knew that.

The first defection at Chevron, when the head-carpenter’s son chooses a job in the new motor industry rather than follow his father into Chevron’s shops, illustrated that beautifully.

Sebastian was caught up with his own concerns, he was unhappy, but an encounter with Leonard Antequil on the day of the coronation of George V made him realise that he could change his life.

But would he?

I can’t say, and there are lots of details that I haven’t shared.

I loved this book: the prose, the conviction, the wealth of detail, the depiction of society.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It’s a little uneven, the structure isn’t strong, and much of what it has to say feels familiar.

But it does so much so well, it has such authenticity, and it is a wonderfully readable period piece.

Spiderweb – or, Murder in Paris – by Alice Campbell (1930)

It was a tatty little paperback, but it came from a publisher I trust, the title and the author name were interesting, and so I picked it up. I found that it held a story of suspense, set in Paris between the wars, and I decided that I should bring it home, and that it would be a lovely book for Paris in July.

Catherine West travelled to Paris from her home in the USA to visit an older friend. Germaine was the widow of Catherine’s wealthy cousin Harry Bender, and she had been an invalid since the car accident that had killed her husband. She had sent a letter asking her to visit, and Catherine – who had recently broken off her engagement, to the great displeasure of her sister and brother-in-law – was only too pleased to accept the invitation. She had loved Harry, she was very fond of Germaine, and she saw an opportunity to visit good friends in Europe.

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Geoffrey Macadam was an English lawyer, who worked for his father’s firm in Paris. Catherine caught his eye, and he was delighted when they were introduced by a mutual friend. He was charmed, but he was worried when he learned who Catherine was to visit. Because his father acted for Madame Bender, and he had been approached by a lady who claimed to be her friend and that she had been barred from visiting – that other friends had been barred from visiting – by the lady’s servants.

He had to be discrete, but her tried to warn Catherine. She was unconcerned; she believed that lady to be eccentric and she knew that Germaine’s maid had been with her for years and was devoted to her.

Geoffrey invited her to dinner, she accepted, and she would be very glad that she had.

When Catherine arrived at her cousin’s home she found that the house had been neglected, that very few of the staff were left, and that she wasn’t expected. She tried to make the best of the situation, she was firm, but it was clear that Jeanne – Hermione’s maid who was managing the household – didn’t want her there.

She found evidence that much was wrong. She had been expected; she saw the letter she had sent to her cousin in a waste paper basket. Many doors were locked, but she established that there were gaps in Henry’s art collection. And she saw Jeanne and Eduardo, the butler, admitting visitors at night when they thought she was asleep.

But she was trapped – like a fly in a spiderweb. Germaine was frail and confused, but she had faith in Jeanne and Eduardo. The doctor had decreed that Germaine shouldn’t be worried, and that nobody should mention her late husband. Catherine knew that something was wrong, but she couldn’t prove anything. And she knew that if she didn’t tread very carefully Jeanne and Eduardo might drive her out of the apartment, and then she could do nothing at all.

20294755Geoffrey did his best to help her untangle the mystery but his hand were tied. Because Germaine was his father’s client and – after his father was visited by Jeanne – he told his son that he was sure that Catherine had no reason to be concerned.

Alice Campbell wrote well. She set up Catherine’s invidious position very cleverly, she managed small revelations that built her story very well, and she portrayed the growing relationship – and the many conversations – between Catherine and Geoffrey beautifully.

The trouble was, there was only one way for the story to go. There was no doubt as to the nature of the conspiracy, or – with just one exception – who was involved. The only question was of degree, and with little depth to the characters and little knowledge of their back stories I wasn’t as engaged as I would have liked to have been.

I liked Catherine and Geoffrey enough to want to follow their story, I enjoyed spending time with them in a Paris that was very well evoked, and I appreciated that the story felt modern – but not too modern – for its setting.

There was enough suspense to hold me – I wanted to know exactly how the story would play out – and the dramatic final act was very well handled.

But I can’t help feeling that there were other authors – contemporaries of Alice Campbell – who might have done better with the story and the characters.

Doctor Serocold: A Page from his Day Book by Helen Ashton (1930)

I read Helen Ashton’s name somewhere, I’m not quite sure where, a month or so ago. I realised that she was one of those authors reissued by an interesting press whose name I hadn’t run through the library catalogue to see if any more of her work had been kept in stock. I’m not often lucky, but this time I was. I found that there were a dozen books, some fact and some fiction, tucked away in reserve stock.

I couldn’t find out much about the majority of those books; I couldn’t even find a proper bibliography of the author; and so I decided that it would be sensible to order in most successful book first.

I found that this is one of those books that captures the story of a single day in the life of its protagonist, and that in doing that illuminates his whole life and the world around him. It’s one of those books for people like me who marvel at the fact that every person they see, every person they pass in the street, has a whole life story; and wonder what some of those stories might be.

Doctor Serocold is an elderly doctor in a small country town. His day begins early, when he is called to the deathbed of his partner, the man who had been his mentor and who has become a dear friend; and it ends late as he watches over the birth of a child, and the start of a new life. The events of the day, and his awareness of his own mortality as he waits for the results of his own medical tests, draw out a rich seam of memories and emotions.

Doctor Serocold#The tone is exactly right, it catches a gentle melancholy, a sadness that a life is reaching its final act and a quiet determination to keep living. The clarity of the characterisation and the perfectly chosen details make this story so very engaging.

Doctor Serocold really was classic example of the traditional family doctor, the man who knows all of his patients’ lives, as well as their medical histories. He approached everything that he encountered with compassion, empathy and understanding, and with just enough wryness and character, to make him distinctive. He was aware that the world was changing, that the cottage hospital that he had helped to establish must grow; and he hopes that the young woman doctor he has taken on as assistant, whose skills and qualities he has come to admire, will be accepted by the community and will want to stay.

I liked him, and as I shared in his thoughts and followed him through an eventful day I came to understand why he had become the man he was, and why he wanted to continue on his chosen path.

The doctor’s day is busy. There is a visit to an elderly spinster; a difficult woman who he has learned to deal with tactfully. There is a routine operation at the cottage hospital, that he finds more difficult than he should, maybe because a younger doctor who he knows considers him rather old-fashioned is serving as his anaesthetist. There is the matron to talk with, a capable woman he knows that they are lucky to have. There is a visit to a young man who is still living with terrible war injuries, who he wants to steer away from his over-protective mother and towards the young woman who he can’t quite believe loves him. And, maybe most movingly of all, there is a visit to the woman he loved and lost, and he will have to confirm her suspicion that she is gravely ill, and accept her wish that there is no fuss and that her family is not disturbed.

Every character, every emotion, every detail, is captured beautifully and precisely; and they come together to create a wonderful picture of Doctor Serocold and the world around him.

I was sorry that the end was a little contrived, and a little rushed, but everything else had me captivated.

I can understand why this quiet book was so warmly received in its day; and I’m very glad that a wise librarian held on to a copy.