My rating: 3/10
Oh, Century of Books. You are leading me down some strange byways of reading…
Some days ago I wrote with some enthusiasm about a rather charming vintage book by Herbert Jenkins, Patricia Brent, Spinster. I was careful in my review not to reveal the key plot points and the ending, because I felt that this was a book that would reward discovery by a modern-day reader. I am very sad to say that today’s book will not be rewarded the same treatment, because it disappointed me immensely.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice the mending tape on the bottom left hand corner of the book pictured here. That was me. Usually I am very careful about my mending of older books, aiming for non-obtrusive fixes, but in this case I just slapped a piece of Magic tape on there and called it good enough. The whole spine is loose and the text block only just hanging on by a whisp or two of paper – almost as if at some point a previous reader gave this one the toss across the room. Hmmm… (Okay, maybe I’m just being really snarky.)
So, yes, there will be spoilers in the next few paragraphs. (And I’m keeping it shortish, because it’s really not worth spending any more time on.)
It all starts off promisingly enough. Here we have a vicarage family, the widowed Rector Brian Vereker, and his lovely children – literally lovely, as they are famed for their good looks among the local villagers – nineteen-year-old Daphne, doorstepping down through Sebastian Aloysius (“Ally”), Monica Cecila (“Cilly”), Stephen (“Stiffy”), Veronica Elizabeth (“Nicky”) to to the youngest, eleven-year-old Tony. A lively lot they all are, and we are treated to a prolonged domestic interlude which sets up the characters quite nicely, and gives a rather charming picture of English upper-middle-class home life – for the Rector is the youngest son of a youngest son of a peer of the realm – in the early years of the 20th Century.
Then an abrupt change of scene to a room full of coal mine owners as they meet with labour union leaders in order to negotiate a way out of a possible workers’ strike. Here we become acquainted with our main masculine character, one Lord Carr, also known by his nickname of “Juggernaut” for his overbearing success in always proving his point and coming out on top. In this case Juggernaut succeeds in quelling the potential strike, knocking down the ineffectual union leaders and getting in a few digs about free enterprise and every-man-for-himself-ism which sound forbiddingly close to the spoutings of the far-Right political parties of our current age – not much doubt as to our author’s feelings throughout this book, I’ afraid – he does rather slant towards his brusque hero’s view.
The set-up is to introduce the rather-much-older (forty-five-ish) Lord Carr to the eldest vicarage daughter, the sweet-nineteen Daphne. For of course Lord Carr and Rector Vereker are old school chums, and after squashing the labour uprising in the area, Lord Carr is quite happy to spend a few weeks relaxing among the Vereker clan, where he falls in inarticulate but sincere love with Daphne.
The two marry, Juggernaut for love and Daphne for money – she is motivated by a desire to secure the futures of her brothers and sisters – and for a few years all is quite content. A son is born to Lord and Lady Carr, but as the child grows it becomes apparent that the marriage is, if not actively struggling, becoming a rather pathetic thing. Lord Carr is unable to speak his feelings of devotion to Daphne; she in turn is starting to turn to other companions for amusement, including Lord Carr’s devoted right hand man.
This gets us in quite decent style to the latter bit of the book, where the author completely goes to pieces and gets all darkly dramatic. Daphne and Juggernaut part ways, Daphne fleeing to the old family home with the baby and Juggernaut staying broodingly in London. While they are parted, it dawns on Daphne that perhaps she really does love her masterful though stoic husband, and a reconciliation is affected by way of the right hand man’s revealing that Juggernaut is really just a big softie, supplying food and comforts to the wives and children during the last coal mine strike. “I never knew!” cries Daphne, and she flies to her husband’s sturdy breast, to be clasped there with fervor.
But wait! There’s more!
The workers at the local coal mine go on a wildcat strike, and as a result the workings are sabotaged, resulting in a cave-in which traps a number of our side characters, including Right Hand Man. Juggernaut is front and centre of the rescue mission, and (sob!) is blinded by an explosion after he has personally seen all of the rescued men to safety.
Fast forward a year or two to a scene of domestic bliss, Juggernaut and Daphne all sappily happy with their adorable wee children, love restored and blind Pappa the centre of a scene of cozy cuteness.
What a dreadfully clichéd story. No wonder it was picked up and condensed by Barbara Cartland for her 1977 “Library of Love.”
This novel made me prickly all over. It started out so well, and had so many nice domestic and period details, that I hoped right up until those last few chapters that it would go in a different direction, but nope! – no such luck. It just dissolved into mushy sweetness. Absolutely, deeply, offensively, sugary, syrupy adorableness. Argh.
Not recommended, but if you are very brave and wish to look for yourself, here it is on Gutenberg.
Ian Hay, by the way, was quite a well-respected writer of his time. Here is his biography, pasted directly in from Wikipedia. As the man could undoubtedly write, in a modestly competent way, I do find myself curious as to some of his other works, in particular the war-themed The First Hundred Thousand. But as for The Safety Match, I wouldn’t open that again at gunpoint.
Major General John Hay Beith, CBE, (17 April 1876 – 22 September 1952), was a British schoolmaster and soldier, but he is best remembered as a novelist, playwright, essayist and historian who wrote under the pen name Ian Hay.
After reading Classics at Cambridge, Beith became a schoolmaster. In 1907 he published a novel, Pip; its success and that of several more novels enabled him to give up teaching in 1912 to be a full-time author. During the First World War, Beith served as an officer in the army in France. His good-humoured account of army life, The First Hundred Thousand, published in 1915, was a best-seller. On the strength of this, he was sent to work in the information section of the British War Mission in Washington, D.C.
After the war Beith’s novels did not achieve the popularity of his earlier work, but he made a considerable career as a dramatist, writing light comedies, often in collaboration with other authors including P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. During the Second World War Beith served as Director of Public Relations at the War Office, retiring in 1941 shortly before his 65th birthday.
Among Beith’s later works were several war histories, which were not as well received as his comic fiction and plays. His one serious play, Hattie Stowe (1947), was politely reviewed but had a short run. In the same year he co-wrote a comedy, Off the Record, which ran for more than 700 performances.
I did a fairly thorough internet search, and came up with only one other blog review, from Only Two Rs, whose take was similar to my own.