Coronation by Paul Gallico ~ 1962. This edition: Heinemann, 1962. First edition. Hardcover. 128 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10.
I struggled with this rating. It was a sweet, ultimately upbeat story, and my sentimental side wanted to put it higher, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. The major reason is that while the cover trumpets “A Novel” this slight effort is, in reality, only an extended short story, a novella. The secondary reason is that the characters are so dreadfully clichéd that they never truly came to life for me, though there were glimpses of what made them all tick here and there. Perennially sour and cranky Granny was perhaps the most “real” of them all, the most believable.
A working-class family of five, mother, father, two children and grandmother – the mother’s mother – decide to forego their annual seaside vacation and instead spend their meager holiday savings on a day trip to London to view the Coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth II. By a great stroke of luck, they’ve been put on to a wonderful opportunity: window seats in a grand house situated on Hyde Park Corner, plus a buffet lunch. With champagne. All this for only 10£ each – the tickets were marked down from 25£ – an amazing stroke of luck! What a good thing it was that cousin Bert in London was able to make the bargain purchase through one of his “connections”!
Steel mill shift foreman Will Clagg is bestirred by patriotic pride and a deep affection for his young, beautiful Queen; his wife Violet pictures herself elegantly sipping champagne (which she’s never tasted) like one of the film stars she so idolizes; 11-year-old Johnny, who cherishes a deep ambition to one day become an officer in the British Service, is thrilled to be able to see the massive parade of troops from all corners of the Commonwealth; 7-year-old Gwenny has her own private image of what she’ll see, the fairy-tale princess from one of her storybooks, a personal infatuation about to be fulfilled; Granny, the last hold-out to the proposed excursion, swings into agreement when it is pointed out that she saw the Funeral Procession of the last Queen, Victoria; how fitting that she should see the Coronation Procession of this one. “A living link, you are!” her despised son-in-law cries, and Granny lets herself be swayed.
In to London on the Coronation Special from Sheffield, to join the masses of humanity streaming in from every corner of England, and beyond. But when they finally struggle through the crowds to the address of their front-row-seats-and-champagne-lunch, what greets their shocked and unbelieving eyes is something very different from what they had expected…
Things I Liked About This Story:
Granny – The author creates an unlikeable character, allows us to despise her, and then strips away the surface veneer just for a few moments to allow us to understand the source of her bitterness, after which we are fully on her side. This was a delicately balanced little episode, and Gallico played it just right.
No Miracle – We are expecting some magically positive resolution to the family’s bitter dilemma. We don’t get it. The worst happens. A brave move on the author’s part; he bucks the expected trend.
The Scene – The glimpses of the actual Coronation going on very much in the background of the family’s experiences on the street, as it were. A wonderful depiction of what it musty have been like to be in the crowd of that day. A grand little novella for this reason alone, even without the contrivances – and they were sometimes very contrived – of the sentimental plot.
Will Clagg – Gallico’s tribute to the British Working Class Everyman. Will is decent, hard-working, self-sacrificing, deeply patriotic, deeply paternal, and he loves his wife dearly. Awww, how wonderful! Seriously though, he is a very decent sort, and I liked him thoroughly, saddled as he was with meek and rather silly Violet, her shrewish mother, and rather soppy little Gwenny. Which leads to what I didn’t like about the story.
Things I Didn’t Like About This Story:
The cookie-cutter stereotypes of all of the characters, from wee Gwenny to nasty-but-ultimately-heroic Granny to the policeman at the parade barricade. Every single one was true to the clichéd type we’ve come to expect from that particular place and era; no surprises there at all, though I will admit that Gallico presented his characters well.
The general meekness of every member of the family to their bitter individual disappointments, and the sops which the author created to soothe their woes. Just a little too simplistic, I thought, and the acceptance was too pat. Just a bit. (Says my inner cynic.) Is anyone really that stoic? Little Johnny in particular seemed to be very stiff-upper-lip about, well, everything. A bit of an unnatural child, surely. (But this very stoicism is perfectly suited to Johnny’s ambition of one day being a Noble British Army Officer, I’ll give Gallico that.)
Will’s misogyny towards women. This struck a rather sour note with me. Sure, he loves his wife and the kiddies, and puts up with his sour mother-in-law with good grace, and generally maintains a mild good nature. But Gallico’s little aside near the end of the story, as the family is ordering their meal in the restaurant car, set my teeth on edge.
For all of the fact that Will was a heavy, thick-set, powerful brute of a man who had fought his way up from the ranks of men to command them, he had learned something of the little things that tickled women, an extra ribbon on a dress, or some chintz at a kitchen window. They were not like men, they were more like children. And from the very beginning he had understood that the item which had sold Violet on the whole Coronation scheme and had overcome whatever scruples she might have had, or dissents she could have cooked up, was the champagne, the drink of bubbly advertised with the lunch. He had not, of course, been able to get wholly into her mind and visualize how she saw herself holding the special glass in her hand, the little finger cocked most elegantly, while she contemplated the bubbles rising in the yellow fluid before knocking it back, but he did appreciate that somehow this was to be the focus of the day for her, just that little extra something which sells or captivates a woman.
Well, speaking as a woman, when I read that passage my immediate reaction was “Ouch!” Of course men are above such trivial enjoyments. Being all thrilled at the sight of your name in a minor article in the newspaper is of course something quite different and not nearly as silly as a longed-for taste of champagne, eh Will? Ha!
My husband, who read this book before I did, was completely right, though. He passed it over to me with the comment that it was an enjoyable little story, in a minor sort of key. Which it was. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, but if you come across it, it’s worth the hour or two of reading time it will take, if you are tolerant of deeply sentimental, “proud-to-be-an-Englishman”, and God Save the Queen goings on.
It was rather sweet.
And here are some other reviews, well worth checking out.
Stuck-in-a-Book liked it unreservedly.
Fleur Fisher shared my minor reservations, as did My Porch, but both nodded in appreciation to the good things that I also liked about this little tale.
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