Posts Tagged ‘1940 Novel’

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker ~ 1940. This edition: Bloomsbury, 2010. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-60819-051-5. 317 pages.

This one has been on the want-to-read list for many years. I’ve seen so many enthusiastic recommendations by like-minded readers, and I am pleased to report that my own experience is the same. This is a grand – and more than slightly unusual – novel.

I’m parachuting in here in the briefest of ways this desperately busy Sunday morning, because this one is just too good not to mention, and luckily a lot of others have said a lot of things about it; it’s no longer quite the hidden gem it was before Bloomsbury dusted it off and sent it back into the world.

Here’s the set-up, courtesy the publisher’s blurb:

When, on the spur of a moment, Norman Huntley and his friend Henry invent an eighty-three year-old woman called Miss Hargreaves, they are inspired to post a letter to their new fictional friend. It is only meant to be a silly, harmless game – until Miss Hargreaves arrives on their doorstep, complete with her cockatoo, her harp and – last but not least – her bath. She is, to Norman’s utter disbelief, exactly as he had imagined her: enchanting, eccentric and endlessly astounding. He hadn’t imagined, however, how much havoc an imaginary octogenarian could wreak in his sleepy Buckinghamshire home town, Cornford.

Norman has some explaining to do, but how will he begin to explain to his friends, family and girlfriend where Miss Hargreaves came from when he hasn’t the faintest clue himself? Will his once-ordinary, once-peaceful life ever be the same again? And, what’s more, does he want it to?

And here, because anything I say would be merely a repeat – he even includes one of the quotes I marked in my own book! – is Simon at Stuck in a Book. Thank you, Simon. For this, and for so much more. You keep pointing me in the direction of intriguing things!

“I abominate fuss…” Miss Hargreaves and Me

This is a delicious creation indeed, a close to perfect novel, with its combination of intelligent ridiculousness and things much deeper and darker. It stands alone; I can think of nothing to compare it to.

Very highly recommended. 10/10.




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a-footman-for-the-peacock-rachel-ferguson-1940A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson ~ 1940. This edition: Dean Street Press, 2016. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-911413-71-4. 206 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Ever since my 2012 reading of Rachel Ferguson’s challenging but ultimately enjoyable 1931 novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworths, I’ve harboured a yen to broaden my exploration  of the further works of this highly intelligent (and highly class conscious) writer.

Imagine then my anticipatory pleasure when approached by Dean Street Press with a review copy of one of Rachel Ferguson’s long out-of-print novels, A Footman for the Peacock, a partly serious, partly fantasy, partly satirical novel set at the beginning of the Second World War.

“Yes, please!” was my response, and I must say in this case my instinct that this was going to be a pleasure to read and review was perfectly correct.

A small aside, here, regarding my book reviewing. As a book blogger in this esoteric corner of the internet, I frequently receive requests to read and review things, and I generally turn these requests down. No time or energy for possible duds, you know. (I find enough of those for myself quite voluntarily!)

Unless the book in question is one which looks to be something I’d be interested in buying for myself in any event, in which case I’m naturally as keen as can be. (Re-publishers of mid-century middlebrow fiction, and gardening and travel books of any era, please take note! 🙂 )

Back to the Peacock.

It’s 1939, and the war is looming. Even the most optimistic of “peace in our time” Munich Agreement yes-men have come to the realization that all of that was a great big political farce, and that the guns will soon be firing.

The aristocratic Roundelays are in residence at Delaye, a vast pile of a country house just barely holding its own as the 20th century brutally takes its financial toll on the English “gentleman’s class”. Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn know that another war is well-nigh inevitable, but in concert with their rural neighbours are merely holding still, making no actual preparations other than mental, because to do so would break the fragile hope that peace might yet prevail.

The Roundelays are walking a financial tightrope, balanced as they are between the still-wealthy and the newly bankrupt; each breath of political wind sends them swaying, but they refuse to step aside and are making shift to keep things going, with ever-fewer servants and not running a car (Lady Evelyn does the household shopping herself, travelling to and fro by bus) and having a cousin in residence as a paying guest, his five guineas a week going directly into the grocery budget for cousin Maxwell, Lady Evelyn, Sir Edmund, their two daughters still at home, three perennially feuding great-aunts, an ancient and increasingly senile old family retainer (Nursie), long-time dedicated butler, cranky cook, and a gardener, his helper, and a housemaid or two, not to mention kitchenmaid Sue Privett, eighth in her family to have been in service to the Roundelays, which turns out to have great significance to our story.

And there’s the peacock.

Ill-tempered, raucous, and tolerant only towards kitchenmaid Sue and the younger Roundelay daughter, Angela, the peacock haunts the grounds of Delaye, finding his way home after being forcibly relocated to a neighbouring estate where it is hoped he will find solace with a flock of peahens.

We have clues early on that this particular peacock is much more than a semi-domestic bird. He is, instead, a sort of reincarnation of long ago Roundelay servant Thomas Picocke, a “running footman”, who perished in 1792 due to the horrific nature of his duties (running in front of the carriage horses for miles and miles, to clear the way and announce the arrival of his masters) and the callous disregard of the family he served; all but French expatriate Lady Marguerite, wherein lies a sad tale of pity and betrayal, but not that which you might think…

Of reincarnations we have an inkling of three in this complex tale; also an intriguing reference to Dunne’s Theory of Time, a concept of serialism, or parallel streams of time, much discussed by the intellectuals of Rachel Ferguson’s time, and used by such disparate writers as J.B. Priestley, Rumer Godden and Elizabeth Goudge in their novels.

A Footman for the Peacock was received with lukewarm enthusiasm upon its publication early in the war. Though Rachel Ferguson was well-known by that time as a cutting satirist, the portrayal of the Roundelays as self-devoted shirkers of wartime duties grated just a bit too much on the sensibilities of reviewers, who suspected that Rachel Ferguson’s tongue was not quite as far in cheek as it should have been.

Here’s a sample of what got on their nerves.

War has just been declared, and the Roundelays are appalled by the thought of taking in evacuees or refugees. -(Perhaps understandably so, for their domestic arrangements are delicately balanced at the extreme edge of manageability – though others less well-placed are turning their households inside out in the service of the National Emergency, so that’s not a real excuse.) Anyway, at dinner one night, eldest daughter Margaret drops a bit of a conversational bomb.

‘I say, mother, I had a letter yesterday from Ortrud Bohm, that German girl I was at school with – ‘

Lady Roundelay smote the table with her fist. ‘No! No she doesn’t! My heart bleeds for the German Jews as much as anybody’s but I cannot face a pale fugitive running tear-stained in what she stands up in down this avenue. I’ve read horrors until I’m sick and I know everything the Nazis have done and I can’t cope with being wept over and having the old home in Hamburg or wherever it is described brick by brick and hearing that Mein Vater was suddenly not there and hasn’t been seen since, and that the Liebe Mutter was raped before her eyes and my German wouldn’t stand the strain. I can only say Bitte and Danke Sehr and Sauerkraut and Mein Kampf, and I won’t, I won’t, I WON’T!’

‘God, no,’ confirmed Sir Edmund. ‘If she comes, I go.’

Margaret finished her ham. ‘I was only going to tell you what she wrote and she’s not Jewish, you know… She says that she’s joined the Youth Movement and her brother’s in the army and he’s got a commission he couldn’t have hoped for in peace time as the Bohms aren’t geboren, you know, and that they’re not half so sniffed at as they used to be when they were only in trade, and she’s really seeing some men at last and is having the time of her life. She actually used some German words, so that really looks as though she might even marry now she sees it’s no good being so frightfully British. She was the one who came into the class once in a tartan skirt.’

‘Gosh… well, sorry I spoke. I hope she hooks some oberleutnant – what happened in church today, aunt Jessie?’

Did you find this passage rather shocking?

Well, you were supposed to, because Rachel Ferguson’s point is that people are a mix of thoughts, feelings and instinctive responses.

Quite “nice” people like the Roundelays – who are loving parents (the relationship between Lady Evelyn and emotionally fragile daughter Angela is one of the most likeable aspects of this all-over-the-place book), relatively decent to their servants (that episode with the running footman being in the bad old past), kindly dutiful to their tiresome relations and dependents (the great-aunts and Nursie are high maintenance to the nth degree) – I repeat, quite nice people in comparison to the society they exist in, harbouring selfish and bigoted thoughts, and having the temerity to voice them out loud.

In the last lies the rub.

For though we all harbour certain best-not-spoken thoughts, the Roundelays let fly. Mostly in the family circle, but we are privy to their words, and we recoil in politically correct horror to what is expressed in passages such as the one above, while guiltily holding in laughter, because a lot of what is said is (full disclosure – I laughed when I read this) very funny.

There is a strand of plot running through this very full story, but much of the pleasure of the thing lies in the many side excursions – show Rachel Ferguson a glimpse of a rabbit trail and she’s off like a shot, returning to the main path not at all winded and blithely assuming her reader to be loping along still in stride.

It takes a bit to get it figured out, but once one is hooked – it took me about 20 pages or so; I went back and checked – the rest of this quirky novel is both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s occasionally rather like untangling a mess of yarn complete with helpful kitten, but it works.

And, thanks to Dean Street Press and the republishing of not just this one Rachel Ferguson novel, plus two more and a tempting selection of other mid-century reprints, my Christmas book wish-list for myself is well-nigh complete. Check out their recent releases – oh, bliss! Available as paper books (print on demand, and very nicely done; I’m impressed) from the publisher or via Amazon and Book Depository; also as ebooks in various formats.

For the original book blog review which triggered this reprint, I’m going to send you over to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow, whose impeccable taste in obsolete fiction has pointed the way to many, many hours of excellent reading.

Here’s his take on A Footman for the Peacock, with loads of quotes and a most thoughtful analysis, which I find myself nodding away to in complete agreement.


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the fire and the wood by r c hutchinson 1940The Fire and the Wood. A Love Story. by R.C. Hutchinson ~ 1940. This edition: The Literary Guild of America, 1940. Hardcover. 440 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Hidden gem alert!

I have just stumbled upon a now-obscure, once-bestselling British novelist. Why have I not heard of  Ray Coryton Hutchinson before?

Seventeen books published between 1930 and 1975. The third, 1933’s The Unforgotten Prisoner, sold over 150,000 copies in its first month. A Child Possessed, 1964, won the W.H. Smith Literary Award, and is the inspiration behind a 2012, 2-act orchestral opera composed by Robert Paterson. The last, 1975’s posthumously published Rising, made it to the Booker Prize shortlist.

The Fire and the Wood, apparently regarded as merely one of Hutchinson’s “average” efforts, is a downright excellent piece of authorial work, being utterly relevent to its period, chock-full of easily absorbed “message”, and, best of all, compulsively readable. I couldn’t put the thing down. The writing flows, the whole transcends its parts. Brilliant work.

In the opening days of World War II, a novel was published in Great Britain with the following dedication:


My Dear Jeremy,

You will remember that I told you Josef’s story one evening, the summer before last, in the Half Moon at Clare. You thought then that it was worth putting on paper, and I still think it was. But the time, between now and then, has not been a good one for the job: the means by which we know what is happening round the world have become so efficient that it’s increasingly hard to concentrate, for several hours a day, on the fortunes of one or two people. The excuse, of course, is not valid: no excuse is valid. The masters of the trade have done it as well, and sometimes better, when the hubbub was loudest. But I myself find difficulty, with these cold winds blowing incessantly against the mind, in raising it to that temperature which seems to me necessary for work which has the smallest pretension to seriousness; and I fancy that some others among the feebler-hearted brethren may be in the same case.

I mention the handicap as an apology for dedicating such a book as this to you, an amateur suckled by Turgenev and weaned on Henry James. Will you take the gesture as one of gratitude for many kindnesses, and for twenty years of friendship?

Yours ever,


Infantry Training Centre,


March, 1940.

What follows this elaborately modest introduction is a dense but never staid novel, approaching farce in its humorous opening scenes, darkening by imperceptible degrees into a nightmare scenario, a Kafkaesque dream sequence, appalling reality and delirious fever-dreams ever more entwined.

In the mid-1930s, young Doctor Josef Zeppichmann, newly qualified, joins the staff of a prestigious hospital in a large German city. Coming with glowing references which are at odds with his awkward manner, lumpy countenance, and country-lad ways, Zeppichmann proves to be an exceedingly competent doctor, though his bedside manner is brusque to the extreme, and his concentration on the ailments of his patients with the casual exclusion of all unimportant details such as name (or even gender) soundly shocks the nurses.

For Josef Zeppichmann is at heart a medical researcher, a bacteriologist concentrating on an audaciously risky cure for tuberculosis. Pursuing a pet theory during the latter years of his medical internship, he has progressed to the point of wishing to experiment on human patients – his guinea pig and rat trials have been remarkably successful – in most cases – but Josef runs up against a brick wall in the strict Moltke hierarchy; he is not even permitted to examine the patients in the TB ward, and is restricted to junior doctor duties in the general wards.

But Josef is made of stern, single-minded stuff. He bullies his way into the best room in his new boarding house, and sets up his own private laboratory. And what’s this? Close at hand, the kitchenmaid Minna is showing unmistakable signs of an advanced lung complaint. When she collapses one day while working, Josef is quick to grasp the heaven-sent opportunity of a human guinea pig. He takes advantage of the boarding house owners’ strict economy to offer treatment free of charge in return for exclusive access to the girl, and the real experiment is on.

Meanwhile, on the post-Weimar Republic mean streets outside the hospital, civil unrest is brewing between various political factions. The roving bands of young thugs running under the banner of  the National Socialist German Workers Party are becoming more and more efficient in striking out at anyone they suspect of being in less than perfect sympathy with the cause of Germany’s new Chancellor, a certain Adolf Hitler. Josef inadvertently runs afoul of a group of these young “Nazis”, and repercussions are swift to follow.

For Josef Zeppichmann is a Jew.

As Minna moans in fevered agony, emaciated body struggling to cope with Josef’s escalating injections, a series of increasingly somber blows fall upon our protagonist, culminating in his dismissal from his hospital post and his arrest and subsequent detainment in a political prisoner internment camp.

Luckily for Minna, Joesf has had time to give her the last vaccination in his series, and it has apparently proven successful. She and Josef have also formed a strong attachment, with the doctor-patient bond turning at the eleventh hour from pure need of each other in an elemental sense – Josef needing a subject for his research, Minna needing a cure –  to unanticipated love, just in time for Minna to see Josef dragged away in handcuffs, leaving behind his precious medical notes in her care.

The suspense continues to build, escalating to a daring rescue-escape of the damaged lovers via canal boat to Holland, and thence to England. But their troubles are far from over, for Josef has in turn contracted TB in the prison camp, and Minna herself is still weak from her long ailment.

The mood and style of the novel evolves along with the misfortunes of its two main characters; as the once utterly in control Josef sinks into fevered oblivion we increasingly see the action from Minna’s point of view. Her own grip on reality is far from strong, though, and the ending sequence, seen through her eyes, is decidedly surreal. (I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the bit at the very end, and if you’ve read it and have an interpretation I’d be most interested to compare notes, but the lapse from logical story progression doesn’t really matter – in this case it works.)

R.C. Hutchinson had an agenda, which was to bring the horrific pre-war social conditions in Germany to his reading public’s attention. Fascinating to read what is basically a propaganda novel, published in 1940 before the worst of the Nazi Party’s subsequent excesses became common knowledge. It’s a clever piece of work, brilliant even, and as I mentioned earlier, a page-turner from start to finish.

So, R.C. Hutchinson. Ever heard of him before?

I hadn’t. And I should have, I think. He’s unaccountably fallen by the literary wayside, though Bloomsbury has recently released a number of his novels in e-book format, and his long list of out-of-print bestsellers are easy enough to find in numerous editions through online booksellers.

The quest is on.

R.C. Hutchinson in an undated publicity photo.

R.C. (Ray Coryton) Hutchinson, 1907-1975, in an undated publicity photo.


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