Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

I seem to have developed a bit of a thing for novels featuring life in the great British boarding houses of the 1930s and ‘40s. First came Patrick Hamilton’s brilliant Slaves of Solitude, one of my favourites from last year, and now the equally marvellous Of Love and Hunger from Hamilton’s contemporary, Julian Maclaren-Ross. It will make my 2015 highlights, for sure.

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First published in 1947, Of Love and Hunger is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man in his late twenties who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to sell vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. Life as a door-to-door salesman is soemwhat miserable; the pay is lousy and with sales being so hard to come by, the prospects of commission are pretty poor. It’s all a desperate racket of course, and Fanshawe has enough nous to see through the flannel being peddled his employers. On a good day, canvassing door-to-door might yield four or five ‘dems’ (in-home demonstrations, carpets cleaned for free), and once you’re inside, there’s the question of convincing the customer to sign. Not as easy as it might appear. Here’s an excerpt from one of Fanshawe’s calls.

This one was called Miss Tuke. 49, The Crescent. Small house, two storeys, villa-type; small dark drawing-room full of knick-knacks, thick old-fashioned hangings full of dust. No maid, no cleaner, woman in once a week. A cert, if I played it right.

Miss Tuke didn’t seem a bad old girl either. Bit jumpy: kept looking up at the ceiling as if expecting it might fall on her at any moment. Couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw what I got out of her carpet.

‘But I don’t understand. I had the carpet cleaned. Two days ago. I had a woman in.’

‘This dirt didn’t accumulate in two days, Miss Tuke.’ I told her. ‘It’s been in your carpet for years. The ordinary methods of cleaning won’t remove it.’

‘Then what can I do?’

‘There’s only one thing,’ I said, pointing to the cleaner. Miss Tuke looked at it and swallowed. I waited to let the idea sink in. It was too soon to start on her yet, but I felt in my pocket to make sure I’d an order-form ready when the time came. It was there all right. (pgs. 6-7)

I won’t reveal how this one turned out, but let’s just say things don’t go quite to plan.

The novel is set in a colourless seaside town near Brighton in the late 1930s, and with the country on the brink of WWII, a sense of uncertainty is simmering away in the background. Fanshawe’s current abode is a tawdry boarding house, a place where he remains under the gaze of the ever-watchful landlady, Mrs Fellows. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money.

Mrs Fellows popped out of her den next to the dining-room as I was reading the letter. All day long she sat in there by an electric fire, dressmaking. She made all her own dresses. But when I came in she always popped out, in case I got a cheque and hid it before she’d time to get her hooks in. I was six quid in arrears, and she watched my mail like a hawk.

‘Any luck, Mr Fanshawe?’ She asked, with one eye on the letters.

‘None, I’m afraid. Only bills.’

‘Never mind, Mr Fanshawe. Something’ll turn up.’ (pg. 14)

Maclaren-Ross is excellent at portraying the dismal and somewhat futile nature of life as a door-to-door salesman. Everyone is on the fiddle: some salesmen are pulling names and addresses from the telephone directory, noting them down as ‘dems’ to meet their targets; others are hiring out cleaners instead of selling them; sales managers are flogging second-hand models to make a bit of extra cash on the sly. You name it, they’re doing it. Every now and again a sales manager swoops in for a pep talk with the troops and then disappears as quickly as possible. It’s all a load of bluster, and Maclaren-Ross captures it perfectly.

Another thing I love about this novel is the character descriptions. Maclaren-Ross can convey the sense of a person in just a few clipped sentences. Here’s a quick sketch of a couple of Fanshawe’s colleagues in the vacuum business, Barrington and Hall:

Hall looked more like a salesman than any of us. Baggy blue suit, brown shoes, fuzzy hair standing on end. And, of course, a raincoat. We all had raincoats. Sure sign of a salesman. Spot ’em miles off. Same as gangsters. Barrington wore a blue suit as well, but his shoes were black. Big fellow, about my build. You could see his biceps bulging under the blue suit. Had a wife that he sometimes talked about but didn’t live with. (pg. 5)

You get the picture. All this might be starting to sound a little bleak, but it isn’t. The novel is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house.

After only a few weeks with the firm, Fanshawe gets the sack. It’s not entirely unexpected, and he ends up signing on with the one of the competitors, a bigger outfit by the name of Sucko. Cue a string of hilarious scenes as Fanshawe pitches up at the Sucko School for training, a place where he learns everything there is to know about Sucko except how to sell the bloody thing!

Friday was the last day of the course. Graduation Day. The afternoon was given up to showing us the Sucko Floor Polisher, which we could sell as a sideline if all else failed. Commission on it was big, but so was the Floor Polisher. In fact it was enormous. I hoped to Christ we hadn’t to cart that about with us as well. The dem-case with the cleaner in it was heavy enough on its own. 28 lb, to be exact. Smith, who was a small chap, could hardly get it up off the floor. (pg. 104)

At first, transferring to Sucko appears to be a good move. There’s talk of a team of lady-interviews to book the dems, thereby enabling the salesmen to focus on the job of selling. But support is a bit thin on the ground in Fanshawe’s area, and his Group Leader, Smiler Barnes, is a slippery character. All in all it’s the same old fiddle, just on a bigger scale.

Running alongside Fanshawe’s quest to eke out a living, there is another strand in the novel. When Fanshawe’s colleague, Roper, gets the sack from the first firm, he goes away to sea for three months leaving his wife, Sukie, on her own. He asks Fanshawe to look after her, to call round or take her out every now and again. Fanshawe agrees albeit reluctantly. At first he isn’t sure about Sukie but soon warms to her as he gets to know her a little better. With her wide knowledge of books, Sukie encourages Fanshawe to put his talent for storytelling to use by writing a few stories on his time in India. (Brief flashbacks threaded through the novel reveal certain aspects of his former life as a journalist out in the East.) Of course, the inevitable happens, and Fanshawe falls in love with Sukie, a romance played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods.

Sukie lay back in her white blouse with her arms behind her head. ‘I love it,’ she said. ‘Don’t you love the sun? She closed her eyes. Her eyelids had little blue veins in them. Under her eyes was a blue shadow and the lids were shaded blue as well. Her arms were bare to the elbow. Strong and white. A little black hair showing under the armpit where I could see up the sleeve of her blouse. She was there within reach of my hand and there was nothing I could do except look at her. (pg. 132-133)

That’s about as much as I want to say about this strand – you’ll have to read the book to discover the outcome for yourself. 

All in all, Of Love and Hunger is a wonderful novel, one of my favourite reads of the year so far. The two lead characters, Fanshawe and Sukie, are beautifully realised and more complex than appears at first sight. As the novel progresses, we see a more sensitive, vulnerable side to Fanshawe as he falls for his friend’s wife. Sukie, on the other hand, is rather fickle, her moods change like the weather. At times, she is supportive and encouraging but she can also be a bit of a tease. There are hints of a fiery temper, too.

Maclaren-Ross’ clipped prose and use of slang gives the story an authentic feel. As you might expect, he captures the mood of the period perfectly. Many of the young men in the novel are scraping a living, just like Fanshawe. As the story draws to a close we are on the brink of change; war is coming, and there is a sense that many see military service as a new start in life. It saddens me to think of these men with so little ahead of them other than the prospect of war.

In wrapping up, I must thank a few people for bringing this terrific novel to my attention. Firstly, Kaggsy, via her review here, and secondly, Max, who recommended it in his comments on my Hamilton piece. Guy is another fan – his review is here.

Of Love and Hunger is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.

47 thoughts on “Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

  1. MarinaSofia

    Sigh, another novel I’ve never heard of and that Iike the sound of…. So many books, so little time!
    But if you are on a boarding-houses binge (not that two books in a year can count as such), I can recommend Muriel Spark’s ‘Girls of Slender Means’ as a classic. There’s also an unjustly forgotten novel by E. H, Young ‘Jenny Wren’. And if you can handle a truly, truly depressing story, then ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’ by Brian Moore – well it’s a Belfast boarding house rather than an English one, but still… Now you made me want to reread them all, plus the two you recommended!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! This is my favourite book of the year so far, and I’d put the Patrick Hamilton in my top two reads from 2014 (along with Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding). Can’t recommend them highly enough.

      Thanks so much for the recommendations, Marina. Funnily enough the Muriel Spark is on my wishlist as a couple of other bloggers have already recommended it to me (always a good sign). I’m sure I’ll get it at some stage once I’ve read the other Spark novels I have on the shelves at home. It does sound terrific.

      I’ll take a look at the other two you’ve mentioned. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is ringing bells but I’m struggling to think where I’ve seen or heard about it. Depressing is okay, I can handle that as long as I’m in the right mood. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome. I think you’d love Maclaren-Ross as he’s often bracketed together with Patrick Hamilton. Lots of parallels in terms of themes, style and mood. Definitely one for you Helen!

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review Jacqui, and I’m so glad you loved this too. Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude is often bracketed with it, and it’s one I really want to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Your review definitely piqued my interest in it. I think you’ll enjoy Slaves of Solitude very much. Save it for when you’re in the mood for another slice of life from this era.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Sales people often make great material for both literature and film. Somehow their activities can be very entertaining and can tell us something about life.

    It sounds like the humor is an important part of this book. As you alluded to, based on the plot details the author could have gone the other way and made it dark.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I agree, the base material provides a rich seam here. The humour really lifts it, and there’s a nice balance between light and shade running through the novel. I’ve barely scratched the surface on this one as it’s packed with so many brilliant scenes.

      Reply
  4. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    I’ve read much praise for this book before – and seen the author linked with Patrick Hamilton – and now you have convinced me that I need to find a copy. An excellent review!

    On the subject of boarding house lit, if you’d be willing to cross the channel and go back a century, I have to say that I’m loving Balzac’s ‘Papa Goriot’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. Well, it’s pretty clear that I loved this one, and I think you would enjoy it too.

      Oh, another recommendation for boarding-house lit, excellent. I’m very happy to go back a century, and Balzac definitely appeals. Will you review it, do you think? I’d like to hear more about it.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great, I look forward to reading your review of the Balzac (as and when). Yes, I’m also shuffling things about right now, what with Spanish Lit Month, WITMonth and my own reading plans!

          Reply
  5. realthog

    What a splendid review — you make the book sound utterly mouthwatering, and I’ve made a note to keep an eye out for it. Many thanks.

    Odd subject for a novel, mind you. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. It is an absolute delight. As far as I’m aware, it’s never been adapted for the screen, which is a shame as the novel is ripe for that sort of treatment. The characters are fantastic, and I haven’t even mentioned Larry Heliotrope, a guy who walks around sweating under an overcoat because he’s flogged his only jacket for some cash.

      It is a strange subject for a novel, but it totally works. It’s all in the telling…

      Reply
  6. Scott W

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the book or the author, but this one sounds must-read, especially if it’s near the top of your list for this year. “Sucko” – that could be Thomas Pynchon. So was that a thing in Britain, door-to-door vacuum salesmen, like the Fuller Brush guys in the U.S.? I wonder if Graham Greene’s inspiration for Wormold, the vacuum cleaner retailer protagonist in Our Man in Havana may have come from this book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s brilliant, Scott – my favourite book of the year so far. I arrived at Maclaren-Ross via Patrick Hamilton, another writer from the same era. It’s a very British novel, full of slang and period details, but it captures the boarding-house milieu brilliantly.

      I can imagine “Sucko” in a Pynchon novel – it sounds odd, but it totally works here. (As an aside, I really need to give Pynchon another try as I kind of bounced off Inherent Vice when I read it last year. I abandoned it and then went back and read the whole thing just to get a vague grip on the narrative before seeing the Paul Thomas Anderson film.)

      Yes, door-to-door salesmen were quite the thing back in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Not just for vacuum cleaners, but all sorts of stuff. Just like your Fuller Brush example, I suspect. There may well be a link between Of Love and Hunger and Wormold from Green’s Our Man in Havana. I’ll take another look at the intro to my edition to see if it’s mentioned there as it does ring a bell.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I couldn’t find a specific reference to Our Man in Havana’s Wormold in the intro to Of Love and Hunger, but it sounds as though Maclaren-Ross knew Graham Greene. (GG is mentioned in JM-R’s Memoirs of the Forties). There’s more in this piece from The Guardian:

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/dec/07/dj-taylor-rereading-julian-maclaren-ross

      Julian Maclaren-Ross was quite a character by all accounts. He formed the basis for X. Trapnel, a character in the tenth book in Anthony Powell’s series A Dance to the Music of Time. I haven’t read the Powell books, but they sound excellent.

      Also, Maclaren-Ross was educated in France and remained sufficient fluent in French to translate some of Simenon’s works into English during the 1950s. It’s mentioned in the intro to the Penguin Classics edition. Interesting, eh?

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        Getting into A Dance To The Music Of Time is a bit like joining a religious order- you have to give up your whole life to it (for a while at least) but -well, maybe not so much like a religious order- it’s worth it.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, glad to hear you rate the series – that’s good to know. I strongly suspect I would love those books, such a big commitment though. Is it the sort of series that really needs to be read in one continuous stream or could I do one every six months or so?

          Reply
          1. gertloveday

            Probably best to spread them out. The appalling Widmerpool is one of the great characters of English fiction. Almost tempts me to start all over again, but there’s so much else to read!

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Great, that would be my preference. One day.

              On the subject on Pamela Widermerpool, there’s a reference to her in D.J. Taylor’s intro to Of Love and Hunger:

              “If not quite a prototype for Pamela Widmerpool, Sukie could certainly pass as her temperamental younger sister.”

              Some common ground there by the sound of things!

              Reply
      2. Scott W

        If people keep throwing up these authors I’ve never heard of I am never going to finish reading everything. But how McClaren-Ross escaped my notice I have no idea, what with his connections to Greene, Waugh, Orwell, Powell, etc.

        What a great little portrait, that Guardian article! And yes, interesting to know JM-R translated Simenon; I should look for one of those.

        I only mentioned Pynchon because the company name made me think of his pitch-perfect name for a Southern California aerospace company in The Crying of Lot 49: Yoyodyne.

        And that 12-volume Powell monster: one of these days, one of these days…

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Glad you enjoyed that Guardian piece, Scott. I thought it you’d like it. JM-R must have lived quite a life, the memoirs are very tempting!

          I quite fancy the Powell series, perhaps one every six months or so. Another for the wishlist.

          Back to Pynchon: Yoyodyne, that’s a terrific name. I know I ought to try Lot 49…

          Reply
  7. Naomi

    For some reason, reading about a vacuum cleaner salesman sounds like so much fun! I can picture it all so clearly just from the quotes you provided. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Naomi. The scenes with the salesman are very funny, what with the banter between the reps and their tales of life on the road. Also, there’s a hilarious scene in which the reps are all gathered together by their managers for a motivation sing-song. It’s an absolute blast. There’s a nice balance between the humour and the bleakness of life in a boarding house, too. All in all, it’s a rather charming novel.

      Reply
  8. Guy Savage

    Thanks for the mention Jacqui. I think it’s a shame that Maclaren-Ross didn’t write more. On another note, I was talking to someone the other day who was a Fuller Brush salesman in his youth.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Guy. I only discovered your review fairly recently but it didn’t surprise me to learn that you enjoyed it so much. Have you read anything else by JM-R, Bitten by the Tarantula or his memoirs, for example? I’d be up for reading another of his books.

      Reply
  9. 1streading

    My first thought (given your new reading niche) was also Girls of Slender Means just like Marina!
    Julian Maclaren-Ross certainly does sound a bit of character (I had to check him out given the Scottish surname – has father was half Scottish / half Cuban!) I also discovered, as you say, that he was fictionalized by Anthony Powell, and Olivia Manning! Seems like the memoirs might be worth a read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Looks like I’m going to have to get The Girls of Slender Means as so many people have recommended it (not just you and Marina, but Seamus and Helen Stanton, too!). That said, I really ought to make a dent in the three unread Spark novels sitting on the shelves before buying another!

      JM-R lived quite a colourful life by the sound of things. Memoirs are usually not my thing but I might have to make an exception in this case.

      Reply
  10. Jonathan

    I read thjs a couple of years ago – I just saw it in my local Oxfam, hadn’t heard of the author or the book before, but thought the blurb on the back sounded interesting.

    I don’t think McLaren-Ross wrote much else though, which is a shame. I’ll have to get round to a re-read soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great find. I can see myself rereading this one at some point, definitely. Yes, it’s a pity he didn’t write more novels. The introduction highlights Bitten by the Tarantula and the memoirs as the best of the rest. Possibly some of his short stories, too. I’d love to read another by JM-R.

      Reply
  11. Emma

    I remembered Guy’s review of it, the vacuum-cleaner salesman stayed with me. So Guy, Max and now you…I should read it.
    I think Guy knows other books set in boarding houses, if you’re interested in reading more of them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can imagine! The set-up and characters are pretty hard to forget. I only discovered Guy’s review fairly recently as it was in his archive.

      It’s a great novel, and I think you’d enjoy it. The prose is fairly clipped, though, and there’s a quite a lot of slang/colloquial language throughout so that might be a consideration for you. Have you read Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude? If not, I’d be tempted to point you in that direction ahead of this one.

      Recommendations of other boarding-house novels are always welcome. I think there’s another Patrick Hamilton set in a boarding house, Craven House. One of his early novels, I think.

      Reply
  12. Violet

    I was reminded of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, too, as I was reading your post, but that book is totally bleak and black and dark, whereas this one sounds as though it has a sense of humour. The boarding house landlady is such a rich trope in literature, and how miserable it must have been to live with strangers and have only a single, cold room to call home. I want to read this to see how the love affair works out. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s sufficient dark humour to counterbalance some of that bleakness, and the contrast between different tones works very well. It’s a great novel, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

      Thanks for recommending The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – it’s always reassuring when two or three different bloggers/readers recommend the same book! I suspect I’ll ending up reading it at some point as it does sound just my type of thing. You’re right, there is something terribly bleak and solitary about life in these boarding houses. A different period, but I was reminded of Jean Rhys and those desperately grim boarding houses in Paris…

      Reply
  13. kimbofo

    So happy to see this review! I bought this book on a whim last year and recently extracted it from my TBR for a possible read in the next month or two…

    Reply
  14. Gemma

    I added this to my to-read list straight after finishing your review Jacqui! The novel sounds wonderful – I love the sound of its bleakness and humour.

    Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Séamus Duggan

    Sounds great, and has inspired me to take Slaves Of Solitude down form the shelves and into the ‘up next’ category. Salesmen and boarding houses sound like they would make great starting point for a literary compendium. Or you could have a blog exclusively covering them. As well as Spark and Moore I was thinking of William Trevor http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2012/03/elizabeth-alone.html and Nick Cave http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2010/09/death-of-bunny-monroe-disco-of-damned.html; and there are many more, not least the Maysles brothers’ masterful documentary Salesman. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YMurqG3bmk), and Tin Men and Glengarry Glen-Ross……
    &on &on

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! You’ll love Slaves of Solitude, Seamus, it’s right up your street. Let me know how you find it – I would love to see a review from you.

      Haha! What is it about salesmen and boarding houses? Such rich seams for literature, plays and films. I’m glad you’ve mentioned the Moore as that makes it a must-read (you’re the third person to suggest it). The Girls of Slender Means is already on one of my wishlists, I just need to clear my other unread Spark novels before getting another one. Thanks for the links – I’ll take a look at the others you’ve mentioned. (Funny, someone else suggested Nick Cave’s novel when I tweeted a link to this review). Oh, and I love Glengarry Glen Ross, my favourite Mamet!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad I picked this up, Max. It’s an absolute gem, a shoo-in for my end-of-year round-up. Have you read any of his others? I quite fancy Bitten by the Tarantula – there’s a nice edition that comes with short stories, literary essays, and other bits and pieces. The memoirs sound fascinating, too.

      Of Love and Hunger would have made a great name for the blog. Still, you have Pechorin’s. :)

      Reply
  17. Pingback: My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal

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