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.
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.