Tag Archives: Abacus Books

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton

As some of you may know, I have fondness for books featuring the great British boarding house – an interest sparked by novels such as Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, The Boarding-House by William Trevor, and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

Craven House, a fledgling novel by the aforementioned Hamilton, fits right into this groove, set as it is in a West London boarding house during the early part of the 20th century. While Craven isn’t as polished as Hamilton’s later work – he was only twenty-two when the book was first published in 1926 – there is still much to enjoy here, particularly in the use of the setting as a vehicle for fiction.

In some ways, Craven House could be thought of as a collection of character studies, an exploration of the lives and traits of the somewhat disparate group of individuals who inhabit this dwelling. While very little actually happens in the way of plot – the book reads like a sequence of episodes or occurrences – there is much to treasure in the characterisation, especially in relation to the younger residents of the house.

Craven House is owned and managed by the tireless Miss Hatt, an outwardly amiable individual who has the general bearing of a ‘merry sparrow taking the sun’. Also crucial to the establishment – in terms of standing if not ownership – are Mr and Mrs Spicer, long-term friends of Miss Hatt’s from her school days. Mr Spicer is ‘In Tea’, although quite what that means in practice remains a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, The Spicers like to think of themselves as a respectable middle-aged couple, a notion typified by the following passage on their fondness for walking, particularly on a Sunday morning.

Mr and Mrs Spicer alone remained out of doors, thereby observing one of their most time-sanctioned and inviolable practices – the Sunday morning walk – and regarding themselves as in no small measure an ornament to the neighbourhood in their capacity of a Quiet Middle-aged Couple. For Mr and Mrs Spicer very much liked to advertise themselves as a quiet middle-aged couple – as though quietness was a fine point in their favour, and the world couldn’t keep its middle-aged couples quiet as a rule. (pp. 87-88)

However, initial appearance may be deceptive, and Mr Spicer may not be quite as honourable as his wife thinks. In reality, Mr S has a penchant for attempting to pick up young ladies during his solitary outings to Hyde Park Corner, a practice that lands him in trouble a little later in the book.

Paying guests at the house include twice-widowed Mrs Nixon and her young daughter, Elsie, and recent additions, Major Wildman and his young son, Henry – commonly known as Master Wildman. Finally, the cast is completed by two servants: the cook, Edith and the maid, Audrey, neither of whom quite live up to Miss Hatt’s somewhat unrealistic expectations of domestic staff. Nevertheless, Edith – a blotchy woman with the demeanour of a ‘Dickens character’ – proves herself to be an efficient cook, while Audrey seems pleasant enough, to begin with at least.

The first section of the novel deals with the years immediately leading up to the Great War, a time when the traditional customs of Edwardian society were starting to crumble. Hamilton excels at capturing the sense of ennui in Craven House, the interminable mealtimes and stilted conversations in the drawing-room, especially as the guests attempt to get to know the new arrivals. In this scene, the residents are taking tea on a Sunday afternoon.

‘Oh – ah – yes. Possibly,’ said the Major, and the company’s blushes were rescued half in cheek, by the clanging of the gong for tea, which was followed by the appearance of an Audrey labouring under a large tray; which was followed by the appearance of a dumb waiter containing the thinnest bread and butter conceivable, swiss roll and plum cake; which was followed by much fuss and bother, uncanny feats of balancing (Mr Spicer sliding across the floor, tea-cup in hand, as though it were an egg-and-spoon race), and the extreme little-gentlemanliness of Master Wildman, who handed things round; (p.90-91)

It is the small details Hamilton focuses on here, the petty grievances and tensions that ensue when individuals with different habits come together under one roof. The Major, used to having hot water to hand at any time of day or night, takes it upon himself to have a bath early in the evening, a slot usually reserved for Mrs Nixon – a move that creates some commotion in the house.

Perhaps the two residents who get on best are the playful Master Wildman and the obedient Elsie Nixon, a charming, amiable girl who finds a friend in her young companion. The pair play cards together during the evenings to pass away the time. One day, they even manage to escape the clutches of the tyrannical Mrs Nixon to visit the shops for an hour or two, an episode that lands Elsie in considerable trouble on her return. The relationship between these two children is very touchingly portrayed.

The Great War is touched on very briefly, mostly to capture the darkness and uncertainty of the time. Only Mr Spicer is directly involved in the war effort, and even his particular contribution is less than spectacular following a rather short spell of action in France.

Mr Spicer’s services to his country were, we are inclined to believe, something in the nature of a burden to both parties concerned. (p. 166)

Hamilton saves some of his best set-pieces for the novel’s final act, an extended section in which we return to Craven House six years after the end of the war. By this time, Master Wildman is in his early twenties, with Elsie Nixon following just a few years behind, worshipping her dear friend from close quarters. While Elsie longs to spread her wings a little in the hope that Master Wildman will fall for her, the dictatorial Mrs Nixon is having none of it, determined as she is to maintain a fierce hold over Elsie and everything she does.

‘Can I have my hair bobbed, Mother?’ asks Elsie. ‘No, you can not, Miss,’ says Mrs Nixon. ‘We’ll have none of these modern airs here.’ (p. 179)

Mrs Nixon is, needless to say, hale and hearty, and exuding a glad confidence in complete domination of her daughter or any other rebellious event or person likely to tackle her. (p. 180)

By this point, a new paying guest has also taken up residence at Craven House, the somewhat eccentric yet charming Mrs Hoare, an elderly lady who ‘employs flattery with a trowel’. One of Mrs Hoare’s most delightful habits involves her referring to various items by their initial letters, a practice that causes more than a little confusion and amusement amongst the residents. For instance, ‘Ell’ for Love, ‘Bee’ for Bed and ‘Doubleyou’ for Master Wildman. Elsie is very fond of Mrs Hoare – as is Master Wildman, although he cannot help but poke fun at her too, albeit in a rather gentle way.

As the novel draws towards its conclusion, the simmering tensions apparent within the house culminate in a couple of dramatic outbursts. One involving the Spicers when Mrs S discovers precisely what her husband has been getting up to while her back has been turned; the other concerning Miss Hatt, who seems close to a breakdown after fifteen years in charge of the establishment. There is also a wonderful contretemps between Miss Hatt and Audrey (the maid) when the latter has the audacity to answer back to her employer following a rebuke over her tardiness. Naturally, Miss Hatt is stunned by the outrage, so much so that she decides ‘Audrey Must Go’. In spite of these dramas, there is a happy ending of sorts for two of the house’s inhabitants, a nice touch amid the darkness of the environment.

Viewed in its entirety, Craven House is perhaps best suited to Hamilton enthusiasts. The novel itself is rather baggy, and some of the characters a little underdeveloped – Miss Hatt, Mrs Spicer and Mrs Nixon, in particular. At times, the prose is somewhat protracted and overwrought, a point that Hamilton himself was conscious of when he looked back at the work a little later in his career.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the early genesis of some of this author’s favourite themes here – particularly his preoccupation with the boarding house milieu and his interest in individuals who seem to carry an inner sense of loneliness and self-doubt. In some ways, Craven House could be viewed as a bit of a trial run for one of Hamilton’s later books, the utterly brilliant The Slaves of Solitude, one of the highlights of my reading year back in 2014.

Craven House is published by Abacus; personal copy.

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve long wanted to read Beryl Bainbridge – her 1989 Booker-shortlisted novel An Awfully Big Adventure has been in my sights since Max reviewed it last year. So, when Annabel announced she would be hosting a Bainbridge Reading Week in June, it seemed the perfect opportunity for me to pick it up.

IMG_2842

Set in the early 1950s, An Awfully Big Adventure features Stella, a teenage girl who lives with her Uncle Vernon and his wife, Lily, in their down-at-heel boarding house in Liverpool. (Neither of the girl’s parents is on the scene, but the reasons behind their absence only become clear towards the end of the novel). Stella is quick and determined; she has the brains but not the discipline for schoolwork, preferring instead the environment of Mrs Ackerley’s ‘Dramatic Art’ classes where she goes every Friday after school.

In his desire to see Stella do well in life, Vernon pulls a few strings with a friend to get her a meeting with the producer at the local repertory theatre, a rather handsome fellow by the name of Meredith Potter. At first, Potter and his colleague – stage manager, Bunny – don’t seem terribly interested in seeing Stella perform the piece she has prepared in advance. Nevertheless, they take her out to tea and Eccles cakes at a nearby café (a wonderful scene which Max highlights in his review). At the end of their meeting, Stella is somewhat surprised when Meredith offers her a role; luckily for her, she is to start at the theatre at the beginning of the new season, one of two juniors Meredith ends up hiring for the run.

In due course, Stella meets the other members of the company, most of whom come complete with their own eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. This is a darkly comic novel, with much of the humour arising from the interactions between these characters as they go about their business at the theatre, all heightened by the various romantic attachments and professional rivalries at play within the group. Here’s a brief snippet to give you a feel for the troupe.

There were three men and four women in the cast of Dangerous Corner, all of whom, save one, were under contract for the season. The exception was Dawn Allenby, a woman in her thirties who had been engaged for this first production only and who, two days into rehearsal, had fallen heavily for Richard St Ives. If she was served before him at the morning tea-break she offered her cup to him at once, protesting that his need was greater than hers. He had only to fumble in the pocket of his sports jacket, preparatory to taking out his pipe, and she was at his elbow striking on a musical lighter which tinkled out the tune of ‘Come Back to Sorrento’.

St Ives was plainly terrified of her. Cornered, he resorted to patting her on the shoulder, while across his face flitted the craven smile of a man dealing with an unpredictable pet that yet might turn on him. He laughed whenever she spoke to him and clung to Dotty Blundell for protection, whirling her away on his arm the moment rehearsals were over. (pg 46) 

At first, Stella finds herself doing odd jobs around the theatre, running errands for various members of the cast and getting to know how things work. Nevertheless, her lively imagination and rather forthright manner do not go unnoticed. There is something quite refreshing about Stella, and it’s not long before she finds herself in a cameo role in the company’s production of Caesar and Cleopatra.

Dotty Blundell had grown especially fond of Stella. She was of the opinion there was more to the girl than might reasonably be expected. She had a boldness of manner, not to be confused with brashness, and an ability to express herself that was amusing, if at times disconcerting. (pg. 77)

That said, Stella is still relatively young and inexperienced, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. In her innocence and naivety, she soon falls in love with Meredith, placing him on a pedestal in the hope that he will reciprocate her feelings. Meredith, on the other hand, shows little interest in forging any kind of attachment to the girl – unbeknownst to Stella, he is in fact gay.

Things take a bit of turn for Stella with the arrival of P. L. O’Hara, a seasoned actor who is drafted in when one of the regular players breaks his leg in an accident. Having worked with Meredith and other long-standing members of the repertory team in the past, O’Hara has a history with the company and with Liverpool itself (a point of some significance within the story). In an attempt to make Meredith jealous, Stella gets involved with O’Hara, visiting him in his basement room several nights in a row – in essence, she thinks it might be useful to have a bit of experience under her belt for when Meredith finally gets around to showing some interest. It’s not long before the situation gets messy, but I’d better not say anything more for fear of revealing too much about the ending.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel with its sharp observations and darkly comic view of life. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, a tragicomedy set within a community of barge dwellers on the River Thames in the early ‘60s. Bainbridge’s novel is perhaps funnier than the Fitzgerald, but with both of these books, one gets the feeling that catastrophe could strike these rather fragile people at any moment. Here, we know from the outset that things don’t end well for Stella. The novel begins with Chapter 0 — effectively a prologue that is revisited in the epilogue — in which she claims ‘I’m not old enough to shoulder the blame. Not all of it. I’m not the only one at fault.’ Only when we reach the closing chapters do we discover what Stella is referring to here.

Alongside the comedy and dark undercurrent, Bainbridge brings a real feeling of warmth and affection to this novel, particularly in the portrayal of the various characters, most notably Stella’s Uncle Vernon. Vernon cares very deeply for Stella and doesn’t want to see her get hurt. He knows she is bound to change as she gets more involved with the theatre, and yet he is unprepared for how lost he feels when this starts to happen.

He had wanted her to alter, had himself at some sacrifice to his pocket jostled her onto the path towards advancement, and yet he sensed she was leaving him behind. He hadn’t realised how bereft he would feel, how alarmed. (pg. 42)

Stella too is a wonderful creation. With her combination of adolescent innocence and frankness, she has a tendency to say exactly what pops into her head without thinking about the consequences, thereby inadvertently creating tensions within the group. Once again, I won’t go into the details as it’s best you discover these for yourselves should you decide to read the book.

In her younger days, Bainbridge spent some time working at the Liverpool Playhouse, a fact that shows in this novel as the details feel spot on. (Several of the characters in Meredith’s repertory company are based on people Bainbridge met during that time.)

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that conveys something of the atmosphere of England in the early ‘50s, a time when the fallout from WW2 was still visible for all to see. Money is tight in Stella’s family, so baths are a once-a-fortnight luxury here – plus they all seem to use the same towel!

It was inconvenient, Stella coming home and wanting a bath. As Uncle Vernon pointed out, it was only Wednesday.

‘I don’t care what day it is,’ she said. She was so set on it she was actually grinding her teeth.

It meant paraffin had to be fetched from Cairo Joe’s chandler’s shop next door to the Greek Orthodox church, and then the stove lugged two flights up the stairs and the blanket nailed to the window with tacks. In the alleyway beyond the back wall stood a row of disused stables and a bombed house with the wallpaper hanging in shreds from the chimney-breast, and sometimes women, no better than they ought to be, lured men into the ruined shadows.

‘You’ll freeze,’ Lily threatened, having run upstairs in her coat and hat to lay out the family towel and returned, teeth chattering, like Scott on his way to the Pole. (pgs. 37-38)

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Cleo and Emma.

An Awfully Big Adventure is published by Abacus Books.