My rating: 9.5/10.
Lost the half point because of the too-convenient wrap up of the ending. A very minor complaint!
What an enthralling read this was. Much better than expected.
2013 is going to be good reading year, if this omen is correct. The very first 2013 book, an ancient copy of one of Hugh Walpole’s London novels, The Joyful Delaneys, has been lurking on the edges of my awareness for at least ten years, possibly more. It was purchased at a library book sale, and its tattered condition, many interior stamps – Tulameen and Princeton had enthusiastic librarians! - and dog-eared and marked pages testify to its one-time popularity. This copy at least has been very well read.
Just not by me, until the last few days. The Joyful Delaneys was one of the lonely oddities left behind after my recent tidying of the bedroom bookshelves - books which are sometimes the sole representatives of their author’s literary line in my collection, books I’m not quite sure about – stay or go? – will I really read this one again? – and books I haven’t read yet, but truly mean to, someday…
On January 1st, 2013, I finally picked up The Joyful Delaneys with the stern instruction to myself to just read this already and decide once and for all if it’s a keeper or a pass-along. Settling down with a mood of grim purpose to that self-imposed task, I was immediately surprised by the very first lines:
‘Happy New Year!’ Fred Delaney said, standing in the doorway and smiling at the in-no-way beautiful person of Mr. Munden.
He had switched on the electric light, and the illumination revealed Patrick Munden lying half in, half out of the bedclothes. No, he was not beautiful, his thin pointed face unshaven, his black hair spread about the pillow, his lean body protected from the cold by pyjamas, grey with blood-red stripes, by no means so fresh as they should be. The light pressed on Munden’s eyes and he opened them, stared wildly about him, then, cursing, buried his face in the pillow.
‘Happy New Year!’ Delaney said again.
‘What the hell–’
Promising, no? And the serendipitous timing! A book opening with New Years Day, being read by me on New Years Day! A complete and utter unplanned coincidence. Surrendering to the moment, I settled down to my suddenly-not-so-tedious-seeming read. And was rewarded by its general excellence, much more so than I deserved for my previous neglect. Why, oh why, hadn’t I read this one earlier?!
Here’s a bit more, continuing the snippet from the first page.
‘Eight-thirty. You asked me as a special favour to call you.’
Munden raised his head and stared at Delaney. It was not a bad-looking face. The blue eyes were good, the forehead broad and clear, the chin finely pointed. He looked clever and peevish and hungry. He stretched himself, his open pyjama jacket showing a chest skeletonic and hairy. He rubbed his eyes with a hairy wrist.
‘Oh, it’s you, is it? Let me sleep, can’t you?’
Delaney watched him with genial good temper.
‘I’m doing you a favour. You said last night it would be the greatest of your life. You have to see the editor of something or other at ten sharp.’
‘He can go to hell. Turn the light off and let me sleep.’
‘You said I was to drag you out of bed if necessary–that your whole life depended on your getting there at ten.’
‘Well, it doesn’t. Let me sleep, can’t you?’
‘All right. But I’ll leave the light on . . .’
‘No, don’t go.’ Munden sat up, blinking. ‘How damnably fresh you look! It’s revolting. You were up till three, I don’t doubt–’
‘I was,’ Delaney said cheerfully. ‘I don’t need a lot of sleep.’
‘Well, I do. . . . Oh, blast! Why did I ever tell you anything about it?’
‘You were very serious. Most earnest. You said you must begin the New Year properly.’
‘Speaking of which, can you lend me a fiver?’ Munden asked. ‘Only for a week.’
‘Afraid I haven’t got such a thing,’ Delaney said, laughing.
‘Hang it all, I paid you the rent only a week ago–’
‘Thanks very much. But those are the terms, you know. If you don’t pay you go. Although we’d hate to lose you.’
‘Look in the trousers, old man, will you? They’re hanging over the chair. See if there’s anything there.’
Delaney looked in the trousers and found half a crown, some coppers, a lipstick and a half-filled packet of cigarettes. He laid these things on the dressing-table.
‘You don’t use lipstick, I hope, Patrick?’
‘No, of course not. What do you think I am? How much is there?’
‘Two and ninepence halfpenny.’
‘I’ll make them advance something on the two articles. You wouldn’t like to buy a Chrysler, would you?’
‘A Chrysler? Whatever for?’
‘It’s a marvellous bargain. Ponsonby’s only had it a year and simply not used it at all. He’d let you have it for one-fifty and I’d get a commission.’
Delaney laughed. ‘We go round in our Morris–just as we always have–same old family, same old Morris.’
Munden looked at him with curiosity. ‘I don’t understand you, Fred. You own this house; every bit of it is let to people who pay their rent. You’re none of you what I’d call extravagant and yet you never have any cash.’ He stared resentfully. He went on: ‘You’re a horrid sight–so cheerful and clean and bright. You’re all like that. I ought to hate the lot of you. So unintellectual too. You never read a book, have horrible bourgeois politics, believe in things, in England, beautiful virginal girls, Dickens, cricket, football. . . . Oh, God! You’re vile! I don’t know why I go on living here.’
It seems like I’ve recently been reading authors who have been quite taken with T.S. Eliot – most recently Rumer Godden (in Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time) and Diana Wynne Jones (in Fire and Hemlock); here is a third. Hugh Walpole begins this beguiling novel with this quotation from Eliot’s The Rock:
When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city ? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’ What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’? And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert. O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger, Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
The answer, ultimately, is that the community wins over commerce, at least in this one instance, at least for a while. But there is a lot of ground to cover before this satisfactory state of affairs comes to pass.
The Delaneys - Frederick and Meg, and grown children Stephen and Kitty – are the financially struggling owners of one of the last houses in their corner of London’s Mayfair - Shepherd Market – which has not been pulled down and built over or converted into modern flats. The house has been in the family two hundred and fifty years; this year, 1934, looks very much like it will see the Delaneys rousted from residence at last.
A precarious existence is made possible by the renting of rooms to a number of similarly situated people – the random waifs and strays, the elderly and the dispossessed of the former upper classes who are now very much down on their luck. A pair of the Delaney tenants, Dodie and ‘Smoke’ Pullet, have exhausted every financial avenue, and are preparing to give notice. Smoke mulls over his bleak future possibilities with Fred, including that of the ultimate escape – suicide.
‘You’ve no idea, old boy, of the kind of life that Dodie and I’ve been leading in the last year. We’ve cadged deliberately on everybody we know. We’ve angled for meals, been everywhere and anywhere with the chance of getting something for nothing. We’ve spent days and nights with the most awful people to be safe for food and drink. It can’t go on for ever…
…Unless something happened Smoke would do just as he said. And perhaps it would be the best thing for him. That was the real problem at the heart of the trouble. There was no place in this present world for the Smoke Pullets unless there was a World War again–then they would be admirable.
Before 1914 they had played a very necessary part; they were a real need in English life and had been so for centuries. They had been the Squire and the Squire’s son; some property, possibly a seat in Parliament, beneficent, tyrannical, understanding in their country community, conforming, traditional, safe and sound. So it had been since the Wars of the Roses; from Agincourt 1415, say, until Serajevo 1914. And now, within the space of twenty years, they had become only a burden, and a wearisome burden at that. There was no future of any kind for Smoke and he without a leg which he had lost in the service of his country. Probably a nice gas-oven would be the best thing.
But Fred Delaney can’t stay grim for long. Along with the pervasive background atmosphere of despair there are plenty of opportunities for love and laughter. He and Meg have long enjoyed what might be termed an “open” marriage, though Meg has not taken advantage of her freedom as her spouse most definitely has. The two deeply and truly love each other, but Fred has indulged his physical desires for other women regularly through the years. Meg knows this, and has made her peace with it, and now at long last is in her turn preparing to indulge in a little fling with an old flame from her youth who has re-entered her life, and who has confessed a lifelong infatuation with Meg, despite his own married state.
Fred is currently pursuing a beautiful though frigid socialite; Kitty makes the acquaintance of a young man clerking in an antique shop; Stephen falls in love with the sixteen-year-old daughter of a dissipated gambler. 1934 promises to be an emotionally charged year in the tight-knit Delaney family enclave, even before their house woes escalate, which they soon do.
Hugh Walpole skilfully weaves together these story strands and half a dozen others into this increasingly absorbing saga. His characters step off the page in living, breathing colour; his descriptions are better than photographs, including as they do sounds and smells and tastes and emotions as well as vivid visual descriptions; he skilfully plays on our feelings by including us as benign fellow voyeurs sharing a god’s-eye view of his fantastical world.
Why has Walpole fallen out of favour? (Or has he? I don’t hear his name much, or see his works in the second-hand book shops.)
I’ve only read a few other things by him, a book I’ve owned for some time, which I’ve just re-read, and which I’m intending to review in the next day or two, Hans Frost, plus a book of short stories which I can’t recall seeing around recently (must be packed away) called A Head in Green Bronze. Hugh Walpole wrote so many more!
The Joyful Delaneys was very, very good. Amusing, thought-provoking, wonderfully evocative of the time and place. I was completely absorbed in the story, much to my surprise. I quite literally growled at any interruption of my rare reading times these past two days, and even sent the teens off to town in my precious car last night, with movie, snack and gas money liberally provided, so I could have a few hours of peace and quiet to finish the book off, even though I had to put aside some “real” work to do so.
Anybody who will name a fictional dachshund “Endless” has my full approval. Hugh Walpole definitely goes onto the 2013 look-for list.
One last note: the dustjacket image above is not from my own copy. Mine is a faded, stained and threadbare, green cloth-bound volume. I couldn’t bring myself to scan it – it’s too terribly tired.