Guys, I don’t know if you realise, but I’m hilarious. And that’s why I decided the last book of 2017 and first book of 2018 would be… First and Last (1929) by V.L. Whitechurch. Well, at least I amuse myself.
This is my second novel by Whitechurch – the first was the very amusing Canon in Residence – and I picked it up in a bookshop in Stratford-on-Avon a few years ago, when I was (happily enough) hunting for more books by him. He is one of the few vicar-authors, indeed canon-authors, and the title of his novel is a reference to the Bible: ‘so the last will be first and the first will be last’. Jesus actually says it twice in the Bible and, in scriptural context, I think it’s mostly about how the poor are not excluded from Heaven, and nor are those who find faith late in life.
The novel isn’t really about either of those things.
It is about what happens when somebody from a poor background – young Tom the fisherman – comes into vast fortune, through a combination of luck and ability. He saves a rich man who gets caught in sailing difficulties and, in turn, is offered an education far beyond the means of his family and his class (particularly given that this section is set in 1881). The other character we follow is Alan, the stepson of the vicar, who has to leave the vicarage when his stepfather dies – most of the inheritance goes elsewhere, and his future looks much poorer than he realised.
Such is the set up of the characters and their fates (and an ill-advised dose of dialect from local fisherman alongside). The novel skips forward forty years, where Tom is Sir Thomas, a rich businessman (and war profiteer) whose fortune is partly ill-gotten; Alan is a clergyman with a very small income, widowed and not very happy with his life. Tom has a son; Alan has a daughter. You can probably guess what happens when they re-emerge in each other’s lives… but it all happens charmingly and interestingly. Whitechurch is a great storyteller.
I didn’t mark down any passages to quote, so here’s a bit I’ve picked more or less at random, to give a sense of his prose:
The Reverend Alan Crawford, Vicar of Lingmarsh, was tired – tired in body and in mind. He had been paying a round of parochial visits in his widely scattered country parish, trudging along lanes thick with mud, taking ‘short cuts’ over fields to outlying cottages, all the afternoon.
Altogether he had paid seven calls, and each visit, with, perhaps the exception of one, had added to his sense of weariness – a weariness that had come over him before ever he fared forth on his parochial round.
I really enjoyed reading First and Last, and I think any fan of middlebrow novels from the interwar period will love the characters, pace, and comfort of the novel. What prevents it being a brilliant novel, to my mind, is partly the lack of humour (did I imagine it in Canon in Residence, which I recall being tantamount to farce?) and partly the ways in which the characters lean to stereotype. The good people are a little too good; the wicked a little too wicked. First and Last isn’t at all moralistic (in the negative sense), but it does follow firmly trodden moral paths – and, as a parable is unlikely to show thorough nuance in its participants, so First and Last does paint a little in black and white.
But, given these limitations, I think it’s a delightful and absorbing book – not great literature, but certainly a great read. And a great way to kick off 2018 and A Century of Books.