First and Last by V.L. Whitechurch

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.

Books I Borrowed…

There are a few books I’ve borrowed from friends and libraries which have now been returned, and so I’m going to give each one a paragraph or two, instead of a proper review.  Partly so I can include them on my Century of Books list, but partly because it’s fun to do things differently sometimes.  Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’ll get carried away, and write far too much… well, here are the four books, in date order.  Apologies for the accidental misquotation in the sketch today… I only noticed afterwards!

Canon in Residence – V.L. Whitechurch (1904)
This was surprisingly brilliant. Rev. John Smith on a continental holiday encounters a stranger who tells him that he’d see more of human life if he adopted layman’s clothes.  Smith thinks the advice somewhat silly, but has no choice – as, during the night, the stranger swaps their outfits.  Smith goes through the rest of his holiday in somewhat garish clothing, meeting one of those ebullient, witty girls with which Edwardian novels abound.  A letter arrives telling him that he has been made canon of a cathedral town – where this girl also lives (of course!)  He makes good his escape, and hopes she won’t recognise him…

Once in his position as canon, Smith’s new outlook on life leads to a somewhat socialist theology – improving housing for the poor, and other similar principles which are definitely Biblical, but not approved of by the gossiping, snobbish inhabitants of the Cathedral Close.  As a Christian and the son of a vicar, I found this novel fascinating (you can tell that Whitechurch was himself a vicar) but I don’t think one would need to have faith to love this.  It’s very funny as well as sensitive and thoughtful; John Smith is a very endearing hero.  It all felt very relevant for 2012.  And there’s even a bit of a criminal court case towards the end.

Three Marriages – E.M. Delafield (1939)
Delafield collects together three novellas, each telling the tale of a courtship and marriage, showing how things change across years: they are set in 1857, 1897, and 1937.  Each deals with people who fall in love too late, once they (or their loved one) has already got married to somebody else.  The surrounding issues are all pertinent to their respective periods.  In 1897, and ‘Girl-of-the-Period’, Violet Cumberledge believes herself to be a New Woman who is entirely above anything so sentimental as emotional attachments – and, of course, realises too late that she is wrnog.  In 1937 (‘We Meant To Be Happy’) Cathleen Christmas marries the first man who asks, because she fears becoming one of so many ‘surplus women’ – only later she falls in love with the doctor.  But the most interesting story is the first – ‘The Marriage of Rose Barlow’.  It’s rather brilliant, and completely unexpected from the pen of Delafield.  Rose Barlow is very young when she is betrothed to her much older cousin – the opening line of the novel is, to paraphrase without a copy to hand, ‘The night before her wedding, Rose Barlow put her dolls to bed as she always had done.’  Once married, they go off to India together.   If you know a lot more about the history of India than I do, then the date 1857 might have alerted you to the main event of the novella – the Sepoy Rebellion.  A fairly calm tale of unequal marriage becomes a very dramatic, even gory, narrative about trying to escape a massacre.  A million miles from what I’d expect from Delafield – but incredibly well written and compelling.

Miss Plum and Miss Penny – Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)
Miss Penny, a genteel spinster living with her cook/companion Ada, encounters Miss Plum in the act of (supposedly) attempting suicide in a duckpond.  Miss Penny ‘rescues’ Miss Plum and invites her into her home. (Pronouns are tricky; I assume you can work out what I mean.)  It looks rather as though Miss Plum might have her own devious motives for these actions… but I found the characters very inconsistent, and the plot rather scattergun.  There are three men circling these women, whose intentions and affections vary a fair bit; there are some terribly cringe-worthy, unrealistic scenes of a vicar trying to get closer to his teenage son. It was a fun read, and not badly written, but Dorothy Evelyn Smith doesn’t seem to have put much effort into organising narrative arcs or creating any sort of continuity.  But diverting enough, and certainly worth an uncritical read.

The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate (1980)
Oh dear.  Like a lot of people, I suspect, I rushed out to borrow a copy of The Shooting Party after reading Rachel’s incredibly enthusiastic review.  Go and check it out for details of the premise and plot.  I shall just say that, sadly, I found it rather ho-hum… perhaps even a little boring.  The characters all seemed too similar to me, and I didn’t much care what happened.  Even though it’s a short novel, it dragged for me, and the climax was, erm, anti-climactic.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps my tolerance for historical novels (albeit looking back only sixty or seventy years) is too low.  Sorry, Rachel!