Quite a few of us, around the blogosphere, have delighted in the frothy joy of Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins – my own review was not the first, but was among the most deliriously enthusiastic. Naturally, it sent me off buying a whole bunch of other Jenkins novels – none of which I have read. Instead, I listened to an unabridged recording of The Return of Alfred (1922).
This came free, courtesy of Anna Simon, reading at Librivox. Here it is, if you’d like to listen to it yourself. This is my first experience with Librivox and, I’ve gotta say, I was pretty impressed. Anna Simon is an excellent reader, with a lovely tone and great subtle distinctions between voices (without going quite into ‘dramatisation’ style). Cynics, have a listen.
But what of the novel? Well, if you think Patricia Brent, Spinster was overly reliant on coincidence, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Return of Alfred revolves around a gentleman (whose real name I have forgotten; curse not being able to turn back the pages of an audiobook!) who masquerades as James Smith when distancing himself from an overbearing and cantankerous father. Said father wants ‘Smith’ to marry a neighbouring woman, in order to join their estates, but Smith is a determined war hero with independence coursing through his veins – oh, and he’s very witty too – so, false name and canvas bag in hand, he hops on a train. Only it goes no further than a village in the middle of nowhere, where Smith is thrown out into the rain. He scales the fence of the first house he comes to… and is joyfully greeted as the long-lost Alfred.
The greeting is joyful from the butler, that is. All of Alfred’s family are dead or absent, but his butler, governess, and sundry others are thrilled to see him after an absence of around a decade. The neighbours aren’t so sure; Alfred has done some misdeeds in his time. Yes, dear reader, we have to swallow that Smith has an exact doppelgänger – and that nobody at all believes his protests that he is not the man they believe him to be. These protests are constant and unswerving throughout the novel, and at no point do they seem to make the slightest impression on anybody except a fantastic young boy called Eric, who bases his adjudication on Smith’s cricketing ability.
So, why does Smith stay, rather than high-tailing it onto the next village asap? Readers of Patricia Brent, Spinster might be able to guess the reason – yes, it is a case of love at first sight, with a woman whom he has glanced at a window. That is enough, it seems, to make him stay put. And she is barely more delineated than that for large chunks of the novel. The love story rather holds sway in Patricia Brent, Spinster; in The Return of Alfred, we are more interested in the possible outcome of the mistake (given the nemeses Alfred apparently has, that Smith must now encounter) – and I spent my time wondering if the was a reason that nobody believed that Smith was not Alfred.
As you can tell from my teasing tone, I found The Return of Alfred all rather improbable – but also another total delight. There is a chapter where Jenkins indulges himself far too much in describing a cricket match (the chapter is twice as long as the others, and nothing unexpected happens in the cricket match; it was the only chapter that I found dragged) but, besides this, it is all great fun. Incidentally, I have discovered that I much prefer to read comic books than listen to them, as I always want to ‘do’ the pacing and comic timing myself, and found myself re-saying things in my head with a different rhythm, excellent though the narrator’s reading was.
So, it’s not quite up there with Patricia Brent, Spinster for me – which would probably have been true whether I’d read or listened to The Return of the Alfred – but it certainly proved to me that Jenkins wasn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to silly, delightful tales of extremely unlikely events. Smith is fab, the villagers are amusing, and Eric’s abbreviations were more than dece. Thank you, Librivox, for making this book freely available to all!
Oh, and fun fact – this, and Patricia Brent, Spinster, were originally published anonymously; this one was simply ‘by the author of Patricia Brent, Spinster‘, and dedicated: ‘To those in many countries who have generously assumed responsibility for the authorship of Patricia Brent, Spinster – this book is dedicated by the author’.