Before I knew about Eva Ibbotson, before I discovered Georgette Heyer or had ever heard of D.E. Stevenson, there was one author whose books I knew I could always turn to when I needed an easy, absorbing read: R.F. Delderfield. Poor old Delderfield has gone rather out of fashion these days, though he was quite popular from the 1950s to the 1970s, but it is hard to think of any writer who can best his absorbing family sagas. I wasn’t quite up for a reread of his “God is an Englishman” or “A Horseman Riding By” series – both of which are excellent – but I did pick up The Dreaming Suburb earlier this year.
Spanning over twenty years – from the summer of 1919 to the summer of 1940 – The Dreaming Suburb follows the lives of the residents of an avenue in a modest London suburb, focusing on several families. There are the Clegg sisters, stalwart Edith and dotty Becky, who take in lodgers over the years to make ends meet. There are the unhappy Firths, ruled over by the strict and sour Mrs. Firth until one by one they begin to break away. There is the lovely young widow Mrs. Fraser and her romantic son Esme, who uses the fields behind the Avenue to play out his childhood fantasies of knights and daring rescues. And there are the Carvers: solid Jim Carver and his seven wildly different children, including the sharp, business-minded Archie, the co-dependent and always resourceful twins, Berni and Boxer, and the dependable Judy, whose childhood adoration of her neighbour Esme Fraser matures into unrequited love.
From the Spanish flu to the Battle of Britain, from silent pictures to talkies, from the General Strike to Mosley’s Blackshirts, Delderfield chronicles some of the most eventual years of the century on very human terms. He shows what these societal changes meant for ordinary people. This is not a saga involving manor houses and leisured lives; almost everyone here, male and female, works and works hard. The people are often foolish and petty, they make mistakes that cannot be easily undone, but they also find happiness. This is Delderfield’s tribute to the ordinary man/woman and as such it is excellent.
The companion to The Dreaming Suburb is The Avenue at War, which focuses on a much shorter period that the first book. I don’t love it quite as much as I do this but after reading the one you really have to read the other, just to know how everything ends. Taken together, they are immensely satisfying. Delderfield is not a “great” writer but he certainly writes great, readable books.