Archive for the ‘R.F. Delderfield’ Category

The Dreaming SuburbBefore 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 eventful 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.

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I’ve spent the last few days working through R.F. Delderfield’s autobiography For My Own Amusement, a suitably obscure volume by an author who, after some popularity, appears to have been entirely forgotten by the reading public.  But not by me.  How could I forget him when I’m named after one of his heroines? 

It’s always interesting to learn about the evolution of your favourite books.  I found out that when he started to write A Horseman Riding By Delderfield had no intention of the character of Claire Derwent playing such a large part.  But, as so often seems to happen to even the most determined authors, Grace, Claire’s rival for the hero’s affections, grew restless with married life and, in defiance of the happy life her creator had intended for her, left her husband and ran off to join the suffragettes, to the ultimate benefit of all involved.

 It is entirely possible for an author to fall hopelessly in love with his heroines.  It had happened to me before, of course, but never quite like this for there was something about Claire Derwent that combined all the physical and spiritual assets I most admire in women.  She was pretty, buxom, possessed any amount of commonsense, was impulsively generous, she loved the Valley and shared Paul’s hatred of cities, and she was gloriously uninhibited whilst remaining feminine.  I reveled in her. (p. 239)

How nice to be named after such a well-loved character (even if “at least ninety-five per cent of readers who have communicated their preferences to me are pro-Grace, thinking of poor Claire as a genial, complaisant cow!”).

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Who’s your favorite author that other people are NOT reading? The one you want to evangelize for, the one you would run popularity campaigns for? The author that, so far as you’re concerned, everyone should be reading–but that nobody seems to have heard of. You know, not JK Rowling, not Jane Austen, not Hemingway–everybody’s heard of them. The author that you think should be that famous and can’t understand why they’re not…

I love R.F. Delderfield. Alright, so you’ve heard of To Serve Them All My Days and every library I’ve ever belonged to has at least one copy of Seven Men of Gascony (goodness knows why), but for the most part his books are rarely mentioned and difficult to locate.

I was always going to be just a little bit prejudiced in Delderfield’s favour: my parents named me after one of his characters, Claire Derwent from the “A Horseman Riding By” trilogy.  Finally, at the age of about twelve, I decided it was time to read the books, so I grabbed the first volume to figure out why my parents had picked this name.

The first time I read Long Summer Day and its sequels, Post of Honour and The Green Gauntlet, I honestly didn’t like my namesake Claire.  I found her shallow and vapid, with little interest beyond catching and keeping her man.  I far preferred her more serious daughter Mary, once she came along, who, temperamentally, was my twin.  Then I read the books again, a few years later, and saw more and more to like in Claire.  She had independence and strength that I didn’t recognize or appreciate the first time.

I think I’ve read the series four times since then.  It’s easy to do: nothing about Delderfield’s writing style is difficult.  The books are easy reads, the text concerned with domestic dramas rather than grand questions.  They are warm and comforting and if there is one thing they conditioned me to love, it’s a good family saga, which is good, because Delderfield was kind enough to also author the Swann Family Saga (beginning with God Is an Englishman).  Far preferable to the Swann’s in my opinion, The Dreaming Suburb and its follow-up, The Avenue Goes to War

Delderfield’s prime was the 1960s and 1970s and, forty years on, I’ve yet to find another young person familiar with more than one or two of his books.  There’s a certain sense of physicality, of sexuality, in his books that still fascinates me.  The physical relationships between male and female characters are always viewed as important (something more sentimental novels, even modern ones, have a tendency to gloss over with fine speeches), but not all-important.  Female characters are allowed to be selfish, to be bad mothers, to be vain…frankly, to be all the things that many modern-day feminists decry if they see in novels today (instead we get drunken, clueless 30-somethings, unable to hold down jobs or relationships.  Someone, please explain how this is an improvement).  There’s an artless honestly that I appreciate and, while there is nothing perfect about Delderfield’s rather dated writing, it’s an entertainment that is too much ignored and in too great danger of being altogether forgotten.

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