Thursday, March 12, 2009

To Serve Them All My Days

I can't fall into old-fashioned historical novels the way I used to. I keep coming up for air. Yet I've entertained myself the last couple of nights with To Serve Them All My Days, which is great fun, a sheer escape into a gentle post-World War I landscape that probably didn't exist. (By the way, To Serve Them All My Days is still in print and also readily available at used bookstores.)

This is the only book by R. F. Delderfield I've read. I despised his blockbuster novels on the basis of the titles until I saw To Serve Them All My Days on "Masterpiece Theater," the classics-adaptation showcase to which I was addicted as a young anglophile (though I’ve lost touch since then). As I was a "militant" anglophile, not an imperialist, I scorned books with chauvinistic titles - and titles don't get much worse than Delderfield's - like God Is an Englishman and Theirs Was the Kingdom. But perhaps the titles were code to alert a certain niche of readers who were half-nostalgic for the interwar period. At any rate, they were very popular. And perhaps the frame of “Masterpiece Theater” allowed the rest of us to enjoy them.

To Serve Them All My Days is a behind-the-scenes school novel, and if you've taught at a private school it will ring true. It is realistic in its descriptions of staff squabbles, politics, and changing alliances, though its depiction of the boys' quirky mischief, loyalty, and occasional gallantry may seem simplistic . The hero, David Powlett-Jones, a Welsh coal miner's son and a veteran of World War I, metamorphoses into a genius teacher at a private school. We first meet David on the brink of his interview for the teaching job for which he has applied at the urging of a doctor, who believes the healthy setting and fresh air will restore David's shattered nerves. And Bamfylde, located on the beautiful moors, does heal him. The challenge of teaching history to boys of all ages stimulates his intelligence and sparks his inherent creativity: he links WWI history with the distant past in a way that engages the boys. There's also romance, tragedy, and second chances. Delderfield is an intelligent writer whose solid novel is scaffolded on fascinating characters, an understated style, and old-fashioned, chronological storytelling.

Pamela Hansford Johnson's The Honours Board is a much, much more interesting school novel; but I've enjoyed my Delderfield.


jeanne said...

I loved this novel and the Masterpiece Theater adaptation. I need to re-read it! Thanks for reminding me!


Jeanne, I'm happy that you, too, enjoyed To Serve Them All My Days. Nobody reads Delderfield anymore, and I confess this is the only one I've read by him. It holds up, though.