Friday, May 08, 2009

God Is an Englishman

If only the title weren’t God Is an Englishman!
This has caused much mirth in my family. There are many variations on this floating around our house.

“God Is a New Yorker.”

“God is a Muscovite.”

All right already.

This diverting historical novel by R. F. Delderfield, author of To Serve Them All My Days (reviewed here), is a compelling read, the work of a fine craftsman, and the kind of book one would like to read in one day “in the horizontal position,” as Laurie Colwin used to describe her characters’ lounging reading habits. Set from 1857-1866, the 687-page novel, the first of a trilogy, kept me up till 1:30 this morning. Call R. F. Delderfield Scheherazade. One doesn’t want to finish too soon.

Delderfield is a plain, good stylist- nothing wrong there - but it is his strong, likable, believable characters and sweeping sense of history that set his work apart from that of less successful popular novelists. The hero, Adam Swann, a disillusioned soldier who has witnessed massacres in India, returns to England determined to quit the military and become an entrepreneur - and has the means to do so because of a ruby necklace he pocketed when he was knocked off his horse in India, the enemy owner having been killed.

Fascinated by the Industrial Revolution, Adam wants to travel around England before committing to a career. But a chance meeting with a railroad administrator determines the course of his life. Informed that the railway doesn’t stretch to every part of England and transportation of goods is difficult, he decides to organize his own transport business, rather like the trucking businesses of the future.

Adam isn’t the only leading character. There's also the extraordinary Henrietta Rawlinson, the daughter of a manufacturer whose main purpose is to break the unions after a long strike. On the way home to his father, Adam witnesses Sam Rawlinson's murder of a boy during a riot. And shortly afterwards Adam meets Henrietta, who is running away from home, not because of the rioting but because her father is determined to “sell” her in marriage to a rich repulsive man with clammy hands who bores her. And Adam, much amused by her, takes her home to his Aunt Charlotte to decide what to do with her. (The two marry.)

Then there’s Keate, Swann’s wagonmaster, a retired soldier and inspired preacher who rescues orphans from “baby farms” and attempts to turn their lives around. It is his scheme to train some of them to work for Swann. Keate is absolutely Dickensian - an ingenuous, sweet giant who is absolutely loyal.

This novel is so much fun- and there are two more to go. The book is still in print, thousands of copies floating around. But if only they'd changed the title for the American edition...


Ellen said...

I suppose it's anglophilic ? :)


I'm sure the title is slightly satiric, because the novel is anti-imperial. But it's still a bad title. GIAE is extremely well-written, however.