Monday, January 03, 2011

Great Pop Fiction: R. F. Delderfield's Theirs Was the Kingdom

R. F. Delderfield's entertaining Swann trilogy, God Is an Englishman, Theirs Was the Kingdom, and Give Us This Day, held the # 9 and # 10 slots on the New York Times best-seller list in the early '70s.  God Is an Englishman was on the list for 24 weeks, 9/13/70-3/21/71, and Theirs Was the Kingdom for 13 weeks, 9/26/71-12/19/71. You couldn't enter a bookstore or Good Will without being inundated by displays of these stodgy titles, which were clearly marketed to middle-aged readersThe covers were old-fashioned and romantic, depicting brides, horsemen, ladies with pink parasols, and gentlemen with canes.  How many younger people eschewed this series because of the conventional art?  Certainly no one of my generation, protesting the Vietnam War and Nixon's presidency, would be seen with a book called God Is an Englishman. Imperialist pigs, die!  Or something like that.

Fortunately, Delderfield's books are back.  Sourcebooks has reissued his Swann trilogy (the three aforementioned titles) and To Serve Them All My Days, a novel about a teacher, with attractive, more contemporary covers.  
Delderfield's skillful storytelling is far from hackneyed.  This is not great literature, but it is intelligent popular fiction.  These excellent historical novels are very moving, though slightly sentimental.  It's all about plot, with the writing good but plain, Delderfield's characters are decent and often heroic, and his voice resonates with humor and perceptiveness.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the trilogy is Delderfield's focus on work.  Every character, male or female, must work to fulfill himself or herself.  Otherwise, idleness leads to confusion and mistakes.  Delderfield describes Adam Swann's wagon haulage business in such detail that one could go to work for him.  This theme of the importance of work is unusual.  George Gissing describes work in The Odd Women, and Sebastian Faulks describes several different professions in A Week in December, but most fiction writers relegate work to the background.

The first novel, God Is an Englishman, is set in mid-19th-century England.  The hero, Adam Swann, a former soldier, founds a haulage firm after a railroad employee explains there is a need for wagons to carry merchandise from cities and small towns to the railroad. Adam founds a national network of wagoners, and the stories of his workers, some of whom rise from the ghetto, are fascinating.   He and his spirited wife, Henrietta, with whom he originally has a rocky relationship, build a dynasty of employees and family.  Adam is a vigorous businessman, respected by his workers, and frankly the descriptions of his business make this worth reading.  Delderfield has thoroughly researched the relationship between wagons and railroads.  

Delderfield is also a strong feminist.  Henrietta proves to have a good business head, and, after Adam is crippled in a terrible train wreck, she manages the business until he returns from rehab.  And another of Adam's best workers, Edith, is a manager, who works her way up the ladder after helping her own manager father.  Oddly, Delderfield has a radical political slant which doesn't suit the titles at all. 

In Theirs Was the Kingdom, the second book in the trilogy, which begins in 1879, Adam is revamping the firm to meet modern needs.  Delderfield also tells the story of his children.  Much of the action is centered on their work.

The oldest daughter, Stella, spoiled but well-educated, foolishly marries an upper-class man who turns out to be a homosexual, his lover already living at the dilapidated estate. Their marriage isn't consummated, but his father tries to rape her, wanting an heir, after she discovers her husband's propensities and decides to run away.  She seeks sanctuary with a young farmer, who has always been in love with her, untll her mother can send Stella away to safety.  When the divorce is through and Stella comes back, she proves to be a heroine, helping the farmer weather a disaster when his house burns down.  Her work as a carpenter and assistant helps her grow up.

Two of the other children are also (so far) among the protagonists:  George, the genial oldest son, is Adam's business protege, but after he discovers one of the managers is fiddling the books, he is almost blackmailed into marriage with the manager's scheming daughter.  Giles is a radical, hoping to work for rights of factory workers and other poor.  And the Swanns' adopted daughter, Deborah, in her twenties, investigates prostitution in Germany and is beaten up by the police, who search her apartment for information. 

This novel is very, very well-researched and a pleasure to read.  The characters are very strong:  good role models for us all! 


Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

I adore Delderfield and can confirm that my parents, both in their 20s in the 1970s, were uncool enough to be reading his works when they frist came out. Indeed, they liked them so much that I was named after the heroine of the Horseman Riding By books, Claire Derwent!

Frisbee said...

Oh, I can't wait to read Horseman Riding now. It's taken me a long time to find Delderfield, but better late than never. How great to be named after a character in a book!

Anonymous said...

I've been wanting to read To Serve Them All My Days since watching the moving Davies' adaptation. Ellen

Frisbee said...

Ellen, To Serve Them All My Days is SO good. I would say his writing ihere s as good as Winston Graham's in the best Poldark books. I read To Serve them after I saw the Masterpiece Theater series years ago. Again, he's a bit sentimental.