My friend and colleague Mary Grover is, I think I can safely say, the world expert on the novelist Warwick Deeping. She wrote a splendid book about him called The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping: Middlebrow Authorship and Cultural Embarrassment (2009) and her collection of all sixty-eight of Deeping’s novels formed the beginning of the special collection at Sheffield Hallam University. It is therefore with some trepidation that I write this piece about Deeping and review of the first Warwick Deeping novel I have read!
So, here goes: (George) Warwick Deeping (1877-1950) is another of those novelists immensely popular in their day, but almost forgotten now, that we specialise in at the collection. He grew up in Southend, in a comfortably-off middle class family. His father and grandfather were doctors, and Deeping followed in the family trade and qualified as an MD in 1912.
He began publishing in 1903, and his novels sold consistently well, but he is best-known for his 1925 novel Sorrell and Son. It tells the story of Captain Stephen Sorrell and his struggles to cling onto middle-class respectability after demobilization. Before the war he was a business man, but ‘business had died in 1917’. He slips, in Mary’s words, into ‘the squalor of life as a porter in an ill-run hotel to be bullied by a sexually predatory proprietress’. Captain Sorrell has a son, Kit, who he manages to send to private school and then to medical school, but Kit is ridiculed when his father’s circumstances are revealed. Mary describes this novel as ‘one of the most enduring best-sellers in Britain, Europe, and the United States’, and it certainly did endure for over fifty years, with a successful television adaptation being made in 1983. However, 1984 was the last time it was published in Britain, so his reputation has waned; certainly I had never come across him until I met Mary.
Deeping wrote many historical novels, and frequently had doctors as central characters, and The Dark House falls into both these categories. It is the story of Dr John Richmond, from his beginnings as a young ambitious house surgeon in London, through to his marriage and career as a general practitioner in provincial Southfleet. The date is never made explicit, but it appears to be the late Victorian period, and since I learned that Deeping was growing up in Southend with his doctor father in the late nineteenth century, it seems clear that this is set in his own childhood.
I will be clear from the start: this is a tedious novel. I usually like novels in which nothing ‘happens’ but then, I am thinking of novels by writers such as Elizabeth Taylor who are such acute observers of human nature and relationships that a very great deal does ‘happen’ between the characters. Deeping is perhaps attempting a character study in The Dark House (the title is referring, I think, to the human soul) but he is not an acute observer of human nature, and has nothing particularly insightful to say. Dr Richmond passes from clever, ambitious young doctor, to infatuated young man when he meet his future wife, to disillusioned and bored provincial doctor, while Deeping offers homilies and platitudes given as portentous pronouncements. Gender is very important to Deeping’s conception of character; there are continual references to the ‘essential’ man and the ‘essential’ woman. Lucy, Dr Richmond’s wife is of course that essential woman, the Angel in the House, who understands her role and her man and wisely says nothing when she knows he is having an affair. When the affair is over she goes to see the woman in question – Lucia, a tempestuous Italian (of course) in contrast to her English golden beauty – and they magically ‘reached an understanding of the essential woman in each other.’ (p. 373)
Most interesting are some of the tropes and themes that Mary tells me are characteristic of Deeping: there is alcoholism (check – Lucy’s evil mother, who is also French, so a double-whammy); anti-Semitism (check – the opening scene with the hospital porter who ‘could tell a dago or a Yid when heard that bell ring in a particular way’) shifty foreigners in general (check – Lucia the Italian who leads Richmond astray). In Deeping’s later books he became nostalgic and sentimental about the Southend of his youth. Here’s a passage from the end of the book, to give a flavour of the writing:
However mysterious the Dark House might be, you had your candle, but if that candle went out, Heaven help you! You became a mere mocker, a creature slimed over with cleverness, a humbug, a shrugger of shoulders. You sneered at your own ignorance, yet concealed it behind pretentious words. Lacking sincerity, no man dares to say: “I do not know.” Knowledge of these simple verities seemed to fall from heaven upon John Richmond as he drove along between the cornfields and watched them ripening for the harvest moon. So should a man’s wisdom ripen. A new tenderness was born in him. He felt himself one with these simple folk, the shepherds and ploughmen and carters, men who used their hands, and were wise in the ways of nature. (p. 390)
‘A creature slimed over with cleverness’ is a striking phrase; Deeping seemed to feel that sincerity is the key virtue, and true wisdom. I should say that this book isn’t all bad; it ambles comfortably along and I can imagine it making pleasant and undemanding reading in 1941, when perhaps you might want something undemanding and entirely unrelated to the war. I’m also told that Deeping did get dull in the 1940s, so I chose a bad place to start with him!
Have you read Deeping? Or is Deeping an author your parents read?