No reprieve from Warwick Deeping on this blog! Sylvia D has bravely read another Deeping from the 1940s so you don’t have to.
The plot summary
Arthur Valentine Brown is a rather grey, well-to-do city man in his late forties who lives in a mock Tudor “mansion” in affluent suburbia in a loveless marriage with his shrewish, “keep-up with the Joneses” wife, Betty. Nor does he get much companionship or meaningful conversation from his two children. Brown is told that he only has six months to live, makes over his business to his partner and sets out alone on a Grand Tour of Europe, much to the disbelief and consternation of his family. On his travels he meets – and falls in love with – the gentle, thoughtful Sybil Burnside, a secretary who has allowed herself a three month break from the daily routine. When Brown finally gets around to confessing to Sybil, who is much younger than him, that he is a dying man, she persuades him to seek a second opinion and he finds himself reprieved. Brown and Sybil return to England determined to marry but his wife refuses to give him a divorce and they retreat to the house of their dreams in Cornwall. Betty’s death six years later enables them finally to marry.
I read a Warwick Deeping novel some years ago after hearing about him from Mary Grover but I have to admit that I can’t remember either the title or the content, so I came virtually new to Deeping with Reprieve. It feels to me that it is a novel of three parts. The first section where we are introduced to Valentine Brown and learn that he only has six months to live is quite engaging and there are some humorous touches. Deeping’s depiction of Valentine’s isolation and stultifying social life in suburbia is well executed as is his build-up to Valentine’s learning that he only has six months to live. This is followed by some interesting reflections on themes such as euthanasia and the possibility of life after death whilst making one wonder what one’s own reaction would be to such devastating news. The second section which follows Valentine’s travels in Europe and his blossoming relationship with Sybil contains some very distasteful and xenophobic writing which very much spoilt it for me. The third section when they return to England and settle down to an idyllic existence with the only fly in the ointment being Betty’s refusal to give Valentine a divorce was frankly over-sentimentalised and tedious.
It is the characterisation of the two main women in the novel which really grates. Valentine’s wife Betty comes across as intensely unattractive and one wonders whether Deeping was portraying her as the epitome of everything he disliked in women: Valentine “saw the little solid figure of his wife . . . Her face was like her daughter’s, a pasty pudding; spectacles glimmered over her small fruity brown eyes. Her black hair was smooth and greasy. Her walk was a kind of teeter on absurdly inadequate ankles. Her tummy stuck out, as did her chin. . . . She was just like a little bossy bladder of cold lard” (p.7). Valentine’s new love, Sybil, on the other hand, seems to represent Deeping’s image of the ideal woman, “She had tender eyes, a happy, sweet-tempered mouth, and a serene forehead under her very black hair. Foreheads should not be too bald and high, and hers was neither, nor had she surrendered to the silly freaks of fashion inspired by some bit from Hollywood. Her dark eyebrows were eyebrows and lovely in their shadows and their curves. Her face was sensitive to the play of her inward self, vivacious, intelligent, suddenly and infinitely serious. She had fine, slender hands” (p.86). This “sweet-tempered mouth” meant that irritatingly she never said a cross word and I lost count of the number of times she had “laughter in her eyes” p.86 and others)!
It is hard to appreciate today how popular Deeping was in his time and it leads one to ponder the nature of literary fame and to wonder which and how many of our present day popular novelists will have sunk into obscurity in fifty years’ time.