Dunkerley’s by Howard Spring (1946)

Review by Sylvia D:

I remember Howard Spring being a very popular writer when I was in my teens but as I was going through my “highbrow” period at the time, I chose not to read him!  When I started reading Dunkerley’s I thought at first I was going to be surprised but my initial enthusiasm soon started to wane.

 Dunkerley’s is both the name of a family and of a shilling magazine.  It is the second volume of a projected trilogy which continues the story of the Dunkerley family who first appeared in Hard Facts (1944).  Daniel Dunkerley, a jobbing printer who founded a popular penny journal in the backstreets of Manchester in 1885, is now Sir Daniel Dunkerley who divides his time between his opulent new mansion, Dickons, in Sussex and his apartment in Manchester Square and the head offices of his publishing empire in London.

However, in Dunkerley’s the narrative focuses more on the younger generation.  Sir Daniel Dunkerley’s son, Laurie, recently come down from Oxford, falls in love with Hesba Lewison, the blue-stocking friend of his sister. Grace.   After a harsh childhood, Hesba has been companion to a successful writer, Sarah Armitage, who lives in Cornwall and Hesba herself has had a serial accepted for publication in Dunkerley’s.  This allows Spring to reflect on the different way writers go about their craft,

[Hesba] passed from the terrace through the open french windows that led into Sarah’s long book-filled work-room.  The vast mahogany writing table was piled with books, newspaper cuttings, pamphlets, files.  A strange way to write novels, Hesba thought, calling up an image of her own desk that contained nothing but a pen, an ink bottle, and a pad of paper.  But there it was: there was more than one way of going about the job; (p 198).

Spring also reflects on the nature of writing and on the publishing world.  Hesba in turn loves Alec Dilsworth, the tortured and guilt-ridden editor of Sir Daniel’s new magazine, Dunkerley’s, who also aspires to be a writer.  Although she writes fairy tales, he can see that there is a deeper message in her writing,

”How do you manage to suggest – as you do – in writing mere fairy-tales, that you, too, are aware what a bloody world it is?” (p 75).

He also warns her of the nature of the publishing business,

”You must learn the first principles of the world you live in.  It is a world wherein ambitious writers leap at the chance of intimacy with editors and publishers, and editors themselves grovel on their knees before their proprietors” (p 76).

There is little sex in the book apart from a strange interlude when Alec has a row with Sir Daniel, runs away and for a week is looked after by a country woman who ministers to both his physical and sexual needs.  After that he becomes engaged to Hesba!

Alec lives with his sister, Elsie, a potentially brilliant violinist, whose career was ruined when Alec accidentally stabbed her through the hand during a fight.   Elsie, who is very bitter about the loss of her career, falls in love with Izzy Phyfe, (born Sam Fife!), Sir Daniel’s upwardly mobile right-hand man through whom Spring extols the virtues of hard work and of reading.  When Sam’s mother brings home some torn and battered books, he stumbles on what Spring calls “the golden key to all intellectual life and progress”,

”Look, Ma.  When you start reading, you can go on from one thing to another.  It all links up” (p 155).

It is during a business trip that Izzy Phyfe has to make with his new wife to Manchester that Elsie stumbles across her and Alec’s brutal, drunkard of a father with fatal consequences.

Spring can write some evocative descriptive passages,

The sun shone, sparkling on the pebbly sallies and eddies of the shallow water.  The smell of the wet banks and of mint and thyme filled the air.  Wild roses here and there trailed in the water sprays that were jewelled with pale pink blossoms, and willows hunched over the stream their dark torsoes from which the green hair fell to the flood as if for washing.  The little dragonflies flashed their wings and added their note to the general hum and drone of June (p 19).

There are also little touches of humour such as Laurie’s sister, Dinah, who was at finishing school in Switzerland, musing,

. . . and back I go on Monday to Switzerland.  Thank goodness, I shall be “finished” at the end of the summer, for once I’m finished I suppose I can begin (p 184).

However the writing can be annoyingly florid and the narrative, whilst it gallops along, is imbued with sentimentality. I found the considerable number of literary references rather pretentious and the melodramatic ending seemed unnecessary.

For biographical details about Spring, and an account of our lively reading group meeting, see this earlier post.

4 thoughts on “Dunkerley’s by Howard Spring (1946)

  1. I too can remember Howard Spring books being around when I was younger – I think they were the sort of popular novel my parents liked…. I always had the impression they were a little risque and I know they used to end up as book club editions a lot of the time.

    Interestingly, Jane at Fleur in Her World did a nice review of Marion Howard Spring’s (his widow) book here


    All very interesting!

    • Thanks Karen, that is a very nice review of his widow’s book.

      Yes, I think some of the early novels like Shabby Tiger (1934) had a surprising amount of sexual content! One of our readers said that in his youth Spring was known for that – though any young readers looking for sex in the novel I read (The Houses in Between) would have been sadly disappointed!

  2. Pingback: Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring (1940) | Reading 1900-1950

  3. Pingback: The Houses in Between by Howard Spring (1951) | Reading 1900-1950

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