This is a first-person narrative giving the life story of the fictitious Sarah Undridge, born in 1848. Her first memory is of the Crystal Palace, which then becomes a symbol and recurring image in her long life. It was called the Palace of Peace; all nations were to meet there in understanding. At the time there was a song with a line that said: ‘You could see the Crystal Palace if it wasn’t for the houses in between.’ All the people and their houses always came between her and this image of the palace of peace. (This symbol is rather clunkily reiterated in the novel.)
In Sarah’s lifetime of nearly a hundred years she sees great changes: she sees her friends and relations grow rich or poor; die in the Crimea, Boer War, Great War, and World War II; and experiences life in rural Cornwall and metropolitan London.
The first half of this novel was very good. Sarah is a realistic, believable child, and the account of her Victorian childhood is absorbing reading. Her strict Papa and beautiful Mama are remote figures until they – shockingly – divorce and Mama re-marries. Sarah’s new step father is Lord Burnage, a glamorous, romantic figure who has fought in the Crimea and whose family crest is Fiat voluntas mea – My will be done. At age ten Sarah goes to live at his Cornwall estate, Tresant.
Howard Spring obviously felt a great love and affinity with his adopted county of Cornwall. Most of his later novels are at least partially set there; in The Houses in Between it is the setting for the most dramatic part of the novel and the home of the most vivid characters. Captain Rodda is the best of these: he is a ‘mountain of a man’, ‘a handsome swaggerer with the black beard and flashing teeth and the tasselled cap drooping over his ear’ (100). A cliché, maybe, but he is also a great character, a tormented man who is the cause of great tragedy, including killing a man in a bar brawl, and getting a local girl pregnant.
Spring is in love with Cornwall, writing deeply-felt descriptions of its beauty, but he isn’t sentimental about it. The Cornish community of Porteven live hard lives, often cut brutally short. As George has said in his review, Spring writes some excellent set pieces, and here his account of schooner shipwrecked in a storm, and the desperate attempts of the Porteven lifeboat to reach it, is compelling. Several men die, and the gallant Lord Burnage’s back is broken.
There are many depictions in Spring’s novels of the poverty that he knew first-hand. In this novel it is depictions of Bermondsey in London:
‘You turned off an interminable grey gritty street, stinking with the smells of gasworks and a pickle-factory and a fell-monger’s and other industries that all seemed notable for arresting and offensive odours. Where there were not such things there were flyblown tobacconist and newspaper shops, dirty-looking little barbers’ saloons, down-at-heel drapers’, grocers’ and nauseous butchers’ shops, with bluebottle flies buzzing in the air and crawling over blood-stained viscera.’ (230)
In the novel there are several characters who give up their wealth and privilege to be among the poor. One has plans to improve ‘conditions’ and write pamphlets and lobby politicians, but Spring does not seem to have sympathy for this. His sympathies appear to lie with Sally Gaylord, who gives up her inheritance to become Mary Brown and simply live among the poor as one of them. It seemed to me curiously pointless, but there are long debates between the characters about the best way to ‘do the right thing’, and this seems to be it.
“You can do nothing for poor people – nothing at all,” she would tell them, “except become one of them and share their miserable lives, without pretending that they anything but miserable. Half a pound of tea and your left-off drawers don’t help.” (403)
A final theme in Spring is reading, writing and publishing. Reading matter is important in the development of character, and there are also many professional writers. In this novel we have Maggie Whale, a popular novelist:
She was one of the recognised literary persons of her generation, not of the first rank, but in the class, if I must make a comparison, of Rhoda Broughton. (157)
Later, Maggie’s work is re-assessed:
people were made aware that behind the well-known popular work there was a seriousness, a consistent point of view – if you care to have it that way, a philosophy of life – that would probably give this author a permanent, though hardly a notable, place in English letters. (423)
I wonder if Spring thought that his novels would be regarded in this way?
Finally, The Houses in Between is a good story, but for me, too long. In common with other family sagas – I’m thinking particularly of the Forsyte Saga – the later characters are never as real to me as that first generation.
Review of Fame is the Spur (1940)
Review of Dunkerley’s (1946)