The Houses in Between by Howard Spring (1951)

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.

See also:

Howard Spring

Review of Fame is the Spur (1940)

Review of Dunkerley’s (1946)

15 thoughts on “The Houses in Between by Howard Spring (1951)

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

      • I have a copy of this title I picked up secondhand last year – a paperback reprint from 2000 – so he does turn up every now and then. I admit it’s the size of the book that’s left it on my shelf so far but it does sound worth digging into one of these long and lazy Sundays. 🙂

  2. “You could see the Crystal Palace if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”
    Oddly, this version only seems to appear in Spring’s novel. Perhaps the original- or most common- version: “Wiv a ladder and some glasses
    You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
    If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between”
    didn’t have quite the right ring to it.

    • This is the full original, as sung by Gus Elen. No Crystal Palace.

      If you saw my little back yard “wot a pretty spot!” you’d cry
      It’s a picture on a sunny summer day;
      Wiv the turnips and cabbages wot peoples doesn’t buy
      I makes it on a Sunday look all gay.
      The neighbours finks I grow ’em and you’d fancy you’re in Kent
      Or at Epsom if you gaze into the mews
      It’s a wonder as the landlord doesn’t want to raise the rent,
      Because we’ve got such nobby distant views.

      Oh! it really is a werry pretty garden,
      And Chingford to the eastward could be seen;
      Wiv a ladder and some glasses you could see to ‘Ackney Marshes,
      If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.

      We’re as countrified as can be with a clothes prop for a tree
      The tub stool makes a rustic little stile;
      Every time the bloomin’ clock strikes there’s a cuckoo sings to me
      And I’ve painted up ‘To Leather Lane a mile’.
      Wiv tomatoes and wiv radishes wot ‘adn’t any sale
      The back yard looks a purfick mass o’ bloom;
      And I’ve made a little beehive wiv some beetles in a pail,
      And a pitchfork wiv the handle of a broom.

      Oh it really is a werry pretty garden,
      And Rye ‘Ouse from the cockloft could be seen;
      Where the chickweed man undresses, To bathe ‘mong the water cresses,
      If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.

      There’s the bunny shares ‘is eggbox wiv the cross-eyed cock and hen,
      Though they ‘as got the pip and him the morf;
      In a dog’s ‘ouse on the linepost there was pigeons nine or ten,
      Till someone took a brick and knocked it off.
      The dustcart though it seldom comes, is just like ‘arvest ‘ome
      And we made to rig a dairy up somehow
      Put the donkey in the wash-house wiv some imitation ‘orns,
      For we’re teaching ‘im to moo just like a kah.

      Oh it really is a werry pretty garden,
      And ‘Endon to the westward could be seen;
      And by clinging to the chimbley, you could see across to Wembley
      If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.

      Though the gasworks isn’t wilets, they improve the rural scene
      For mountains they would very nicely pass;
      There’s mushrooms in the dusthole, with the cucumbers so green
      It only wants a bit o’ ‘ot’ouse glass.
      I wears this milkman’s nightshirt, and I sits outside all day,
      Like the ploughboy cove wot’s mizzled o’er the Lea;
      And when I goes indoors at night they dunno what I say,
      ‘Cos my language gets as yokel as can be.

      Oh it really is a werry pretty garden,
      And soapworks from the housetops could be seen;
      If you got a rope and pulley, I’d enjoy the breeze more fully
      If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.

      • Oh, earwormed! I shall be singing it for days now! But I don’t think I’ve ever seen (or heard) the whole thing, so I don’t mind too much. I do like the line about the beehive with beetles. More pleasure than I get from Howard Spring nowadays, at any rate, I’m not a fan.

  3. Love that book! Read it when I was about twelve. Was completely enchanted with the characters, Sarah, Sally, captain Rhoda. Thirty years later read it again, this time I felt I had aged with some of the characters and cried at some points in reading it. Read it again eight years later, and felt completely sad because I started to see life through the writer’s eyes. Now eight years later I want to read it again, this time the last time for me. I know it sound bleak, but now that my life is coming to its conclusion, I completely understand Sarah Undridge.

    • Thank you for the comment, Pam. It’s great to hear how your perspective on the novel has changed over the years. Such are the pleasures of re-reading! It doesn’t really sound bleak to identify with Sarah Undridge as the elderly narrator; she’s a great character who can look back on a rich and full life, albeit one with its tragedies.

    • I read it at about the age of 12 too. I was enthralled. I’ve never read it again, but am thinking I’ll look for a copy. So I can completely understand Sarah Undridge myself. 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Houses in Between by Howard Spring | Leaves & Pages

  5. Hello, My mum is looking for a book she was told was written by Howard Springs about Ancoates, England. Does anyone know the actual title as what I am searching for doesn’t show up any leads…

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