Farthing Hall by Hugh Walpole and J. B. Priestley (1929)

This novel is a collaboration between Walpole and Priestley. Walpole, the older novelist, writes as the young artist, while Priestley takes the character of the middle-aged academic. There’s a nice article about their ‘friendship of opposites’ here.

Review by Jane Varley:

The plot unfolds in an exchange of letters between two friends – a forty something academic man (Robert) and a twenty something male painter (Mark) exchange correspondence on their troubles with ‘their’ women. The younger sees at the theatre an attractive and unhappy girl (Jean) and vows to pursue her, protect her and win her. He follows her to the Lake District where he confronts her fierce, impoverished landowner father.

The older man is suddenly deserted by his wife of some years because of his intransigent, egoistic attitude. The girl has a callow brother who is mired in debt and legal trouble and is in London. The older man suspects his wife has gone to the Lake District home of a female acquaintance (who has been staying in his house and annoying him with her silliness). The younger man verifies this but just as he follows the girl to London the older man travels to the lake District in pursuit of his errant wife.

The young man eventually rescues the brother from the clutches of a blackmailer; the older man is reconciled with his wife; a marriage is engineered between the impoverished father and the rich but silly woman friend of the senior man’s wife and . . . .ALL IS WELL!

There are many references to paintings, theatre, plays and novels – particularly novels by Ann Radcliffe (19th century pioneer of the Gothic novel – romantic in vivid descriptions of landscapes and long travel scenes, the Gothic element obvious through the use of the supernatural) to which the characters humorously liken their own adventures.  Mark buys four books for his stay in the hotel in Keswick: Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Clough’s poems (poet first half 19th century, contemporary of Matthew Arnold wrote the elegy of Thyrsis to his memory), Buchan’s Midwinter and Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White. Later he is reading Arabica Deserta by Charles Mantagu Doughty, a travel book ‘that odd work’. Robert is working on a book titled The Chimera of Romanticism, a fictitious title the nature of which shows well Robert’s character.

The play Mark sees at the theatre where he first encounters Jean is titled The Green-Eyed Man and is evidently a murder mystery. (Fictitious title?) Robert sees three plays while he is looking for his wife in London: Horns of the truth, The badger and The wise wife (all of which might be fictitious). Robert criticises theatre review which find these plays to be full of wit and wisdom whereas he finds the characters two dimensional,

‘things cut out of cardboard, beings that clearly have no existence off the stage, vanishing into thin air or being packed away in boxes once they have reached the wings.’

Actors don’t act, they ‘merely walk on . . they do not change their personalities’. Robert prefers music-halls

‘although they are becoming desperately refined and no longer have a supply of those vulgar artistes, each with a personality, a stage presence, like the kick of a mule.’

There are also swipes at belief in the supernatural. Mark dreams he is in a shabby room in London, with nothing much but a harp and a threatening atmosphere. Later, in London, he finds himself actually is such a room and in danger from the blackmailer.

I enjoyed this novel enormously. On the face of it it is a merry romp with a complex, rather farcical plot but the writing style is rich in wit, irony, playful sarcasm – rather ‘Noel Coward-ish’. Deft descriptions of both people and places give a vivid picture of character and place and often a mocking critic of other literary forms (p 114) as they do so. Although the satire doesn’t come direct from the authors Walpole and Priestly but from Robert and Mark who are themselves the ‘authors’ of the letters.

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5 thoughts on “Farthing Hall by Hugh Walpole and J. B. Priestley (1929)

  1. Priestley later wrote, in “Margin Released” (Heinemann 1962) that he took the part of the middle-aged scholar, whilst Walpole wrote as the eager romantic youth, a reversal of their roles in real life. The object of the exercise was quite simply to guarantee Priestley an income from the royalties whilst he took time out to write the book which brought him to wider attention, “The Good Companions.” Priestley also collaborated with Gerald Bullett in another venture, “I’ll Tell You Everything” (Heinemann 1933) written in the style of a cinema “cliff-hanger” where every chapter ends with some incident designed to keep the pace moving swiftly. That book harks back to the style of Priestley’s first novel, “Adam in Moonshine” (Heinemann 1927).

  2. Pingback: The Man with Red Hair by High Walpole (1925) | Reading 1900-1950

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