Ripeness is All by Eric Linklater (1935)

Review by Thecla W:

The novel opens with the funeral of Major John Gander. We are introduced to various Gander relatives: his half-sister, Hilary; his nephews, Arthur and Stephen; his nieces Katherine and Jane. Other prominent characters are the vicar and Mr Peabody, the lawyer. There is also a long-lost nephew, George, believed to be in India.

There is a great deal of speculation about the provisions of the will. None of the possible legatees are so unrealistic or so grasping as to expect to inherit everything but, apart from Hilary, each expects something.

However, when the will is read, they learn that Hilary has been left the house and the rest of the estate is left to whichever of them fulfils certain conditions.

In the will, Major Gander laments “a regrettable tendency of the times, viz. to avoid the responsibilities of parenthood”.

He considers children to be “the ripeness of fruit of the Tree of Life. And, as Shakespeare says, Ripeness is All.”

Consequently, he states that the residuary legatee will be whichever of his nieces and nephews in five years time has the greatest number of legitimate children.

The rest of novel concerns the attempts by some of the candidates to achieve this enviable position.

I don’t know how popular this light novel was in 1935 but it seems extremely dated now and I found it very hard-going. I expected a gently amusing satire of family relationships and expectations. My amusement was mild to say the least: the satire is feeble, the characters rather tedious and the language ponderous and at times overblown.

The potential legatees pursue various strategems in their pursuit of the inheritance. The two married women eat healthily and try to conceive. Katherine, who, unlike Arthur’s wife, Daisy, has no children, puts her hope in the fact that twins feature in her husband’s family. Once pregnant, she tells everyone that she is definitely having twins. Jane, unmarried and unwilling to do anything which interferes with her golf, persuades her friend, Bolivia, to marry Stephen, who to his horror finds himself engaged to her. George arrives from India with several children and a lot of documents which prove to be fraudulent.

The number of paragraphs devoted to certain incidents or plot strands gives an indication of what the author thought would amuse his readers.  Clearly Bolivia’s pursuit of Stephen is meant to be funny as is Stephen’s horror at the prospect of marriage. But this doesn’t work at all; in fact it seems cruel rather than amusing. Perhaps the modern reader is alienated by humour based on outmoded stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviour.

Likewise, Arthur is a fantasist who tells lengthy anecdotes about his service in World War One which are highly embroidered and bear little relationship to the truth. The first time he is shown telling one of his stories it is mildly amusing (though rather long) and gives an insight into his character. But, judging by the number of pages they occupy in the novel, Linklater obviously thought that the tall stories are amusing in themselves. They aren’t.

And then there is the prose. Here is Jane at a dinner party:

“At the foot of the table … sat Jane, looking enormous in a white taffeta frock so voluminously frilled, fluted, flounced, and scalloped that she might have been tarred and feathered: but thickly feathered, closely feathered: the tar was invisible, yet the feathers, the white flocculence, the hispid fringes, must have had something to stick to.”

In the end the vicar, a widower with several children, turns out to be an illegitimate son of the major’s father and so inherits.

The quotes on the back of this edition describe the novel as “rich and rollicking” – Punch. And from the Observer, “The fun is fast and furious, and the characteristic wit of Mr Linklater coruscates through it all.”

I’m afraid I found it tedious, slow-moving and far from fun but it probably had greater appeal when first published.

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One thought on “Ripeness is All by Eric Linklater (1935)

  1. A shame that such a cracking idea for a comedy – with a very neat ending – resulted in a such a meandering novel. It could have have been fiction’s
    ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

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