Review by George Simmers:
The Sandersons are an upper-working-class family with aspirations. The father is a ticket collector at a railway station; the mother was once in service. The two children have ambitions, though. Alfred has a job in the City, and works hard to improve his social status; Winnie has a muscial talent that might just lift her to a higher position.
Gradually the family’s situation improves. The father is promoted to inspector, and then moves to a better job elsewhere. They leave Railway Terrace for somewhere more spacious and suburban (though the new home’s S.E. Postcode still marks it out as not quite good enough for an aspiring musician. Winnie is offered 7/6d for a performance, but reckons she could have obtained £3 with a West End address.)
W. Pett Ridge’s own father had been a railway porter, and he constantly makes us aware of the instability of life for people in the Sandersons’ social position. Holding on to your job means suppressing your opinions and keeping in favour with those above you. While the Sandersons’ fortunes generally rise, other families fall.
This is a novel where little happens that is dramatic; even the daughter’s disappearance towards the end of the book turns out to have been less worrying than it might have been. I enjoyed it considerably, though, because I liked the people, and because the book describes the small challenges of everyday life with sympathy and skill. Pett Ridge has a clever knack of giving us a narrative twist at the end of the chapter, to keep us reading. And he pulls off the difficult task of writing humorously about working-class and lower-middle-class people without condescending. Their snobberies and affectations may sometimes be amusing, but their ambitions are real and serious.
The two parents are the best-drawn characters. James Sanderson is not strenuously ambitious, yet he wants to get on. He deals with life through humour; he makes good jokes and blacks up very successfully when the railwaymen put on their amateur minstrel show. He is a very kind-hearted man, making sacrifices for others, and he bears it with equanimity when his son begins to intimate that he is a failure in life and something of an embarrassment.
The mother, who before her marriage had worked as a parlourmaid, is barely literate, and needs people to help her read things. There is a running joke about her the novel Ben Hur. Right at the start of the book she takes it with her to a seaside holiday; at the end of the book, many years later, she is still getting through it, and says: ‘I seem to be just coming to the part in the book where there’s trouble.’ (318) She is the family’s bedrock, though: caring, sensible, hard-working.
W. Pett Ridge seems to have a thorough knowledge of the people he is dealing with. The book has a mass of social detail, and is good on money. We learn what things cost, and what people earn, and also how financial considerations can limit lives; a musical career like Winnie’s needs more money than the family can manage to get it started.
The book appeals to our sentiments, but is not sentimental. We see the children growing away from the parents, and the ending is at best bitter-sweet. Beneath the book’s pleasant surface there are some hard truths about life.
Pett Ridge is one of the great legion of forgotten authors, but I’m glad to have read this. I shall definitely take a look at one or two more of his books.