Book review by Frances S.
Warwick Deeping died in 1950. Caroline Terrace was published posthumously in 1955.
Having known Deeping only by repute as a formerly popular but now unfashionable novelist, I didn’t know what to expect from Caroline Terrace, chosen at random from forty Deeping novels held in Sheffield City Libraries’ out of print stock. Caroline Terrace turns out to be a select row of genteel houses perched high on the cliffs of ‘South End’. The story is set in the Victorian era, and follows the lives of the people who own or rent various houses on the row.
I warmed to Deeping when a few pages into the story he provided a helpful list of each house and its occupants – very handy with such a large cast of characters. I was also much taken by his vivid descriptions of places and people, the latter reminiscent of Dickens’ caricatures. As the story opens, the ghastly Pankridge family arrives to stay in the hotel, later settling into No 13 on the Terrace, swiftly renumbered 12a. We see them initially through the eyes of Captain Bullard, a long term local resident. Mrs Pankridge is a bullying snob, her husband a henpecked, pompous, nasty, man, and a sexual predator given the chance. They are accompanied by Isabella Luce, governess to the two spoilt and unlikeable Pankridge children. Isabella is poor and downtrodden but pretty and gentle with the accomplishments of a lady; she speaks French and Italian and plays the piano well. Isabella makes a great impression on the local men, especially George Travers, a handsome cad, who takes to meeting her when she is out with the children and cultivates them to inveigle himself into Isabella’s affections. Another resident, well-to-do and clever Miss Cripps, befriends Isabella, and takes her to a private ball. Isabella and Travers waltz together, beautifully, observed by the new curate, John Jordan, who is clumsy, plain and can’t dance, but who is instantly smitten by Isabella. She scarcely notices him, having eyes only for Travers. But Travers only seeks to seduce her, and she seems susceptible to him, in spite of being warned off by Mrs Pankridge. However, she does not succumb physically to his charms, and he disappears to London where the ladies are more amenable.
John proves his bravery and strength by joining the lifeboat crew in a rescue during a storm. He takes lodgings at No 3 and tries to spend more time with Isabella, who is still pining for Travers.
It turns out that Isabella has a tragic past, her father having been hanged for murdering a villain. She is recognised by Lardner, a former QC. He keeps this information to himself, until he sees Isabella becoming closer to the curate, whom he fancies as a possible husband for one of his daughters. He tells his wife, then his daughters, then Mr Pankridge. As soon as Mrs Pankridge finds out, she sacks Isabella on the spot. Isabella decides to kill herself. On her way to the shore she bumps into Travers, who offers to ‘find a place’ for her in town. She strikes him in the face and flees. Jordan sees all this happening, picks up Travers and hangs him by his coat on the garden railings. He then dashes after Isabella, who by this time has thrown herself into the sea. He rescues her. This is observed by many of the people in Caroline Terrace. The vicar doesn’t approve of John’s behaviour and sacks him. Fortunately, John is offered the post of curate in a village not far away, with kindly Canon Turnbull, who had rather mischievously recommended him to the lazy South End vicar in the first place. John pretends that Isabella must have fallen off a groin into the sea by accident. Miss Cripps takes Isabella in, connives at the lie about the accident, and offers her a home and job as her paid companion. Isabella is warming towards John. She tells Miss Cripps, and then John, about her past. He proposes to her, but she turns him down.
This only gets us about half way through the novel. Much as I was enjoying the story, by this time I was impatient for some idea of Isabella’s thoughts and motives. Sadly, she remains inscrutable and puzzling – to the reader, to the other characters – and, I suspect, to Deeping. The men and some of the older women are more fully drawn and appealing as characters.
John continues to spend time with Miss Cripps and Isabella, and persuades Isabella to go out for a walk with him, under the gaze of the local residents, who by now are split into two camps – pro and anti Isabella. John avoids visiting Caroline Terrace because he doesn’t want to put pressure on Isabella. She gains a new suitor in the person of weir Hereward Lancaster, aged 62. John overhears some women talking about Isabella’s suitors. They refer to John as ‘repulsive’. He begins to think that this is why Isabella rejected him and concentrates on his life in the village. Isabella is apparently enjoying Sir Hereward’s attentions, but has not decided whether to accept his proposal. Miss Cripps persuades John to visit her, and she tells him she has turned down Sir Hereward. She lets John kiss her, but says she will never marry. Again, we have no insight into her thinking, but Deeping makes several comments suggesting that women take pleasure from their power over men.
The story then takes a much darker tone. Cholera has already been mentioned briefly, and now there is reference to new sanitation installed at Caroline Terrace. However, the new reservoir supplying water to the residents is not protected from contamination. Deeping tells us how at that time people did not understand how disease could be spread. It is now June, and there is a plague of flies at Caroline Terrace due to a large manure heap in the mews behind the houses. The local doctor, a good man, is asked by John Jordan to treat a casual labourer who has been found ill in ditch. The illness turns out to be cholera. They move the dying man to the old Pest House, now derelict, used in the past as an isolation house. John offers to look after him. John and the doctor agree to keep the situation secret, telling only Canon Turnbull and a few other trusted friends needed to help with the arrangements. The man dies, and John buries him nearby. Isabella, out walking, comes across John at the house but he tells her to leave immediately, leaving her wondering what is going on, especially as when she arrived John was half dressed, being in the middle of destroying his contaminated clothes and changing into clean ones. John returns to his lodgings, hoping that the measures he has taken will have prevented the disease from spreading.
The secret is kept until the doctor realises that the lodgings of the dead man are likely to be infected, and that there may be an epidemic. He confides in Captain Bullard and another trusted resident, Major Mullard, and with them makes plans to set up a makeshift hospital in an old warehouse and recruit volunteers to staff it. The vicar hears about the danger, and promptly leaves for an extended holiday elsewhere, asking John to act as curate on his behalf. John accepts, because it will bring him back into the Caroline Terrace area. The dead man’s former landlord and family, and then some of their neighbours, come down with cholera. The only treatment available to the doctor was opium, to alleviate the pain. The epidemic spreads rapidly. As the word gets round, the residents either offer to help, or move away very quickly. John persuades the lifeboat crew to stay and help. Everything is organised as well as possible in the new ‘hospital’. John decides to call the people to church to pray, and the verger rings the church bell. No one turns up apart from Isabella, who insists on joining John to help care for the sick. This is very grim work, and Isabella finds it hard. Deeping’s description of the cholera epidemic is powerful and affecting, and his portrayal of the doctor and his selfless local helpers doing their best in appalling circumstances is very moving.
Gradually, local people start coming back to the church. It begins to rain, and there are no new cases of illness. But then John become sick. Miss Cripps insists on him being brought to her house to be nursed. Isabella realises how much she loves him, and tells him so. It appears that John is dying, in spite of all the doctor can do to treat him. But the doctor is opposed to strong liquor, and Miss Cripps decides to try one last thing – brandy. She gets Isabella to give him a large dose, and it appears to work. John recovers. The epidemic is over and we return to the humour and lighter feel of the early pages of the novel. The vicar comes back and is booed by the local people. He leaves the parish and goes abroad. John Jordan succeeds him. He and Isabella marry. We still don’t know what makes her tick!