Sleeveless Errand (1929) by Norah C James

Book review by Sylvia D: For the Reading Groups Second World War session, I read Enduring Adventure by Norah C James (1896-1979), a novel about the impact of the Blitz on the owners and regulars at a central London pub. When I was researching James, I was intrigued to discover that her first novel had been banned and all known copies burnt.

Comparisons of the way Sleeveless Errand was censored are made with the treatment of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness but at least The Well made it into the bookshops and some copies were sold before it was the subject of an obscenity trial and banned. On the other hand, on 20 February 1929, at 6.00 pm, the police began their successful seizure of 517 copies of Sleeveless Errand because a complaint had been made by the editor of the Morning Post to the Censor that the novel was of an obscene character. The stock of the two biggest exporting booksellers was confiscated and at 8.00 pm the same day, “two plain-clothes men” called at the flat of Eric Partridge, the publisher, and demanded that he escort them to 30 Museum Street, the office of the press, where they seized all the copies. The name of every book seller the book had been delivered to was also noted and these bookshops raided. Outside the small shop of a bookseller who had left a copy of the book in his window whilst he was closed for two days, a guard from Scotland Yard was posted until his return when he was made to hand over the window copy. A review copy was also traced and the police called at the reviewer’s house, and insisted she give up her copy.

At the ensuing trial the Times reported that the Prosecutor insisted that the novel “could only have a degrading, immoral influence, and . . . tended to excite unhealthy passions.” The presiding magistrate concluded that the book was obscene and ordered that the 517 seized copies of a total first edition of 750 be destroyed. Jack Kahane, the son of Lithuanian refugees, did, though, publish it in Paris and it was also published in the US where it met with considerable success. It was also translated into three other languages but never published again in Britain, so my copy is one of the first Paris editions. Prices on the net range from £25 to $2,000 and I thought it was worth spending £25 to see what all the fuss was about.

There isn’t much plot and the whole narrative takes place over the course of two days in the early 1920s. The novel tells the story of Paula Cranford, who, distraught when jilted by her lover and feeling that her life is valueless, resolves to commit suicide. She meets a man called Bill Cleland who has just discovered his wife sleeping with his best friend. Together they have long conversations bemoaning their bad fortune and they spend the evening wandering around some London clubs where they come across some of Paul’s bohemian, decadent friends, “The Crowd”. Paula then invites Bill back to her flat where he stays the night and they tell each other about their families: Paula’s father used to thrash the children and had an affair with a village girl. Her mother was an alcoholic. Bill’s beloved brother had been left severely traumatised by his experiences in the Great War and died shortly afterwards. His parents were killed in a car crash. Paula and Bill agree they will commit suicide together by driving off a cliff in a hire car. On the way to the coast, the car breaks down in Hove and while they are waiting for it to be repaired, they fall in with members of a traveling revue and put up in a hotel for the night. Bill is by now having second thoughts about ending his life and Paula succeeds in persuading him to return to his wife before ending her own life as planned.

So, what was there to condemn about it? According to The Times, at the trial the Prosecutor said that ‘The story . . . was told in the form of conversations by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part were under the influence of drink, and who not tolerated but even advocated adultery and promiscuous fornication. Filthy language and indecent situations appeared to be the keynote of the book.’

Is this condemnation really justified? Paula certainly drinks a lot over the two days and has been doing so for the past few weeks but she goes through a period of severe distress and heavy drinking seems to be reflective of the life style of her particular set just as it is with the characters in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat which had been published in 1924. That novel had several similar themes to Sleeveless Errand but was not censored. The only obvious adultery in Sleeveless Errand is that between Bill’s wife and his friend and there is little evidence of ‘promiscuous fornication’ except mention of the behaviour of Paula’s friends and casual mention of homosexuality in a non-judgemental way. The two possibly indecent situations are when Bill spends the night at Paula’s flat and they share her bed but there is no sexual contact between them until the following day when they kiss just the once before parting. When they spend the night in the hotel in Hove, they have separate rooms.

Perhaps, the use of bad language, particularly in Paula’s case, might have seemed excessive at the time. The Prosecution spoke of some 60 examples of this, words such as ‘bloody hell’, ‘homos’, ‘whores’, ‘for Christ’s sake’, ‘bloody hell’, ‘like hell’ and the use of ‘balls’, meaning ‘rubbish’, which the Prosecutor seems to have found especially upsetting. Nowadays, we give little thought to language such as this and it is probably the language that would have been used in the course of everyday conversation between Paula and her acquaintances at the time. The fact that Paula goes ahead and kills herself didn’t seem to provoke any adverse comment. Bill Harrrison, in an article in the journal, Atenea, advances the theory that this seemingly excessive reaction to the book was that of an establishment disturbed by the behaviour of some young women in the post-war period who wanted to emulate the sexual freedom experienced by women during the War and who thus posed a threat to society. Certainly, in one of the few reflective passages in the book – there is an awful lot of rather bad dialogue counter-balanced by what Paula and Bill are really thinking – is when Paula argues younger girls

‘resent not having what they call the ‘good time’ we had during the War, when sexuel (sic) control from the top to the bottom of society went by the board in the cry of ‘to-morrow we die’. They want to do the same thing now, although, if they get found out, the world makes them suffer for it, just as much as it made women suffer for the same thing before 1914.’

In addition, she argues that

‘Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless. Those of us who had cared a bit about reconstruction and all that came down with even a greater bang, for we found that there wasn’t going to be any reconstruction at all.’

Such women have to find consolation in ‘taking up’ with younger men.

Sleeveless Errand is not well written. The dialogue doesn’t work very well and the narrative would have been more successful if the story had been shorter and sharper. I just found the whole thing rather boring right until the tension of the final act of suicide which I had wondered would actually happen. Like The Green Hat, the subject matter and tone is representative of the desolation and aimlessness that many experienced in the early post-war years.

The treatment of the novel didn’t cramp James’s style. When faced with the unexpected furore, she herself said that she would have willingly re-written any offending parts of the book and she continued to write until her death in 1979. She had 70 books published, with the later ones in the hospital romance style. None of the 70 is still in print.

A very short frontispiece to my copy gives a clue as to why James entitled the book Sleeveless Errand. It is stated that the Oxford Dictionary defined it as meaning ‘Ending in, or leading to nothing.’

For further reading and the source for much of my information about the censorship of the book, see Bill Harrison, ‘Censors, Critics and the Suppression of Norah James’s Sleeveless Errand’ published inAtenea, 2013, pp 23-42 which can be read online.

From the Daily Mail:

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One thought on “Sleeveless Errand (1929) by Norah C James

  1. Pingback: A case of ‘official Pecksniffery’: the state suppression of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Norah C James | JEBounford

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