Sunday, June 15, 2008

Warwick Deeping

In his wonderful essay Bookshop Memories, Orwell lamented that the authors who were most popular with his customers were Ethel M Dell and Warwick Deeping. I didn't recognise the first name, but the second was familiar from my early days in bookselling when a few of Deeping's fans were still alive, albeit barely.

I remember the look of incredulity when I explained that Deeping's novels were all out of print. He was, after all, one of the bestselling novelists of the 20s and 30s and had published over 70 books by the time he died in 1950. To go from being so successful to a name that was unknown to anyone born after 1930 seemed a particularly harsh fate. Was he really that bad?

It was obvious that Deeping's novels weren't forgotten classics but perhaps, like Hugh Walpole and Delderfield, they were perfectly fine middle-brow novels that deserved a new generation of readers. I would have to try and get hold of one.

At first I didn't have any luck, but one day my wife found a Deeping novel called Laughing House in a local charity shop. The jacket is quite nice:

But even better is this beautiful book plate, which someone has pasted inside the front cover. Are those bombed-out buildings in the background? Given the novel's publication date of 1946, they could be:

On the back of the dust jacket, there is a comprehensive list of Mr Deeping's novels to date. He certainly was prolific, but was it a case of never mind the quality, feel the width?

I opened the book and started reading:

This is the story of a House, a house which was born in more spacious days, and sat placidly for many year like a white bird in a green nest, a house that suffered one war and grievous sorrow, and survived to suffer in yet another war. Its history is human history, as a house's history should be, if it has strength and breadth, beauty and dignity. Many such houses are doomed to die. Some will survive to live strange, new lives, for the new rhythm - like jazz music - is not of the age that created them.

A few sentences later, Deeping adds:

My prejudices...are those of an old man, and to the young the old can be boring. I understand that to some of the young we are known as "Bumbles." Well, this is the book of a Bumble.

At this point I felt that I had read enough. I flicked through the rest of Laughing House and saw page after page of Pooterish prose and jolly 'By jove!' dialogue. I decided that Warwick Deeping wasn't for me.

Deeping's best-known novel is Sorrell and Son, which was dramatised by the BBC in1987. I assume that the novel was reissued then, but can't find any record of it. There is a glowing review for the novel on Amazon, which reads as follows:

This is a deeply moving and uplifting story of a father's devotion to his son's future set after World War 1. Written at a time when such simple values as courtesy, consideration, hard work and simple rewards were accepted as normal. I have read the book many times and been moved to tears by developments in the closing pages.

So perhaps I shouldn't judge Warwick Deeping on the strength of Laughing House. Maybe he was having an off day when he wrote it.

I have found this splendid photo of Warwick Deeping. As you can see, he was no looker...


John Self said...

The first time I heard of Deeping was in Martin Amis's novel The Information, where the central character is an unsuccessful novelist who has to earn his crust, and waste his time, by writing very short reviews of huge biographies of forgotten authors: Warwick Deeping was one. At the time I wasn't even sure it was a real name, but may have been invented by Amis for its jokey sound. As a result, any time I've heard of Deeping since, I'm already viewing him in a comic light; I'm pretty sure I could never take one his novels seriously as a result.

Steerforth said...

Yes, I don't think a revival's on the cards.

If the passage I quoted is typical Deeping, then his popularity is inexplicable!

JRSM said...

I just wrote a clever little comment about how Ethel M Dell wrote 'The Sheik' and other such Virago-reprinted arabesque bodice-rippers. Then I realised I was wrong and that was Ethel HULL. Bugger. Ethel M Dell wrote a similar sort of thing called 'Way of the Eagle', I think--Orwell has a lot more nasty things to say about her in 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying'.

JRSM said...

But there's more! Re Ethel M Dell, Wikipedia says: "P. G. Wodehouse burlesqued her in several of his stories as the recurring character Rosie M. Banks. Wodehouse's main character Bertie Wooster refers to Rosie as a writer of "the world's worst tripe"; his valet Jeeves concurs and opines that he somehow prefers the Russian novelists."

So there you go.

Steerforth said...

I wonder which contemporary authors will enjoy the same fate in 30 years time?

callmemadam said...

Hello, I found your interesting blog through someone else's. Like you, I have only read one book by Warwick Deeping (see
dornford+yates) and it will be my last.
That lovely bookplate looks very like the work of Margaret Horder, who did a lot of book illustrations and dustwrappers at that time.

I do not accept the Terms of Service said...

Read Deeping's Malice of Men, Ropers Row, Slade, or Corn in Egypt and see if you still have the same opinion.

Unknown said...

I really like Warwick Deeping. I've just been reading my first book by him: Paradise Place. I thought his swearing quite shocking as it was published in 1947.

Anyway I have been gripped by this book. I'm looking forward to reading more of his books now!

I also like books by D K Broster also published around this time.

Unknown said...

Es absolutamente maravilloso... Adore su libro. Ojala sea posible conseguir otros y seguir leyendolo. Gracias por el post... hermoso.
(It's really wonderful. I love his book. I hope to get other books...Thank for the post... beatiful)

Anonymous said...

Came across WD in the 1980s when clearing out the bookshelves of an elderly relative . Ok, so he didn't write deathless prose a la Dickens et al but I found his books, though old-fashioned, to be pleasant quiet reading and on occasions quite thoughtful in their material. (Read "My Gurney and Mr Slade" which centred on pacifism in the Great War). He is not by any means great intellectual sustinence but very welcome when you have a bad cold and need a cuddly blanket and some hot honey and lemon.

Too much snobbery around in the boo-ish community.

Karen Darby said...

Hi - I've got quite a few of his books, I live in the house where he lived for many years up until his death, see:

I am the custodian of his writing desk and his typewriter! Anyway, thought I would let you know....

Ward Etchells said...

Many of Warwick Deeping's books are like old friends and I love re-visiting them years after the initial reading. I hate to think what WD would make of today's cultures of The Car, Overpaid Footballers, Alcohol and Drugs. Some of his descriptions of country scenes are like paintings.

Anonymous said...

'In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is "good". Nor is there any way of definitely proving that - for instance - Warwick Beeping is "bad".'

- George motherf*cking Orwell.

Steerforth said...

Ha! Another hypocritical Blair.

Anonymous said...

He's mentioned in Brighton Rock, one of the favourite authors of either Ida or the murdered man. We're supposed to take it as an indicator of lowbrow taste.