Saturday, November 17, 2012

Crewe Train - Oh, Mr Porter, Whatever Shall I Do?

Oh, Mr. Porter, whatever shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham, but they've sent me on to Crewe!

Taking its name from an absurd little 1920s ditty, this book was one of the small pile I read during the October readathon. It's stayed with me since as the protagonist's plight is a peculiar kind of nightmare and there is just as much humour in it as there is horror.

When her father dies, Denham Dobie, a rather selfish, very uneducated teenager who has been raised in the hills of Andalucia, is hauled back to London by relatives she's never met before. Aunt Evelyn and her three grown up children take her silent lack of interest in other people or the world around her as something that can be shocked out of her extended exposure to 'society' and set about trying to make her one of them. Soon she is trapped in the hectic whirl of their society life and longing to escape.

The Greshams do everything they can to get this wayward relative to 'buck up' but she thinks books are silly and boring, hates dinner parties and just won't make the effort to fit in. Time and again she talks about barometers instead of baronets and baffles those around her. There's an element of relief when Arnold becomes interested in Denham and seems intrigued by the prospect of a wife more interested in sailing paper boats than clothes shopping. The problem is that Denham isn't really cut out to be a wife to anyone, Arnold is a writer who needs support in his attempts to get his debut novel published and of course, now she's married a man who's friends with the Greshams she'll never escape them...

"This bright, finished, gay, polite family, so merry, so chattering, so friendly, so kind, so expensively neat - what was she among them? A cold kind of wary doubt, like an animal's, fought in her with adventurous doubt. One was trapped by such desires into intimacies closer than one's sober self approved."
(page 35)

Oh, poor Denham. She is ignorant, willfully ignorant and horribly lazy and selfish... but she really does just want to be left alone. Her ideal life would be like something in an Enid Blyton children's book - full of boating on the sea and picnics and running away from adults. Crewe Train, a rather odd title for this book at first glance, is actually rather accurate when you understand the rhyme and watch the Greshams from her perspective.

I do wonder about the strength of the story though, it felt like Macaulay had pulled her punches too often. Narrating it as Denham allowed her to mock the Greshams and all they represent but, since Macaulay is definitely not one of the Denhams of the world, she can't help making Denham an unbelievably exaggerated caricature. In amongst all the witty barbs about social rules and pretended amazement about why anyone would write another book when there's already so many unread ones in the world there's an equal amount of laughing at Denham's desire for a husband who doesn't want to talk about love or enjoying the childish pleasures of secret tunnels in the cliffs.

This switching of perspective and punchlines does keep the reader entertained but it also limits the impact of the book significantly. It keeps Denham firmly in the reader's mind as a difficult, childish character and the Greshams as just misguided but ultimately lovely which blunts a lot of the barbs. It keeps the story in the camp of 'nice' and 'gentle' rather than 'biting' and 'satire'.

There is fine writing here and I can't wait to read more of Macaulay to get a better understanding of her work, but for me this particular book is let down by too many polite retractions and a weak ending.

(Cross-posted to Alex in Leeds)


Stefanie said...

I agree the book is more nice and gentle than biting satire, but I liked Denham quite a lot maybe because I can identify a bit with here. I know people like the Greshams for whom things are done just so because that's the way they are supposed to be done and it really drives me a bit nutty. I loved Denham's cave and would completely enjoy sitting in it with her. maybe that says more about me than it does the book! :)

Danielle said...

I think there must be aspect of Macaulay in Denham, but it sounds like she herself was much more like one of the Greshams. She certainly poked gentle fun at both groups--not such a biting satire, but gently amusing. I loved her last line of the book and wondered just what sort of a mother she would have made! I'm also looking forward to reading more of her work--she seems like she was an interesting woman.

litlove said...

Nice summary; I also tended to identify with Denham as I cannot bear to be made to do things just because everyone else is doing them. Usually, though, those things are outdoors-y, so I couldn't go the whole hog and really get behind her point of view. But I did appreciate the very different sort of woman she was, compared to the 'average' of her time (whether that's a Gresholm or not, I couldn't say for sure). Comparing it to the other books from this time that I've been reading lately, it seems to me that gentle satire was very much in fashion. It has made me curious to know more about Rose Macaulay, though!