Asked to write about Sorrell and Son for a newspaper series on bestsellers, Kingsley Amis recorded that he began by taking umbrage at the book’s snobbery, and marked particularly repellent passages by writing ‘piss and shit’ in the margin. After a while, though, he stopped annotating, because he had become so gripped by the story.
This matches my own experience when reading Warwick Deeping. I usually step into the world of his novels warily, expecting rancour and prejudice. I find these, and they grate. But then I get swept along by the narrative…
Old Wine and New (1932) is a case in point. It starts by introducing Scarsdale, a literary gent in peacetime who has become a nursing orderly with the RAMC on the western Front. One day he walks towards the front trenches, to see for himself the full truth of war.
He is diverted from this mission by meeting Marwood, a soldier with whom he feels an affinity.
When Marwood later arrives at Scarsdale’s Casualty Clearing Station, wounded and close to death, he gives the medic a packet of photographs and letters to take home to his daughter.
When Scarsdale returns to civilian life, and tries to resume his life as a literary man, the Deeping stock characters and situations become very evident. There is the usual distaste for vulgar materialist postwar England, and the usual hankering for old-fashioned virtues. In Trafalgar Square he is relieved to see that ‘Nelson was still up there, undisturbed by the voices of little Communist cads.’ The editors that Scarsdale meets when he are typical Deeping power-figures – self-interested, career-focused, and neither interested nor impressed by Scarsdale’s war experience. Marwood’s wife is one of the fleshly, sexual, undisciplined women whom Deeping loathes.
Marwood’s daughter is a contrast to her mother. Virginal, angry, determined, she shuts her mother out of the house, and concentrates on making the most of her life. Chapters narrated from her viewpoint alternate with those seen through Scarsdale’s eyes, as he becomes increasingly obsessed by her, and she does not repel him. For a while I thought it was going to be one of those novels that middle-aged men so often love to write, in which a middle-aged man finds love and happiness with a much younger girl. Things don’t turn out that way though. She devotes herself to her ambition, and to her suppressed love for all things modern, while he, a relic of pre-war life, sinks into uselessness and near-destitution.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, we begin to see that this novel is a mythologising of the origins of Sorrell and Son. Previously, Scarsadale has been a writer of belles-lettres and book reviews. Brought up uncompromisingly against the realities of life, he begins to see that he could write about those realities, first in some short stories, written with difficulty, and then with a novel, whose inspiration comes from a man he meets when out looking at the streets and life of London:
He christened the man ‘Smith’, for he never heard the other fellow’s name. Smith was a tall, thin, gentlemanly person with bright eyes and a little hungry smile, who came and sat on a seat and ate his luncheon out of a paper bag.
Smith had been this and that. He had worked as a barman, a bookie’s tout, a taxi-driver, a dishwasher in a restaurant. He had crowded all these into the years since the war. He had been submerged, and he had come up spluttering and fighting.
‘Gentlemanly’ is the key word here, and all of Sorrell and Son is in Smith’s comment to Scarsadale: ‘You can’t chuck your hand in, you know, when you have kids.’
Because Scarsdale responds profoundly to the plight of this man, he is able to write a novel to which others also respond. Previously he had been a ‘highbrow’ and the world did not want to know. Now he is connecting with something serious. The word Deeping uses most often to describe the book within the book is ‘real’, and he insists that it is not written to produce an effect:
He did not think either of the public or the critics; he thought only of Smith.
Like Deeping’s own Sorrell and Son, the novel becomes a monstrous best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic; a gushing American buys the film rights.
Since I’m always intrigued by the finances of writing and publishing, an aspect of the book that I found most interesting was the account of Scarsdale’s finances as a writer. He gets thirty pounds a story from the fiction magazines. His novel earns him £100 advance, and a royalty of ten per cent on the first five thousand copies, fifteen per cent on the second five thousand and twenty per cent after ten thousand copies had been sold.
‘Smith’ is first printed in an edition of five hundred copies. Assuming that the book was sold at the usual price of 7/6, this means that if the whole edition was sold, would not have earned anything like his advance. Not until two thousand more copies were sold would the book begin to bring him in additional money.
Deeping is here surely drawing on his own experience as a prolific, but not spectacularly successful novelist and short-story writer. Since giving up his medical career to become a full-time writer before the War, he had published at least one, and sometimes two, novels each year, as well as a dozen or more short stories. This phenomenal publication rate (maintained even during the War years, when he was in the RAMC) would, at the rates of pay described in this book, have been enough to keep himself and his wife in reasonable comfort, but it required very hard work indeed. No wonder the quality of those early books and stories is extremely variable.
For Scarsdale, writing Smith is a literary rebirth; he is no longer a belle-lettrist writing trivia, but is engaging with the ‘real’. Sorrell and Son was a dramatic turning point in Deeping’s fortunes, but, as Mary Grover has pointed out, the myth of the book he creates in Old Wine and New involves an ‘inaccurate characterisation of his early work’, which had often dealt with controversial social issues – even, in The Return of the Petticoat, with a man who wishes to live as a woman. (Mary Grover’s The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping is well worth reading; it’s where I got the Amis story from.) Sorrell and Son did, though, mark a definite turning away from the historical romances that had made up a large part of his pre-war work.
One interesting feature of the Sorrell and Son myth that Deeping creates in this book involves the influence of a woman. Mrs Richmond is the landlady whose house he moves to when his funds run low. She is a motherly, caring person, and soon the two of them come to an unspoken mutual affection. When he confides in her about his ambition to write fiction, she is able to help. Tactfully she can tell him, ‘She wouldn’t do that.’ She is a touchstone against which to test the reality of his story. When Smith becomes a success, it is she who gives him the anecdote that will become the basis of his next book, Molly (an equivalent to Deeping’s Kitty). Is this Deeping’s tribute to his own wife? Or an acknowledgement that writing involved making a connection with his female side? (Once again, Mary Grover has interesting things to say about this.
As I said at the start, I began this book with some reluctance, but Warwick deeping does have the novelist’s crucial gift of drawing you into the story. And through this book I think I understand better what he was trying to do in Sorrell and Son, and why that book became such a phenomenal success.