A Village in a Valley by Beverley Nichols

I had a lovely trip to London last month where I met up with J, my oldest BFF, and we spent happy hours visiting the Moomin exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, the Russian exhibition at the British Library, plus some general gallery visits and a little bit of shopping. J came bearing gifts, in the form of two lovely Beverley Nichols books, and it was just too tempting – I was supposed to be reading another part of “War and Peace”, but I couldn’t resist picking up this Beverley book!

The edition J kindly presented me with is a first edition from 1934; no dustjacket, of course, but in pretty good condition for a book of its age (apart from one oddity – more of which later in this post). “Village” is the third in Beverley’s Allways sequence, set in the fictional place of that name (which is apparently based on his home in Glatton), and I read and loved the first two here. Nichols’ writing is so engaging and funny, yet often lapsing into the lyrical, and I was hoping for some more of that kind of thing – which I did get, but the book is often rather different in tone from the first two.

All the characters we loved and loathed from the first books – Mrs. M, the competitive neighbour; Undine Wilkins, the ditsy, artsy type; the Professor, as absent-minded as you could wish – are present and correct and the lovely location is the same. However, there is a new distraction, in the form of Miss Hazlitt; stated as Nichols’ former governess, she’s an impoverished and saintly woman who everyone feels the need to protect, and much of the plotline revolves around her. There is also Mrs. M’s visiting nephew, Leo, who provides a wealth of humorous distraction, and an entertaining side-plot about the missing church windows.

However, the tone of the book is more thoughtful than the earlier ones, and this is flagged up early on. It’s clear that we are living in the 1930s, where the Depression has had its effects and people are struggling with reducing incomes. These are not the ‘lower-classes’ (although they do feature in the book) but those living and coping in genteel poverty, and Nichols casts a sympathetic eye on their attempts to keep up standards as best they can. The financial squeeze has had its effects in other ways, as those who own the land are having to sell it off (and one particular chapter allows Nichols to pour scorn on Lady Osprey, who is obviously still rolling in it, but is happy to sell land to developers). And it is this change in the nature of Allways that is causing most concern; the arrival of a nasty modern bungalow is met with horror and there is a strong sense that the quiet village way of life is a world under threat from encroaching modernity.

    The storm broke that night, and though there was little sleep for most of us, I did not care. For there are not many better things in life than to lie in bed, in a sturdily timbered room, under a thatched roof, while one’s own garden thirstily drinks the welcome rain, and the wind whistles down the chimney, and under the crack in the door.
    It is at moments like this that one is inclined to count over one’s blessings.

And events take a darker turn towards the end of the book, with one particular character’s health becoming an issue, which leaves Beverley in philosophical mood; the end chapters are moving and poignant, where he reflects on mortality and how the world will change, but glories in his great love, which is the beauty of flowers.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Rex Whistler’s peerless line drawings.

It’s easy to criticise Nichols for his snobbishness and elitism (which I recognise); nevertheless, I think he’s very right in his love of beautiful things and his wish to embrace the everyday wonderfulness around us. There’s a touch of the Betjeman about his lamentations about the invasion of uncouth elements into the loveliness of Allways and you can’t help but wish that these small English oases of calm still existed.

‘Civilization’ is the death of the finer senses of man. If a cigarette is always between your lips, you can’t ever smell the sweetness of the bean fields, on a summer evening. If you begin to drink cocktails at twelve, you forget, for ever, the keen, silvery taste of cold water in a clear goblet. Which sounds like on of the most embarrassing moralizations of Eric or Little by Little but it happens to be true.

However, the book is not all downbeat, and there are some wonderful humorous exchanges, snarky comments and hilarious situations which had me laughing out loud. And Beverley is not averse to mocking himself; his father makes another appearance, giving out wise and sensible advice, while the son paints himself as an impractical dreamer; he also makes reference to his tendency towards purple prose!

The gentlemen of the press who parody me may now draw an elegant picture of me shrinking in horror from the thought of being alone in a room with a rampant poppy. The idea is, as they say, ‘a gift’.

With this book particularly I felt the need to do a bit of digging into the background, particularly Miss Hazlitt, to see if she had any basis in reality. She did indeed draw on Nichols’ old governess, although the events in the book are pretty much non-factual as far as I can tell. It seems that Nichols’ publishers wanted another book about Allways to follow the success of the first two, although I’m not sure how much Beverley wanted to write it, which may explain the slightly more downbeat tone and the elegiac feeling of the writing. I imagine that most of Nichols’ gardening/house books are very well embroidered, but I don’t really mind – I love his adventures and characters, however invented they are!

*****

I read “A Village…” in a couple of settings one day, and later that same day went on to revisit a film I loved in my 20s but haven’t watched since, and it seemed to have a relevance and a connection with the Nichols book.

The film is the Ealing classic “Went the Day Well”; released in 1942, it was a propaganda film to warn the British public of the dangers of invasion. Set over a Whitsun weekend, a small English village discovers that the British troops billeted on them are not what they seem, and the film sees them fight back against the threat to the war effort. Based on a story by Graham Greene, it’s still an incredibly powerful film and the small threatened village resonated with what I’d been reading in Beverley’s book. I love Ealing films anyway, and I did wonder how this one would stand up all these years later; well, I was on edge of my seat all the way through, and both Beverley’s book and this film rather reduced me to a jelly in several places.

I really recommend “Went the Day Well” if you haven’t seen it – it captures a Britain and a way of life long gone.

*****

And now for the strangeness in my first edition of “A Village in a Valley”. Early on in the book I came upon four pages that had missing text and odd blank areas with just a few asterisks, looking something like this:

There was definitely text missing, as some parts stopped mid sentence, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. In one place, it looked a little like a page could have been stuck in and then removed, and I wondered if there was some kind of printer’s error that was rectified and then removed. Whatever had caused this (and the rest of the book was ok) I was a little frustrated at having missing bits, so I sent off for a cheap later edition.

It arrived a little tatty but intact, and when I compared the missing sections, all the text was in the later edition:

1st edition on the left vs later edition on the right

So I’m a little flummoxed, but at least I’ve been able to read all of Beverley’s book. There seems no reason why the text should be missing from the first edition, as it simply relates some funny extracts and comments by Beverley on a local newspaper – most peculiar indeed, and I haven’t been able to find out anything about this online! =:o