Recognising Robert Neill: Wonder Winter

Like So Fair a House, Wonder Winter is a novel set in the modern day, written in the first person and set in a geographically unspecified but isolated location, this time somewhere in the North, not that you’d get that without being told. Unlike So Fair a House, it has no historical element whatsoever, and the only ghost in it stays firmly out of sight. It has the usual romance, which is one of only two strands that go to make up the story, but what ought to be the most important element of the book, psychologically, never attains true life, which is why, for all that it is well-written, smooth and easy to follow, Wonder Winter is, for me, a failure.
The story is remarkably easy to summarise. Hugh Burnett, the narrator, is an advertising agent in his early thirties. By chance, staying overnight at a country hotel, he encounters Helen Ireby, an attractive widow of similar age, with whom he falls in love. Despite Helen’s insistence that he not pursue her, Hugh takes the first opportunity to take an advertising job for the very firm in Monksbridge where her late husband worked when he died in a seemingly mysterious car crash. Over the course of a few months between November and February, Hugh deals with the advertising of the company’s new washing machine, and with getting to the bottom of Helen’s bitterness.
Yes, advertising a washing machine. This may be a book about an advertising agent, but we are not talking Mad Men here.
Of course there’s more to the book than this bald summary, but the inconsequential nature of the big issue does depress the importance of the story overall. The washing machine, and the associated issues with office politics in Leroy Electricals Ltd – a company whose founder and Managing Director will soon have to retire due to his health, leaving all the executives anxious about their futures – ought to be the background to the real story, of Hugh and Helen’s relationship, of what the brooding and bitterness of five years since her husband’s death has done to her, and where it threatens to take her, set against Hugh’s attempts to bring her to redemption and a restoration to life. The problem is that this element is definitely second banana.
Instead, Leroy’s, its people, their jockeyings for position, and even personal issues such as a wedding being hijacked into a business display, are allowed to overwhelm at every point.
The washing machine also deflects us (and Neill) from what ought to be the book’s third strand, being Hugh’s attitude to his job. We learn, at the outset, that he basically does not believe in his job, that he thinks advertising is at heart a process of lying to people, trying to get them to buy things they don’t want and can’t afford and, even at its very best, persuading them to buy a particular model that is no better than any of its competitors.
It’s an opinion that is considerably more prevalent now than in 1961, when the book was first published, and just as in So Fair a House, there’s a lot of Priestley about it, though thankfully not in tones so directly reminiscent of him.
But Neill is completely unable to allow, accept or show that there is any glamour in advertising, even if you have better things than washing machines to plug, and therefore he cannot give the profession any appeal at all. Hugh is only in his early thirties, still too young to be jaded and cynical, which makes his opinion a statement of principle, and one that lacks any sign of being developed out of experience. So what possessed Hugh to enter a profession that he holds in such contempt, quiet as it may be? The real problem is that it’s clearly Neill’s opinion, and not that of his character: a man who’s at least twenty years older than Hugh and whose opinions formed before the Second World War.
You’ll notice, by the way, that I keep talking about Hugh, and not about Helen. It’s impossible not to: Hugh can’t drag himself out of Leroy’s issues, and when he does we only see Helen’s reflection in his eyes. This is a serious weakness of the story. Wonder Winter should be about Helen, and it’s simply not.
Helen’s a psychologically damaged woman at risk of destroying herself. It’s understandable that she would keep Hugh at a polite and respectful distance, from which he can move closer as he starts to unravel the puzzle about her. But Hugh adopts that position of his own accord and stays there. There’s no romance and even less physicality than in the oldest of his historical settings – unless you count helping Helen on and off with her coat!
The key to everything is the death, five years ago, of Helen’s husband, Peter Ireby, then an employee of Leroy’s. Helen won’t talk about it. Any time the talk veers in that direction, she retreats and cannot deal with it. Everybody else who was there at the time is, however, perfectly willing to talk, and to explain what really happened, but for the fact that Hugh doesn’t actually stir himself to enquire about this blatantly obvious issue until so far into the book that the ending is threatening to arrive first.
Peter Ireby died five years earlier, on his second wedding anniversary. He had asked for confirmation of promotion to Chief Assistant in the Sales Department, which was refused. In a distracted state, he crashed his car and was killed. The job went to his junior collague, Dick Goodwin, Ireby having been unsuited for the role he sought anyway.
All of this is true, and is known to Helen, along with the similarly true fact that her husband was in such a state of shock that he was no more fit to drive than if he’d been blind drunk. Helen blames Leroy’s in general, and Dick Goodwin and Bill Moresby, the Sales Director who turned Peter down, in particular.
Since Peter’s death, Helen, an ex-model, has successfully run a dress shop in Monksbridge that caters largely for the wives of Leroy men, who have to dress to occasion and conform, whether their pocket fits or not. Most bills are paid in instalments. But Helen has allowed Jill Goodwin, a former friend, to build up an impossible debt. When January comes, Helen will have her revenge by suing Jill for debt, publicly humiliating and destroying her and Dick.
(Yes, I know, it’s hardly the depths of villainy, or desperate cruelty, is it?)
Except that Hugh saves her from herself, keeping her from taking this vindictive step, a course born of five years bitterness and brooding. He saves Jill from herself.
Partly, he does this by showing her that she’s got everything arse about face. All she knows is true, but it’s not the whole of the truth. The whole of the truth is that Moresby knew Peter was out of his depth, and had negotiated a transfer for him to a role that would suit his abilities down to the ground, full of potential and at no loss of salary. Peter just didn’t listen to that bit. And if Helen suspects that this is some face-saving excuse, absolutely everybody who chips in on this story has documentary evidence to hand for this five years ago incident.
You see, all it takes was to show the hysterical little women that she’s got every little detail wrong in her pretty little head.
Actually, that’s a bit heavy-handed and overdone. The effect is the same, but it’s all done out of honesty and affection, and regret, and thankfulness that years of unpleasantness can be undone almost on the spot.
But that is to give too little credit to Hugh, who has already deflected Helen away from her long-held purpose. And he’s done this by telling her, with manly firmness, that she has to rescue herself by giving up this bitterness, by going to talk to Jill, her once friend, and dissuade her from the foolish purchase that is all Helen wants in order to set off her scheme.
So when Helen hears how misguided she’s been, she is already on the road to recovery, and a recovery that culminates in her agreeing to marry Hugh, despite the fact he hasn’t so much as held her hand, let alone kissed her. Truly is she cured!
Overall, Wonder Winter is a bland book, and though Neill has, naturally, researched the advertising industry sufficiently to be able to construct the requisite inspiration behind successful ads, his lack of belief in the necessity, even the propriety of advertising underlies all the novel, which does little for the appeal of the major strand. As for Helen Ireby, Neill frankly fails on the personal and psychological novel this really out to be, and we end up seeing her as only a reflection in Hugh’s eyes and not as herself. We never get into her head, because Hugh’s is in the way, and most of his head, sadly, is invested in advertising a washing machine.
As for the title, this is symbolic of the book’s failings as a whole. It’s an enticing title, suggesting an uplifting experience. And the book does take place in winter. But the Wonder of the title is that bloody washing machine again, informally and internally known as ‘the Whizzing Wonder’. Another disappointment.
As I’ve previously said, I’ve no information whatsoever as to any of Neill’s sales figures, but I’d wager Wonder Winter was his lowest seller. It’s certainly a failure, artistically, and I presume that Neill recognised that himself. For his ninth novel, he returned to his metier in historical fiction, and continued in that vein until the end of his career.