Recognising Robert Neill: Song of Sunrise revisited

When I reviewed Robert Neill’s sixth novel as part of my series about his fiction, I did so from the small, dense, dark paperback version in which the novel’s title, Song of Sunrise, had been replaced by the more prosaic, but fitting, The Mills of Colne.
Under either name – and the novel is always given it’s original title in lists of Neill’s books – this was the last of Neill’s works that I had not read. Owning The Mills of Colne didn’t stop me keeping an eye open for a copy of the hardback. However, Song of Sunrise appeared to be one of the most expensive of Neill’s novels to acquire. Nevertheless, fortune came my way via eBay earlier this month, with the offer of a Good condition hardback, with complete dustjacket, at a discounted price that was virtually half the asking prices I had previously seen.
Three interesting points arise from re-reading the book as Song of Sunrise.
The first is that there is absolutely nothing to explain the mystery of the splendidly poetic title. Previously, I speculated whether some dedication, or epithet, in the hardback might shed light on Neill’s choice of title but there is nothing to assist us in its interpretation. And again the text throws up no clues.
Unless further research throws up notes or drafts pertaining to this novel, it seems that the choice of title will remain a mystery.
The second point lies in the easily identifiable physical differences between hardback and paperback. Song of Sunrise‘s dustjacket bears an uplifting image, a ‘shining town’ upon a hill, under a wide sky, that suits its title, The Mills of Colne a dark, painted scene of crowds in a narrow street, at night. What’s more, the hardback includes a ‘map’ – the only one of which I am aware in Neill’s works – of Colne at the time of the story.
The map, which is printed on both endpapers, was drawn for Neill by Wilfred Spencer, the former Librarian of Colne, who also receives credit for great assistance in the research into the events covered in the period of the story. I put the word ‘map’ into inverted commas since it is more of a satellite drawing, showing streets and lanes but depicting the buildings that line them as distinguished from a street plan.
It’s an interesting addendum but I found myself rarely consulting it. Though it identifies lanes etc. by name, the ‘map’s great flaw is that it does not attempt to even suggest hills etc. The drawing gives the impression of a level plane, with all the properties at the same height, which is far from the case in Neill’s descriptions of Colne, nor in the reality.
The last point is an oddly metaphysical one. I reviewed the novel fairly critically first time, describing it as a social realism/history novel and as such, in light of Neill’s career, a somewhat drab book in comparison with those that came before and after it. Re-reading it in hardback doesn’t disqualify that analysis in any respect: the flaws I described are no different. Robert Shaw is still a curiously inert leading character, forever acting upon others’ ideas and encouragement and bringing little of his own initiative to the table. His romance with Anna England is still determinedly unromantic and almost entirely without passion.
But as I’ve described, The Mills of Colne was physically a small, dark and dense book, with close lines of print, behind a dark cover that concentrated upon the purely pragmatic aspects of the story. In contrast, Song of Sunrise is a larger format, with ordinarily spaced print, presented between covers deliberately light and open. It should make no difference to the contents, but it does. The book is more enjoyable in hardback, easier to read, lighter in tone, because the physical experience of reading it is more expansive, the emphasis more upon daylight, or perhaps sunrise.
I certainly found the book more enjoyable as a reading experience on this occasion, demonstrating the importance that covers and format can have to a novel: the words are not as independent of physical reality as we may believe.

Robert Neill web-site (in preparation)

I’ve added a new link to the Blogroll, which I’m also including here: if you click on it will take you to the first web-site to be devoted to the works of the popular historical fiction writer, Robert Neill, famous for the novel Mist over Pendle, available to this day, treating of the background to the famous Lancashire Witch Trial of 1612.

The site is the inspiration of my colleague Ron Catterall, and will in due course become home to a revised set of my essays on Neill’s sixteen novels, but we are working towards putting together as much information as can be determined about Neill’s works, his life, his approaches to writing and supplementary information which we hope will interest, entertain and maybe even enlighten those who already love Neill’s work, as well as attract the interest of those who have yet to discover Neill’s books.

We’re in the early stages, so the site as it stands is very much a work-in-progress, but you’re welcome to visit straight away, and to browse the beginnings of our investigations. What’s more, if you have any information, or opinion on Robert Neill, his life and/or writing, or even if you have something you would like to see examined or explained further, please do get in touch: all contributors will be welcomed and you can contact me direct via

For all of you who, like us, regard Robert Neill as the truly excellent writer he was, and who wish to see him propery celebrated in this digital age, we hope we can provide a worthy tribute. Join us.





Recognising Robert Neill: Witch Bane

Apologies for the severely belated nature of this post, which should have appeared between the posts on The Devil’s Weather and the Crown & Mitre trilogy. It was certainly written at that time, but somehow I seem to have managed to overlook posting it, a failure I have only now realised. Smack wrist, must do better. I feel a proper fule!

I have mixed feelings about this novel, Neill’s eleventh, which date back to my first discovering his works, and seeing those novels that were available in paperback in my late teens, 1974/5, the middle of my University years. Mist over Pendle and its first three successors were available in every bookshop/book section I went in, those four and Witch Bane.
Naturally, I assumed to be his latest novel, though it had actually first been published in 1967, and there was a far more recent book that I knew nothing of. But compare the covers of Pendle et al – indeed, of all the other novels – and what stands out about Witch Bane? The word that comes into my head every time I see it is Cheap.
Though the novel pre-dated the notorious film Witchfinder General, and the subsequent Hammer horrors that were slipping towards soft-porn territory, by a year, the paperback didn’t appear until 1970 and it’s a definite attempt to draw on the sadoporn imagery of terrified women stripped nude or semi-nude.
As for the book itself, it’s a rather slight, almost indeterminate book, awkwardly marrying two things together and using one to draw a line under the more substantial (in story terms) other. What’s more, a substantially longer Historical Note at the end once again admits to a lack of the evidence that Neill would normally have absorbed to the full: authoritative accounts of the Battle of Preston are few and contradictory, whilst the witchcraft and what surrounds it is portrayed on something of a ‘must have happened’ level.
What of the story? It is set over a few short weeks in 1648, making it technically another Stuart novel: the First Civil War has ended, King Charles I has made allies of the Scots and has initiated the Second Civil War, that would lead to his beheading.
But we are not concerned with that. The novel begins in media res, and how! Mary Standen, newly widowed at 23, has been accused of causing the death of her unloved and doctrinaire Presbyterian husband by means of witchcraft. In a moment, she will be thrown onto a table in Clitheroe Market Place, stripped publicly naked, explored for the ‘Devil’s Mark’, whereupon the Pricker (stop sniggering at the back, there) will plunge a three inch brass pin into whatever skin blemish he finds: if she does not feel pain, if she does not bleed, she is a proven witch.
The Pricker (stop it. Now) is a professional witch-finder, paid for each witch he finds, so not biassed then. Mary, though not a witch, neither screams nor bleeds and would be condemned were it not for the intervention of Major Dick Rowley, who points out that Mary, being a woman of the better sort, has actually fainted at the treatment she’s had. A second test, administered after she’s roused, produces screams, blood and a rather reluctant acquittal.
Rowley, and the Army, are not well liked in such a godly county as Lancashire – meaning a county full of Presbyterians determined their religion shall be the only one. The Army are Independents in religion, all determined to resist the tyranny of ministers as such as they have overthrown the tyranny of Kings, and Rowley has, for some undisclosed reason, taken a considerable shine to the comely Mary.
So Mary is reinstated in her late husband’s farm, Twelvetrees, and supported thus by the Minister, Mr Soames, though it was he who ordered her stripped and pricked (for the last time…). But though Soames is as hot against witches as ever, his conscience insists that Mary, having been acquitted, be restored to the community fully.
This is not a position that can be held by Mary’s sister-in-law, Isobel Grimshaw, a hating, loathing harridan who will not allow herself to accept Mary. Isobel is crazed about witches, bitter and determined that they be destroyed with fire and brutality. Her inability to control herself will put Mary and her friends in danger as the novel reaches its end, forcing them to flee to Preston, just as the Battle is being fought between Cromwell’s New Model Army and the ill-disciplined, rebellious Scots.
But at a very early stage, Neill shows Mary learning that Isobel has more of the right of things than she cares to think. For there are witches in the unspecified village near to Clitheroe where Twelvetrees is established. There is a Devil who leads the coven and there are followers. They arouse Mary’s disgust at their behaviour, and her shock at learning that seventeen year old Judith Hay – who also escaped the Clitheroe Market Place – is its current Maiden, and Mary’s own maid, Betty, is a coven member.
For Judith it’s a way of life, for she is daughter to a witch and has certain powers, not to mention a tactical mind far better than all the Presbyters put together. For Betty, it is something to do, something fun in a county that has banned fun: if it were not for the fact that she has sold her soul to the Devil, Betty would happily be a social member of the coven.
Mary’s problem is that, leaving aside her concerns about Betty, and her increasingly reluctant liking for Judith, she is genuinely disgusted at the coven but, after Clitheroe, implacably opposed to doing anything that will see anyone put into a position like the one she experienced.
It’s this tension that underpins the story, together with the rising concern about the rebel Scots getting into the county, and Preston’s significance as having the only bridge across the Ribble. Mary’s romance with Dick Rowley is unusually perfunctory: he likes her, she likes him and that’s the future sewn up, if only these bloody witches would go away.
Which is where the book starts to get into difficulties. Because it’s only going to end if the compromised Judith leaves for good. After certain shenanigans on Mary’s farm, she’s willing to go, but Isobel’s intervention intervenes, and the three women, with Mary’s friend Prudence, who has been sent out of Preston to avoid the forthcoming battle, are forced to flee back to Preston, escorted by a rebel soldier who’s taken a more direct shine to the shapely Judith.
So the battle forms the backdrop to a scene whereby Judith’s soldier is saved from the bloody rout to take Judith away, whilst Mary gets to see her soldier survive routing the rebels bloodily, and all will be well and the coven dispersed.
And that’s it as far as a resolution goes, and not particularly convincing really, is it? We’re not even given any intimation, for those not already familiar with the details of the Second Civil War, that the Battle of Preston is, to all intents and purposes, its end.
I’d love to know how Neill’s books sold, how they were received. Reading them in publication order, yet with an overview in my head, it’s impossible not to start fantasizing scenarios of how he would move from book to book. The fact that he openly admits that he has had to come to conclusions about the Battle of Preston that could be challenged is one thing, but there’s a greater confession made when Neill talks about the almost complete lack of history of witches in Lancashire.
There’s the 1611 case, he says (being the Pendle Witches) and possibly another in 1634, which also depends on a single document, but given the inevitable presence of witches, and the prevalence of Presbyterians, what he presents must have happened in some form, and the forms may be taken from other sources, notably Scottish ones.
This is not an approach, we feel, that Neill would usually take, but there are those uncharacteristic novels that have perhaps dragged down his reputation (and sales?) this half-decade, and perhaps The Devil’s Weather hasn’t gone down as well as it deserved to. Perhaps something deliberately harking to his first and biggest success, something about Witches in Lancashire, might do the trick?
I stress that this is just an imaginative interpretation of the interplay between the books themselves, a decipherable pattern that is based on no facts whatsoever. If there is any element of truth in it, I am in no position to say. But it would be three years before Neill’s next novel, and that, when published, would be announced as the first in a trilogy set in Stuart times, featuring a single family. Which, given Neill’s forte, would again be the sort of move onto home territory that a writer suffering a decline in sales might make.
It would also be another recovery of form, and a welcome one.

Recognising Robert Neill: The Devil’s Weather

At the beginning of The Devil’s Weather, published in 1966, there is a note to the reader by Robert Neill that, to me at least, summarises the failings of his two contemporary novels. It is nothing less than an apology: an apology that his tenth novel is only ‘decently true’, and is not, and cannot be, ‘exactly true’. Too much of what he needed to know does not exist, and therefore too much is made up of extrapolation, of approximation, of what I don’t doubt Neill called in his own head guesswork.
But, and the delight is obvious, even in the dry words of such a Note, he has found a Diary that gives him the exact weather of the period, so that he, and I, and you can be certain that the fierce rains, winds and snows that plague Cumberland in this novel of a true return to form are the rains, winds and snows that poured down between September and December 1745.
It’s why So Fair a House (for all its interest) and Wonder Winter, set in places with no geographic reality, in towns with no shape or form beyond the page, experiencing weathers that never actually happened fail to sit at all firmly on the ground. The Devil’s Weather is sunk into its place on the map, and its place in time.
No-one with the remotest knowledge of British history should need telling what is to be the background to this novel., because it’s the last chance for the Stuarts: the ’45, the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie who landed at Scotland and raised Rebellion that came to within a week of London before falling in on itself and bringing the long story of the Stuart century to its close.
The setting is Cumberland, north of Keswick. Captain John Bannister, lately sold out of the Army after a musket ball to the ankle, and at a loss to his time, has visited a friend in Edinburgh, only to find the Prince in control. Bannister is taken to be a Jacobite and sent to deliver letters in Northumberland, the last of these being to Miss Christiana Drummond at Uldale. But Bannister is not really a Jacobite, and the fresh and intelligent Kirstie Drummond is no part of one, which suits Bannister fine in more senses than one.
But Kirstie’s younger brother Davy is very much a Jacobite, or at least is too young, foolish, unthinking, romantic, crossed in love and over-influenced by the nearby Salkeld family not to be, when duty, honour and the regard of the ‘true’ King are to be had. Very much against Kirstie’s wishes, Davy takes himself off to Carlisle, where the rebels are massing, and offers his sword (actually, Mr Salkeld’s sword, but Davy’s body) to the cause.
Though he’d planned to ride south after delivering these letters, John finds himself bound to remain. In part, it is due to his sense of responsibility for Davy’s departure, and in the hope of contriving his return, but it is also due to his immediate attraction to Kirstie (an attraction which is, of course, mutual, and will lead to the expected marriage after events settle down).
Though the Scots never come to Keswick, their effect is felt throughout the county. In service to Kirstie, and the new responsibilities he feels, John finds himself riding round half the County, in the most atrocious of weather. As he criss-crosses between Carlisle and Penrith, and smaller places such as Stair, in the Newlands Valley, John finds himself learning about this county and the not-so-small matter of the Free Trade, in which it soon becomes apparent, Kirstie is well established, in line from her Scottish father.
But though, elsewhere, the Scots are pushing all before them, John is concerned at what will follow their defeat. He has no belief that the Scots will not get crushed, and he is right. Then it becomes imperative to extract Davy, ill with a chest infection, from the routed Army and not only get him away safely, but in such a manner as may not be reported to Justices who, once the danger has gone back north, will suddenly become zealous about harrying Jacobites. This task is complicated when Charlie himself arrives at the Inn at Shap, where Davy lies abed…
The Devil’s Weather, as I’ve already said, is a true return to form for Neill. It contains familiar elements, without being familiar. It occupies a solid sense of place. It is set against times of historical importance, where important things turn on its resolution. It is, once more, a tale of the Stuarts.
And on a personal level, I’m prejudiced in its favour for being set in, or on the edge of the Lake District. Mancunian I may be, and Lancastrian in almost every part of me, but my paternal Grandfather was a man of Cumberland and I belong to that county as well.
There are echoes of Black William, in the raising of a Stuart rebellion, the stockpiling of muskets, the foolishness and volubility of Jacobites, though thirty years on, muskets lead to rebellion, and there is no master tactician prepared to head off disaster, just people with a personal stake who can only see a scrap of the cloth and who have to improvise to keep their balance.
Nor, this being Cumberland, and not the more divided Northumberland, is there an active political sphere. The Cumbrians aren’t concerned as to who is King, but as to the safety of roads and paths, and the preservation of their horses when an Army is around.
But still the Jacobites talk too much, and still the Stuarts flatter to deceive, and still the cause is doomed to failure.
There’s an echo of Hangman’s Cliff too, in the slow, easy revelation of the Free Trade, carried on beneath Kirstie’s business as trader in coal and goods, sending strings of packhorses to deliver to farms and houses, and Inns, with the brandy and the whisky, distilled on Man and brought ashore at Whitehaven, at the bottom of the pannier.
But this is neither the exposed romance of the Jolly Smuggler, nor the nasty reality of the ruthlessness, but simply a practical issue, accepted by all as part of the county’s business. After all, this is the inland end: the goods have passed the Revenue cutters and come ashore, and are distributed slowly and quietly, miles from their landing.
In the end, it’s to be John Bannister’s trade too, one in which he will move, no doubt, from Adjutant to Kirstie Drummond, to master and owner. This is, after all, the mid-Seventeenth Century, when it could not be otherwise.
There is one minor criticism that must be made. It’s just that, after it becoming an issue several times when Bannister is under physical strain, at the last of the novel, when all is becoming desperate and exertion is required of everybody, his injured ankle ceases to be a factor. That’s all, really.
Having returned to his proper form, there was another revival to come in Neill’s next novel, which, as its title shouted, once more put witches at the heart of its tale.

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.

Recognising Robert Neill: So Fair a House

So Fair a House was Robert Neill’s first novel to be published in the Sixties, in 1960 to be precise, but it is very much a book of the Fifties, in a manner that makes it a fascinating record of an era as lost to us now as any of his historical periods. For this book is an almost total departure, in every respect, from Neill’s usual fare.
It’s set in the present day, between 1958 and 1959, it’s told in the first person, by Solicitor and Churchwarden Charles Torey, and its ‘romantic’ couple are not fresh young people setting out to establish themselves in the world but rather a middle-aged pair, a year short of fifty, one of whom is already married. Its setting is the village of Oakley Priors, five miles out of Winborough, but in reality it stands in a geographic nowhere, in no County that is named or could be presumed, except that it’s not Yorkshire. That it’s somewhere in the amorphous south and not close to London is all we get.
Which is apt, in a way, for a book that is, in essence, a ghost story, and in which a history of two and a half centuries before is not merely a curious puzzle to be unravelled, but also the catalyst for the disruption of a contemporary setting that, if not prompted in this fashion, will remain unhappy, and self-destructive.
In this aspect, it reminds me of nothing so mucg as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which was still eight years away from being written: the past is replayed in the present, but in So Fair a House, it is done without destruction, and without the intimation that the ghosts will rise again to trouble others. Indeed, rather, the sense is that the ghosts manifest themselves in order to change the course of the future so it should not repeat the past.
The House in question is the vicarage, an architecturally splendid building but impossible to maintain. The Church want to sell, to buy the Vicar something easier to handle, but the chances of a buyer seem slim until Charles is approached by thrusting businessman, Jack Evening, who is eager to acquire the house.
There’s no meeting of minds with Evening (pronounced with a short e at the start, as in ‘heaven’), not by Charles nor anybody, including his business partner Brent, in the first part of the book. Evening lives for business: he’s highly intelligent, ambitious, intent on rising in the world, with an eye for any opportunity, which is what the house represents.
The criticism of Evening is not merely near universal, but its expression is so familiar to the distaste with which J B Priestley held for the post War world, that I started wondering exactly whose novel I was reading here.
But to Charles’s surprise, Evening’s wife Joan is an old friend: they were at University thirty years ago, friends but not lovers, who haven’t seen each other in all that time. Joan is dubious about the vicarage, which most people find a depressing, off-putting place but the presence of Charles next door keeps her from opposing her husband’s plans, and thus a wholesale transformation of the property begins. This includes the construction of an extension, for Evening’s study, to be built and furbished in Georgian fashion – on the site of a former extension of the house that was not merely torn down but which had its very foundations destroyed.
So there’s a mystery to The Prospect, as the old Vicarage, awakening its original name. We’re also invited to anticipate that the reunion of Charles and Joan is going to lead to, well, complications. Which it does, but in the meantime, the house starts to reveal further mysteries.
Charles’s study of the deeds, followed by the Vicar’s combing of Parish Records, exposes a curious situation. The house’s second owner, George Marlow, died young, leaving The Prospect to his widow Mary, nee Wickham, a poor relation of the local Squire’s family. Mary then married John Wickham, her cousin, who was the Vicar, and a former Captain of Infantry, only three weeks after George’s death. After her death, she willed the house to the Church, as a Vicarage.
If that is not intriguing enough, there are two further details to consider. John Wickham was already known as an absentee priest, leaving all his duties to a Curate and never living in the Parish. But prior to Marlow’s death, Wickham was  fully attentive to his duties. The first actual lapse is the recording of Marlow’s death, which is not in Wickham’s hand, and his departure from the Parish was clearly unplanned.
There’s also a marginal note on the Certificate of Marlow’s death. It’s in Wickham’s hand, though it’s very shaky, not bold and confident as before: Da himi veniam, paenitento.
Neill doesn’t translate, and the on-line Latin translators are useless, but the little Latin I know prompts me to read this as “For my sins, I repent.”
Whilst all of this is being ferreted out, a more direct problem asserts itself at the Prospect: ghosts. Evening, in his study, hears a woman’s voice where there is no woman. Charles, seeking respite from the noise of a house-warming dominated by Evening’s business contacts, is overwhelmed by some powerful force in the same room: overwhelmed enough that when Joan comes in search of him, he seizes her and starts kissing her passionately. Nor does she resist.
Thus we are presented with what was clearly some sort of three-cornered mystery whose general shape appears ripe to happen again in 1958.
Not that adultery is going to happen, however. Charles and Joan are  respectable, middle-class, middle-aged people. It may take the incursion of what, in time, proves to be Mary Marlow’s ghost to open up Charles’s recognition that he has deep feelings for Joan, which the early chapters intimate is mutual, but this is 1958, and though feelings may be politely recognised up to a point, they will otherwise be kept decently repressed and certainly not be acted on. Divorce being a legal and social nightmare, as indeed it was in those days, is only a part of it: Joan has a sixteen year old daughter, Susie, who’s pert, intelligent and perceptive (enough to be a Robert Neill heroine if this were two to three hundred years earlier), for whose sake things are, and will remain, impossible.
The issue having been opened, the remainder of the first part of the novel is devoted to, simultaneously, Evening’s complete estrangement from everybody else’s underlying nature, the puzzling out of as much detail of the Marlow/Wickham affair as possible, and Charles and Joan’s steadfast refusal to act on the inevitable.
In its middle section, Joan (the former history student) writes up the findings of them all as a report. It’s based on all manner of records, gleaned from many places, but it largely rests on the discovery of Mary’s personal diary. This accounts (somewhat feebly) for the tendency of this section to turn, at critical points, into a Robert Neill historical novel in miniature, as the true events of the past, and their tragic outcome, are revealed.
But there’s a third, and final section, in which Neill takes a very interesting step. The revelation of the old story acts as an anti-climax. Its parallels to the potential situation developing now serve to further push Charles and Joan into their decent, Brief Encounters-esque, non-resolution, whilst Evening’s dedication to his work, to the exclusion of all else, intensifies.
At this point, Neill introduces Anis King. She’s been referred to scores of times already, as Miss King, Evening’s long-term, utterly dedicated secretary. The continual use of ‘Miss King’, on top of the almost motherly role she seems to play at the office, creates the intended impression, which Neill now bursts by introducing her as a very attractive, and winning young woman, in her early thirties but looking much younger.
Charles finds himself almost becoming Anis’s patron, as she plans to move into Oakley. For a moment, she threatens to derail the course of the narrative, but of greater importance is the fact that she provides a voice in support of Evening. She values him, values his potential, and she provides a much-needed counterpoint, by suggesting that Joan is at fault too. For all that Evening has neglected Joan’s social and emotional needs, he’s been working with dedication to provide a life for her, and she has failed to give him support in her turn.
Now that’s an argument that feminists will resent, not without reason, true those it is to the times. But the point being made is that Joan has been as neglectful of Evening’s needs as he has of hers, and it’s a point that bears mention after the book has presented such a one-sided interpretation thus far.
And Anis is pivotal to the denouement. Joan is, expectedly, jealous of Charles’s burgeoning relationship with her husband’s secretary, but so too, out of the blue, is Evening. And both Joan and he are pushed towards the only possible outcome by interventions on the part of Mary Marlow’s ghost. The couples shift towards each other, emerge as pairs whose minds meet. It’s as in the past, except that tragedy, death and guilt are replaced by a civilised ending (especially as the mess of Divorce, Fifties-style will be left till after the final page).
So Fair a House is an unusual book, and there are arguments for finding it inconsequential. I found myself being fascinated by it. Though it was written as an unusual approach to historical fiction, over two-thirds of the novel is contemporary, but by the fact of the fifty plus years since its first appearance, the book has become by default a historical fiction throughout.
The picture of Fifties life, in the deference to decency and respectability not yet undermined by the change of tone since the massively disruptive War, determines the actions the characters take. On one level, Evening is unreal: he lacks humanity, and the ability to see how others may think differently to him. Yet he’s as much a product of his times as any of the others, who are shaped by a mindset formed before the Second World War, who may lack the ambition in Evening, but who will never bring about change in the manner he and others like him will.
And whether it was consciously intended or not, which I doubt, the novel draws more attention to its time period by virtue of the contrast from Neill’s historical settings. You’ll note that, apart from mentioning Evening’s full name at first, I’ve referred to him by his surname throughout. With the exception of his wife, Joan, virtually no-one calls him Jack. Men didn’t use first names: it’s Evening, Torey, Brent, throughout – as opposed to Charles calling Joan by her christian name from the first, which is a familiarity permitted only by their old acquaintance, as demonstrated by Charles’s use of Miss King to address Anis, until she insists on her unusual name.
Fifties formality is as much an historical curiosity as anything Neill has ever written, but it’s a strange contrast to those purely historical books, where, despite the far greater stratification of society back then, saw the use of first names, freely and frankly, and surnames paired with titles such as Mr.
The change of style in Neill’s work must have taken his audience by surprise. I have no access to sales figures for any of his books to prove or disprove theories as to how his fans reacted, but for his next novel, Neill chose to stay in the present, and this time to write without any element of historical bent at all.