Thursday, April 07, 2005

Julian Fane: The Sodbury Crucifix

The Sodbury Crucifix (a novel) is a definite oddity, for a variety of reasons. We will start with consideration of the author, then the publisher, and finally the book.

The book's dust jacket tells us that Julian Fane became a full-time professional writer at the age of twenty, and The Sodbury Crucifix is his fortieth book. His first novel, Morning, was published in 1956 (when he was 29), and we are given some critics' assessments of it.

'The work of a literary artist, beautifully written,' said Harold Nicolson in The Observer. 'Seems to me to deserve to last for generations,' said John Betjeman in The Daily Telegraph. And both Nicolson and Betjeman were then big names, believe me. The New York Times Book Review was equally complimentary: 'Prose fiction of a rare, memorable, almost incomparable beauty.'

It so happens that I was around in 1956, when Morning came out, and was paying attention to the book world at the time. But despite the rave reviews, I can certainly tell you that Morning was not a well known book.

In the 1950s there were a number of new and young writing talents who did become famous, particularly towards the end of the decade: John Braine, Kingsley Amis, Colin Wilson, John Wain. One could easily name a dozen others.

If you Google any of the above names, with the titles of their famous books, you get hundreds, if not thousands, of links. But if you Google "Julian Fane" and the titles of his first book and his fortieth, you get just three results.

So, what we have here is a novelist who has been a full-time writer for about fifty years, has produced forty books, and was greeted on his first appearance with high praise. So how come I've never heard of him? (And neither, I suspect, have you.)

I can only guess at the answer. But after some detective work I think the answer is roughly as follows.

Julian Fane's first book probably belonged to a tradition which, in 1956, was about to die. That tradition involved writing novels which were admired as much for their style as for anything else; they were aimed at the book-reading and book-buying public of the 1930s, i.e. the wealthy, cultured, discerning, and well educated. Such books dealt with the lives of upper-class people and seldom concerned themselves with anything sordid or controversial. And Morning was published by John Murray, an old and well-respected literary firm: Byron's original publisher, in fact.

Elegant, graceful books of the kind that Morning evidently was were still being written and published in 1956. But they were not of much interest to the new book-reading public, and certainly of very little interest to the newspapers. And when John Braine's book Room at the Top appeared, in March 1957, everything changed.

Room at the Top was about an ambitious young man who did not come from a wealthy upper-class family, and he did not live in an old manor house with five acres of garden. He was a working-class lad from the north of England, blunt, plain-spoken, down to earth, and dead keen to get on in the world. His story involves adultery, ruthlessness, and greed. The newspapers loved all that, and they made Braine famous.

Julian Fane, I strongly suspect, could not compete with that sort of thing, and almost certainly didn't want to. I also suspect that he had private means -- i.e. he did not have to depend on his writing income to keep body and soul together. He was, in short, a gentleman amateur. Thus he was able to go on writing elegant and graceful books without, it would seem, ever making much impression on the public consciousness.

Well, there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a gentleman amateur. Over the past three hundred years or so, such men have produced some of our greatest art and science: think of Byron, already mentioned, and Darwin.

So now let us consider the publisher of The Sodbury Crucifix.

The firm concerned is the Book Guild. And what do we know about the Book Guild? Well, it's no great secret: the Book Guild does about 80 books a year and is one of those firms which makes most of its money from authors (or companies) who have written a respectable book, can't find a mainstream publisher, and are willing to pay for publication. Which is not to say that the Book Guild will publish just anything: far from it; they are looking for workmanlike, professional-standard books, but books which no big publisher is going to regard as sexy.

The Book Guild's present web site is not as informative as it has been in the past, but when I've looked at it previously the books have seemed to be exactly what you would expect: solid, worthy stuff without many commercial prospects. If you want a subsidy publisher (perhaps a more accurate term, in this instance, than vanity publisher) then the Book Guild will do you a Rolls Royce job; and no doubt for a top-end fee. But there's no law against making money in publishing, even if it sometimes feels that way.

The Book Guild's list of current titles show six by Julian Fane, so that's where he's been in the past few years.

As for his other publishers: he started, as I say, with John Murray and has had books published by Constable, another highly respectable, old-established firm (now merged with Robinson). Constable also published Fane's Collected Works between 1997 and 2001 -- in five volumes. But the dust jacket of The Sodbury Crucifix tells us that for some years Fane was a partner in St George's Press, an enterprise which published 45 titles over 22 years and was then voluntarily wound up. An Amazon search suggests that quite a few of these 45 were written by Fane himself.

In addition to novels, it seems that Fane has produced various memoirs and accounts of his literary friends. One example is Best Friends : memories of Rachel and David Cecil, Cynthia Asquith, L. P. Hartley, and some others (1990).

Incidentally -- and I really don't understand this at all -- but St George's Press (allegedly wound up in 1969) is listed as co-publisher, with Hamish Hamilton, of How We Are Hungry, a collection of work by Dave Eggers, no less. Publication date 31 March 2005.

And now, at last, we come to The Sodbury Crucifix.

Let me say at once that I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it, with certain caveats. And we will dispose of the caveats first.

A book which quotes, on the dust jacket, a number of reviewers saying that the author produces outstanding prose, inevitably arouses certain expectations in the reader. And I am therefore obliged to say that I was not wonderfully impressed by the prose. For one thing, the author has a nasty habit of separating sentences with a comma, when a semi-colon would be far more appropriate. But perhaps, as he approaches 80, the author's eyesight is not what it was. The book is also a quiet, thoughtful, undramatic and unsensational story. So if you're expecting to be shocked you will be out of luck.

The book is set in England, in the present day, and the story, in essence, is circular. It reminds me of a book called (as I remember) The Memoirs of a Two-Guinea Watch, which I read when I was about ten. I can find no trace of any such book, on Google or in the bibliographies, so my memory may be at fault. But the story was simple enough. It was narrated by a watch, which originally belonged to a gentleman, was stolen, and then passed from hand to hand. The story was thus episodic, introducing the reader to a variety of characters, good and bad, young and old, et cetera.

The Sodbury Crucifix does exactly the same thing. A small bejewelled crucifix is found in a pond, and it passes from hand to hand, sometimes being sold, sometimes being given away. Each individual to whom the crucifix belongs has a series of experiences; these range from disastrous to highly beneficial; and the question is raised as to whether the crucifix brings with it good luck, bad luck, or absolutely no luck at all.

At the end the crucifix is returned to the church from which it was stolen.

This is precisely the kind of story that an amateur writer might come up with, but it is told with the skill of a professional. Furthermore, it's an enjoyable and interesting story, perceptive and moving -- so long as you aren't expecting something entirely different.

11 comments:

James Warner said...

It seems that it often does writers harm to receive great critical praise in their twenties. Maybe it commits them to keeping on doing the same thing, when they might otherwise go on to find a more distinctive voice. (Or could this be a rationalization to console myself for not being in their shoes?)

Alex T said...

The summary of the book reminds me of Annie Proulx's "Accordion Crimes", though Proulx probably tried to do more with the premise of an object constantly changing hands than Fane.

PS. Hi! Just an ignorant new reader here.

Anonymous said...

Could the book that Fane's novel reminded you of have been "Chrysal ;or the Adventures of a Guinea:by an Adept" by Charles Johnston? I remember seeing it in my college library (in three volumes) when I was an undergraduate and starting, but failing, to read it. It was published in the early eighteenth century, I remember.

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Anonymous said...

I have just finished reading Julian Fane's "His Christmas Box" for the second time in in 4 years.
In 50 years of being an addictive reader there have been only 15 - 20 books which I have re re read, and enjoyed so much.
I have come accross this blog accidentally whilst searching to find information on some of his other novels and am grateful for the information on the Book Guild.
In my view he is seriously under rated.
19.3 02

Anonymous said...

A little late maybe, but the book you were looking for was Talbot Baines Read's THE ADVENTURES OF A THREE GUINEA WATCH (London: Religious Tract Society, 1881)

Best,
John Clute

Christopher said...

In this novel Julian Fane is using a formal sub-genre: the circular story. "Adventures of a Three Guinea
Watch" has already been mentioned. I would add R.L.S's "The Bottle Imp" and "The Monkey's Paw" by H James.
Circular stories traditionally served a moral purpose, especially in the latter Middle Ages. Even Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale" is of this tradition, and many so-called "fairy" but really Folk tales.

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