22 November 2012

Comfort Food for Imperial Nostalgists

Random Harvest
by James Hilton

Hilton was a mid-twentieth-century English writer of bestselling middlebrow tearjerkers, a bit like Nevil Shute. He is best known today for two books that became blockbuster movies: Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Lost Horizon, which gave the world Shangri-La. His works are now out of copyright, and you can download them as Kindle files from various sites (thank you, Sharmini Masilamani!)

Random Harvest is a typical example of Hilton’s work. The hero, a reluctant but successful between-the-wars business magnate and politician, is haunted by missing memories: he has lost three whole years. The lacuna commences with his being wounded in a failed decoy operation during the First World War and ends with him coming to himself on a park bench in Liverpool moments after having been knocked down by a car. The book is about those lost years, and the hero’s hunt for them. It is told by his (male) private secretary, a man who knows all his employer’s secrets save for those the latter cannot recall himself. All is finally revealed, of course, and there is a completely unexpected – to me, at least – twist at the ending, put there to ensure that the reader will close the book more or less satisfied, no matter what has gone before.

This is a well-plotted, well-written, gentle novel. Readers who wish to be intellectually or politically challenged will find nothing to engage them here; indeed, the anodyne prose and precision-tuned plotting contain little that will excite or challenge anybody. That is neither its function nor its virtue; Random Harvest is a book written to help middle-aged, middle-class, politically moderate readers pass the time on trains, or fall asleep at night. At this it succeeds wonderfully, if at the expense of a tendency to drag – a tendency that grows rather pronounced at times.

Writers like Hilton and Shute appealed mainly to the middle-class, more or less conservative English reader of their day. A large part of that appeal lay in their ability to evoke and champion a stable, well-ordered Anglocentric world that was crumbling even then; they offered (false) assurance that England would always endure, that the sons of the shires would ever, as in Housman’s poem, get them the sons their fathers got that God might save the Queen, and that there would be honey still for tea until the end of time. They chronicled the long afterglow of Victorian England, and their appeal was nostalgic even in their heyday; it is doubly so now, if only to the dwindling band for whom such things ever had an appeal in the first place.

This is not, for instance, a book that will appeal to Americans; the sort of comic, exaggerated P.G. Wodehouse caricature of Englishness they love so much is not in evidence here. Some elderly Canadians (fans of Robertson Davies in his lighter moments, perhaps) will enjoy it; and wherever nostalgia for the days when Britain ordered and set standards for the world still persist – for example, in former British colonies now reverting pell-mell to barbarism – a few ageing readers will rediscover a seduction here to which it does no harm, now and again, to yield.