Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
This is the second gem I’ve read from Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo. Like Josephine Johnson’s Now in November, which won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize, this is a novel I doubt I ever would have found if it weren’t for Apollo reprinting obscure classics as attractive paperbacks.
My Son, My Son opens in working-class Manchester in the 1870s and stretches through the aftermath of World War I. In places it reminded me of W. Somerset Maugham and George Gissing, but the most obvious debt is to Charles Dickens. Like a Dickensian urchin, William Essex escapes his humble situation thanks to a kind benefactor. His father walked out on their large family and his mother was a lowly washerwoman. William remembers the shame of poverty: “young as I was, I hated the circumstances of my life. I hated the carrying of bundles of washing. I hated the turning of the mangle, and most of all I hated the close compression of a life that threw us all upon one another by day and night, and made us bite and snarl, and gave no one the chance to be alone.”
At age 12, William has the good fortune to be noticed by Reverend Oliver, who offers him lodging and employment as a general dogsbody. After Mr. Oliver’s death, he moves on to office work. Soon Mr. O’Riorden, noticing William has brought no lunch to work, hears the whole story of his protégé’s sorry background and offers him a room in his own home. Over the five years that he lives there, William becomes best friends with O’Riorden’s son, Dermot, a fervid Irish Republican who venerates the 1867 Manchester Martyrs. Dermot goes on to make a name for himself in England in the field of furniture making and interior design, but “If ever I have a son,” he vows, “I’ll dedicate him to Ireland.”
Meanwhile William marries Nellie, the daughter of the baker for whom he drives a delivery van. It’s a mercenary decision made after he learns how much her father is worth; he freely acknowledges this, though it may colour readers against him. “It would be a comfortable sum for a man to have behind him if he wanted to write. … In cold blood I made up my mind then and there to marry Nellie Moscrop.” His career is similar: he writes for magazines and the theatre because it’s easy money, though he also becomes the novelist he feels he’s meant to be.
William’s and Dermot’s are roughly parallel tracks. Their sons’ lives, however, are a different matter. Oliver Essex and Rory O’Riorden are born on the same day, and it’s clear at once that both fathers intend to live vicariously through their sons. As promised, Dermot will devote Rory to the Irish struggle, while William does his best to ensure that Oliver has everything he lacked as a child – “I want to realise in my son all I’ve missed myself.” From the start, though, this approach backfires. Nellie accuses William of spoiling Oliver, and the boy’s seemingly inborn defiance swiftly advances into lying, cheating and schoolboy cruelty.
When William is widowed, two new romantic prospects put him into competition with his own son, which only exacerbates the friction that has long lain between them. As the years pass, though, world events start to take the focus away from domestic circumstances. The First World War moves from rumour into reality, and things start heating up in Dublin too. Oliver goes off to war, while Rory joins the resistance in time for the Easter 1916 uprising. The Essex and O’Riorden families are inextricably linked in both love and war, and if some of the connections between them tend towards the melodramatic just think of this as a delicious taste of early-twentieth-century soap opera.
A welcome burst of Dickensian humour comes through in the frequent trips to William’s second home in Cornwall. Heronwater is an idyllic holiday spot for both families, and while here they meet one of the novel’s most intriguing secondary characters, Captain Judas. Like Dickens’s Mr. Dick (from David Copperfield), he’s a mostly harmless madman whose obsessions spill onto reams of paper. Long since retired from a life at sea, Judas now spends his time elaborating anti-papist conspiracy theories. He also seems to think that Oliver is another Messiah. These Cornish breaks are a nice change of tone and pace from the rest of the novel, though the far-away bolthole later comes to have practical importance as well.
Spring (1889–1965) was raised in poverty in Cardiff and later made a living in Manchester as a journalist before moving to Cornwall. In total he published 14 novels, in addition to short stories, a three-volume autobiography, children’s books and plays. There are clear autobiographical traces in My Son, My Son. One of his most popular works (alongside Fame Is the Spur), it has been filmed twice. When first published in 1938, it was entitled O Absalom! However, considering Faulkner’s similar title, Absalom, Absalom! (1936), it was renamed. The reference is to the biblical account of King David lamenting the death of his son in battle. It’s not the only scriptural allusion Spring makes here. He also uses the Prodigal Son story as a motif (“How, even then, I would have outdone the father in the parable who, when his son was yet a great way off, ran!”) and has Oliver ironically quote the words God speaks to Jesus at his baptism, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
My Son, My Son struck me as an unusual window onto World War I, a subject I’ve otherwise wearied of in fiction. A straight line could be drawn between Great Expectations, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, My Son, My Son, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: all four feature a simultaneously sympathetic and enraging protagonist who overcomes family difficulties to dream of fame and fortune. No mere period or local interest piece, this is a book for the ages.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Howard Spring, My Son, My Son (Apollo: London, 2016). 978-1784970772, 582 pp., paperback.
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