The Good Comrade by Una Silberrad

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Review by Jane Carter

I must confess that until quite recently I had never heard of Una L Silberrad, but now that this lovely book has fallen into my hands I am eager to now more and of course, to read more. She was, I have learned, a popular and successful author in the early years of the 20th century, but her books fell out of print after her death in the 1950s and it seems that, until now, nobody had thought to reissue them.

That is such a shame, because The Good Comrade (1907) is very good, very readable, and it wraps up some wonderfully sensible, intelligent points in a very fine entertainment.

The Polkington family lived in genteel poverty in Edwardian London. They were well-connected but they were poor, and they were a family divided. Mrs Polington bore up valiantly, planning advantageous marriages for the eldest and youngest of her three daughters, to secure their – and her – future. She had no such hopes for Julia, her middle daughter who wasn’t pretty. Her husband, Captain Polkington, formerly of the Bengal Lancers, did not figure in her plans either. He was lackadaisical, fond of his whiskey and his home comforts, happy to wander through life, believing that something would always turn up.

It was inevitable, of course, that the day would come when nothing turned up. When it did Julia came into her own. She was bright, she had common-sense, she had the moral compass that the other members of her family lacked, and she seized the opportunity to escape and gain her independence.

Julia made an extraordinary plan: she would take a job in the Netherlands that would allow her to acquire a valuable bulb of a rare blue daffodil. That plan very nearly worked, but Julia became rather fond of the some of the family that owned the bulb, and, even as she questioned the rightness of her plan, she crossed paths with her one of her father’s creditors and, quite innocently, found herself mired in scandal.

Subsequent adventures took her across the Netherlands, back to London, and then deep into the English countryside. It was all part of an evolving plan, as Julia tried to keep her family happy, do the right thing for others who crossed her path, pay off her father’s debt, and build a secure future for herself.

It all made a wonderful story, and Una L Silberrad told that story very, very well. Her prose was simple and lucid, and it was underpinned with just the right amount of wit and intelligence. She managed the plot, the details and the broad strokes, and she deployed a diverse cast of characters very cleverly.

Her story spoke of many things: of the hypocrisy of society, of the gulf between social norms and moral values, of the position of women in society, with the lightest of touches, and without ever sounding as sensible and serious as that sounds.

Julia was the star of the show. She was bright, she was capable, and she had such empathy and understanding. She could accept that others had weaknesses, had different values, wanted different things in life. Julia was prepared to work hard, and to learn from her mistakes, as she tried to live set her life on the right course. She was confident that she would, that she could, do that, because she loved people and she loved the world she lived in.

I can’t explain her, you really need to meet her for yourself. I will say though that, like Margaret Kennedy’s Lucy Carmichael, Julia Polkington, is a heroine who should never have been left to languish in obscurity.

There were moments when she exasperated me, as she tried to work out the right thing to do, rather than following her very sound instincts, but she was utterly believable as a woman of her time. I understood her questions, her doubts, and why she did what she did. The ending she reached was both lovely and right.

Julia realised that she had found not one, not two, but three good companions. I’d love to tell you more about them, and more about the story, but I am not going to because the less you know about this particular story the more you will enjoy watching the story unfold.

There was drama, there were surprises, there was romance, and there was a lovely, sad, twist at the end.

I loved it all, and I hope to see more of Una L Silberrad’s writing coming back into print in the future.

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Jane Carter lives on the Cornish coast with a lot of books and one small, brown dog. She blogs at Beyond Eden Rock.

Una L. Silberrad, The Good Comrade (Victorian Secrets: London, 1907 repr. 2014). 978-1444738803, 244 pp., paperback.

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