I finished this over a week ago, but am just now getting some time to write about it.
A thoroughly enjoyable, even absorbing book.
Long. So be prepared. The copy I read was 640 pages.
The story fills those pages, though, and it was great to have a book to settle into in the evenings, knowing that I’d be carried along but with more to look forward to tomorrow.
As I mentioned before, The Good Companions was an enormous best-seller in England when it was published in 1929. It’s the story of a “concert party” or pierrot troupe, which was a variety traveling entertainment company, very popular and common between the wars.
It takes a bit – about a third of the book – before we meet that troupe, named the “Dinky Doos” at that point. No, before that, we are immersed in the stories of three very different people whose paths will cross with each other, and eventually with the performers, changing their lives in the way chance encounters at the end of winding paths do.
Jesiah Oakroyd is a Yorkshire worker – a mechanic of some sort with a challenging family life and a hankering for the road. Fear that he’s being accused of a crime and the actual reality of being fired from his job inspire him to set out and see what he can see.
Elizabeth Trant is a woman in her mid-30’s who has spent her adult life caring for her recently deceased father. We meet her as the estate is being auctioned off and she senses the opportunity for change. This potential change is moved along by a visit from her nephew Hilary (whose accounts of his intellectual set – the “Statics” – is priceless), who leaves her his car.
Finally, there’s Inigo Jollifant, a young man with literary aspirations and musical talent who teaches in possibly the worst public school in England. After offending the wife of the headmaster one too many times, he, too, sets off late one night, determined to experience The Road and write something Literary about it.
These three experience various adventures, misfortunes and accidents that bring them all to the same place, which happens to be the same place that the members of the Dinky Doos are sadly gathered, having been abandoned and financially wiped out by their former manager.
And so, within a short time, characters respond to their inner promptings: to be of use, to do something brave and different, to meet a need, to have a lark – and The Good Companions are born.
Now, this isn’t a deep work of social commentary or the most profound character study ever penned, but it does pain a detailed picture of the England between the wars as well as the lives of a bunch of quite different people, all clearly and affectionately drawn. To get a taste, here’s a minor character who’s courting one of the female members of the troupe. His name is Dulver, and he’s a hotelier:
He was a bachelor about forty who liked to clothe his pink plumpness in sporting tweeds, wore a fair clipped moustache, and looked at the world out of prominent light-blue eyes that had about them a kind of hard amiability. His manner and phraseology suggested the confidential, but his voice was loud and carried far and he made full use of it, so that he always gave the odd impression that he was bellowing out his innermost secrets. Actually, however, he had no difficulty in keeping to himself whatever was best known only to himself, and was in reality a far more astute man of business than he appeared to be, like all the Dulvers, who for several generations now had been ordering drinks all round and slapping everybody on the back and talking at the top of their voices while they quietly contrived to feather their nests….
I can’t tell you how much I love, admire and envy that kind of quick sketch of character-drawing, and this book is full of that sort of thing.
I found The Good Companions a very satisfying read, and not without moments of authentic human emotion. The end is very satisfying, with a bit of closure, but also a reminder that the future and even the present is a mystery for all of us, whether we live in flesh and blood, on the stage or in a book:
In this place, whether we call it Bruddersford or Pittford Falls, perfection is not to be found, neither in men nor in the lot they are offered, to say nothing of the tales we tell of them, these hints and guesses, words in the air and gesticulating shadows, these stumbling chronicles of a dream of life.
(The novel has been adapted many times for film, stage and television. There’s a 1933 version with John Gielgud as Inigo that you can watch in chunks on YouTube. There’s a 1950’s film adaptation in which the action is moved to the present day, and the trailer is one of the more deeply painful things I’ve ever watched. I’d like to get my hands on the BBC series adaptation – it looks sort of fun, but then I don’t think I want to spend 9 hours watching it…life does go on, after all.)