Humphrey Pakington

March 17th, 2013

“Opening a new Humphrey Pakington novel is like noticing that the apples are ripening or a train is on time,” a New York Times reviewer once wrote. “There is a sense of living in an orderly, reliable world, not exciting or dangerous but pleasant and secure.” And lightly amusing.
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Starting with Four in Family (1931) and ending with John Brandon (1965) over thirty years later, Humphrey Pakington managed to plow an exceedingly narrow row and harvest over a dozen novels from it.

Most of his books are set in the mid-to-lower strata of English nobility, where there are family estates, clergymen with livings, second or third sons in the Royal Navy, eccentric aunts or grandmothers how ask awkward questions, and charming young people holding tennis racquets and bumbling about with love and marriage. It all takes place somewhere between about 1888 and 1938, during which there are births and deaths, occasional bothers, and no great tragedies. If there are revolutions or strikes going on, they are too far away and too alien to be admitted, let alone acknowledged.

Instead, it’s a world where certainties are cherished and cultivated. “They prided themselves on moving with the times, while doing all in their power to make time stand still for themselves,” Pakington writes of the group of English ladies in Aunt Auda’s Choir (U.S. title, Our Aunt Auda). Of Canon Wargrave, the father in Aston Kings, Pakington observes that “he conformed to the general principle that the accumulation of wealth in an honest and straight-forward manner was one of the first duties of a Christian and a gentleman.” Wrote Roger Pippett, “It is a world few of us know from experience, but we are familiar with it every time the curtain in a theatre goes up on a chintzy English drawing room.” It’s a world from which Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster must look rather wild and daring.

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Ironically, this sane and stable world seemed to have a great appeal to American readers and reviewers during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Every one of Pakington’s novels published between 1931 and 1951 were enthusiastically welcomed in Saturday Review and the New York Times. “This is a major book. Major in every way,” wrote Jane Spence Southron, reviewing Family Album for the Times.

Pakington’s lack of message was, in fact, considered something of a virtue: “So few authors turn their hands to good-humored humor, non-ax-grinding, non-crow-picking entertainment, that there is especial cause for thanksgiving when one who has a way with him takes pen in hand for a reader’s holiday,” wrote Saturday Review’s anonymous reviewer of Four in Family. Virgilia Peterson applauded his always-tolerant attitude towards his characters: “He contents himself with mirroring their habits, their pastimes, their platitudes, and their idiosyncracies.”

Writing of George Dangerfield, who had recently published a post-mortem of Pakington’s world in The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935), celebrated, in fact, his artlessness:

He is a haphazard writer. His novels proceed, more or less, until he is tired of writing them, at which point somebody is married off to somebody else, and that’s that….

His irrelevance, after all, is what binds us to Mr. Pakington, if we like him at all, and I for one like him very much. Why do I read him? Not to discover what is to happen next to Johnnie Bartlett, the hero of Family Album. Johnnie is an agreeable child, an agreeable youth, and an agreeable middle-aged man. He marries the girl he loves and when she dies he marries, after a suitable interval, the girl who has always loved him. No, the reason why one reads Mr. Pakington is because one always hopes to find on turning the next page some minor character who will delay the story for a while with amiable nonsense, and then not infrequently just disappear. Sir Gerald Frogg, the medico “who was only called in when it was quite certain the patient could not live,” is such a character.

Another is Auda Biddulph, who is no-one’s actual aunt, and who found music “a useful means of controlling, cajoling and bullying her acquaintances,” or Aunt Serena in Aston Kings, who was “always ready to welcome the worst,” or Aunt Lucy in Young William Washbourne, who invades Malta more successfully than did the Knights of St. John. There is usually at least one eccentric aunt in every book.

Cover of first UK edition of 'John Brandon'
By the mid-1950s, however, Pakington’s formula was losing its appeal. Of one of his later novels, one reviewer wrote dismissively, “It makes few demands on a reader and offers the small rewards of a sincere and well-mannered narrative about some uncomplicated people.” A younger generation of reviewers and readers found his artlessness more tiresome than charming. While the Times welcomed The Vynes Of Vyne Court like a new crop of apples, Al Hines, writing in Saturday Review, diagnosed it as dead on arrival: “it is a combination which has been thoroughly drained of all the humor and interest with which Mr. Wodehouse and Mrs. Thirkell manage to impart quality to their long series of books in the same genre.” If not dead, it was certainly going stale. One of the few positive things said of John Brandon was that it was “pleasantly notable for the authentic glow of gaslight that pervades its early chapters.

No one could accuse Humphrey Pakington of not writing what he knew. Born the third son of the fourth Baron Hampton in 1888, he went to public school, entered the Royal Navy in 1903, and served with honor during the First World War. Several of Pakington’s protagonists, including young William Washbourne and John Brandon, also serve in the Royal Navy. After the war, he trained as an architect (one of his first books, for children, was How the World Builds). Novel-writing seems to have been principally a creative outlet, as he was already quite comfortably off through the combination of inheritances and architectural work. In 1962, he succeeded his oldest brother to become the 5th Baron Hampton. He had few reasons to complain about his lot in life. Not surprisingly, then, that one reviewer wrote of his autobiography, Bid Time Return (1958), “Happy lives seldom account for masterpieces, but when they are well spent, gracious, and successful, they can be good reading.”

None of Humphrey Pakington’s novels have been in print in almost fifty years. Only his 1945 guidebook, English Villages And Hamlets–which is, itself, an something of an artifact of a lost world–is currently available. While I wouldn’t try to propose any of his books as neglected masterpieces, there can be found in a few of them, such as Aston Kings and Family Album a sense of the comic that is both dry and loving.

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