I’ve reached the point where I’m no longer surprised to find that even after decades of looking for neglected books, I can still stumble across completely unfamiliar books and authors. A perfect example is P. B. (short for Patricia Barnes) Abercrombie, who wrote about eight novels, most of them comedies, between the early 1950s and the early 1970s. Angus Wilson once called her “the most interesting of our young women novelists,” and one reviewer called her 1959 novel, The Little Difference, “As enjoyable as a glass of champagne in the middle of a sunny morning when you ought to be working” (which ranks among the nicest things any reviewer has ever written about a book). All of her books were critical, if not financial successes, but even before her last novel, The Brou-Ha-Ha (1972), was published, her name was being mentioned in “what ever happened to” lists, and today, she has no mention in Wikipedia and rates a single unreviewed entry on Goodreads.
I picked out Fido Couchant (published in the U.S. by Doubleday under the title The Grasshopper Heart) from a display of Victor Gollancz books in the window of one of the few used bookstores still doing business on Charing Cross Road. When it was published, the Illustrated London News described it as “a modern comedy of the best kind, involving two marriages and the interplay of infidelity and basic love.” The two couples are Bea and Darcy, childless and living a somewhat glamorous life in London, and Emma and Stanley, both university educated but living in a grim coastal town on Stanley’s meager wages as a librarian. Bea scurries around town running errands for her mysterious boss, Mr. Finger, whose business always seems to have a faintly illicit air about it, and squeezing in a casual affair here and there. But when Darcy convinces himself that he has fallen in love with Emma, both couples’ cosy complacency is upset.
On one hand, it’s very sophisticated and as effervescent as champagne, but there are recurring reminders that one doesn’t have to probe too far below the surface to hit a grim, hard layer underlying all the fun. Stanley–who “had become used to the natural deference which many people pay to a handsome appearance,” becomes infatuated with a local teenage girl. He isolates himself from his wife, haunts the local coffee bar where the girl hangs out, and goes to the girl’s home one night and comes close to assaulting her. And though Bea dismisses her own flings with a flick of the wrist, her whole sense of security crumbles when she suspects that Darcy has fallen out of love with her.
In the depths of her misery, however, she sees a reminder that puts her problems in perspective:
“And I have to get on a bus, go down to the office, then to the Piccadilly … buy coffee on the way home … in spite of my suffering,” she thought, feeling that self-pity was entirely justified. At that moment, however, she suddenly saw the object upon which her eyes had been unseeingly fixed. The figure descending the hill haltingly before her was one she had seen before: that of an old man, his splayed crutches blocking the narrow pavement, his single leg painfully thumping along in halting, awkward strides. As the word suffering entered her mind she was looking at the threadbare seat of his trousers upon which was roughly pinned the empty trouser-leg. She was suddenly overcome by a sense of the luxury of a sheltered existence. The margin of her own security was not perhaps very wide: her own ability to support herself, the possibility of a little legacy, the generosity of friends. But it was spacious compared to some–perhaps to most. With a pang, as though she was going to have to leave it, she thought of her own pretty house, of the narrow, warmly carpeted stairs. For him, probably, it would be a matter of luck or cunning, when he returned to the squat grey building behind the spiked railings, to get the warm corner of an institution room, its cream-painted walls and ceiling stained an ochre colour, soot flakes caught in the wrinkled paintwork.
Considering how silly the title of Fido Couchant (which refers to the neighborhood mutt who lusts after Stanley and Emma’s purebred French poodle), there is something reassuring to know that there is a solid backbone beneath P. B. Abercrombie’s adulterous fun. I look forward to discovering more of her work.
You can get a sample of it in her short story, “Dear Mr. Peterhouse,” which leads off the 1955 collection, Pick of Today’s Short Stories, Volume 6, edited by John Pudney, and is available on the Internet Archive (link).