Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill

by Hugh Walpole
Capuchin Classics
198 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Gosh, what a simply terrific book. Sent to me last month by Capuchin Press and opened it up knowing zilch about the book, story or the author, save that I used to see Hugh Walpole's books on the shelves at a library I used to work in light years ago when the world was young and I wore a mini-skirt. So when this landed on my doorstep I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

I do find books with a school background fascinating. It is similar in many ways to a murder mystery in a country house, a disparate group of people all under one roof, all cooped up together, no escape and this is the case in Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill who are both teachers at a second rate school, Moffats, in Cornwall. The stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere inside the school a total contrast to the wild Cornish coastline representing the clear pure outside air as opposed to the poisonous atmosphere within.

Mr. Perrin is a failure and he knows it. Unmarried, unattractive, pompous and boring, he lives at home with his old mother during the holidays. The rest of the year he is a teacher where his colleagues are equally aware that they are trapped in their posts and will never get away. Bitterness, dislike and irritation abound as the staff, cooped together under the authority of a vicious and bullying headmaster, rub up against each other and small matters assume shattering importance.

Into this school comes Mr. Traill. Freshly graduated from Cambridge, a Blue at football, idealistic and full of enthusiasm. He is keen to make friends and get on with his colleagues but their jealousy of him, his popularity with his pupils, and his youth soon surface and this is exacerbated as far as Perrin is concerned, as Traill soon becomes friendly with Isabel Desart, a friend of one of the teacher's wives. Mr Perrin harbours a secret love for Isabel. It has come to him late in life and is hopeless but he is hopeful that perhaps, just perhaps, she will love him in return and his life will change for the better. With her by his side, he can leave Moffats, he will do great things and so he dreams.

As the weeks of the term wear on the petty jealousies begin to emerge. Mr Broadland, one of the long term teachers has warned Traill of what will happen to him if he stays:

Get out of it think you will escape but already the place has its fingers about you. You will be a different man at the end of the term. You will be allowed no friends here, only enemies. You think the rest of us like you, well for a moment perhaps but only for a moment. Soon something will come...already you dislike Perrin....

Hatred of Traill has overcome Mr. Perrin and one day it all comes to a head when Mr. Traill borrows an umbrella which, unknown to him, belongs to Mr. Perrin. All the venom and dislike comes to the surface and Mr. Perrin, who by now we realise is mentally unstable, attacks Traill and a physical fight ensues. This is the point in the book when you realise that this is not just a story about life in a school, this is getting darker and something pretty horrid is lurking. The staff take sides and outright war breaks out and in the middle of this, Traill announces his engagement to Isabel as she wants to be able to publicly support him.

Mr. Perrin is broken by this news:

[H]e sat with his head in his hands, and the tears trickled through his thin fingers....God took away from you all the things that made life worth living and then punished you because you resented his he was no good, he was done for...he would go to bed, but he wanted Miss Desert! He wanted Miss Desart! Young Traill had done this, he was his enemy... young Traill, he hated him and would do him harm if he could...

Mr. Perrin is aware that there is a second Mr. Perrin inside him, the other person who urges him on to wicked thoughts and plans. He is frightened of him and tries to keep this Jekyll side of himself under control and hidden. He can normally manage to do so, but his mental disintegration is now in full flow and he is helpless to fight off his evil genius.

O God help me... do not let me go back to that state that I have just been in...I do not know what I am doing or thinking, but it is so hard... O God give me my chance. Give me someone to love, I am so terribly alone, do not let me go back into that darkness again...I am so afraid of what I may do.

And suddenly he awoke in the middle of the night and found himself there and it was all very dark. He rose to his feet and was terribly frightened, because there, a grey figure against the fireplace, was the other Mr Perrin and he knew that God had not answered his prayer

This is pretty powerful stuff and I found myself feeling such sympathy for Mr. Perrin in his dreadful state. But the die is now cast and he resolves to kill Mr. Traill.

This is a simply marvellous book and I doubt if I have managed to convey to you just how much I was taken over by it as I sat and read. All the other teachers, their wives, their homes, their habits, are all precisely and beautifully delineated, the enclosed world where small matters assume vast importance, and petty snubs and spite abound, it all draws the reader in and the narrative pace, at first relaxed and taking its time while the scene is set, then picks up as we realise that darkness and hatred are rushing us along to an inevitable showdown. I found the ending both sad and uplifting and closed the book up and sat back and thought, well, wow. Not a very analytical or intellectual summing up but there you go.

The preface in this edition tells us that Walpole was a prolific author and in the remaining 30 years of his life published at least one book a year. He achieved enormous popularity but in the judgment of his biographer Rupert Hart-Davis:

Only once (in The Dark Forest) was he ever again to recapture the fresh, clear cut realism of Mr Perrin' and Walpole himself, looking back on his work in 1936, recorded that of all his books, this was the truest.

So what are you waiting for? Go buy and read and be happy that publishing houses such as Capuchin Press are around to give readers another chance to read this, and other, marvellous books which have languished in obscurity for far too long.

Great stuff.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I read this book many years ago and it made a powerful impression. I'd like to read it again.