Sunday, 27 October 2013

Penguin no. 1271: The Happy Prisoner
by Monica Dickens

Cover by John Ward
If anyone had told him in the old days that it was possible to spend half an hour quite happily in contemplation of the veining on a rose petal or the pattern of a moth's wing, he would have dismissed it as not for him. Yogis and poets and philosophers did it no doubt, but not active young men who found it difficult to sit still long enough to see a play through to its end.

Oliver North lies in a bed which has been specially constructed for him against the window of the room which once served as his father's study. He can look out upon the gardens of his mother's home in Shropshire, and across the ha-ha to the neighbouring fields of the farm which has been sublet to their diffident neighbour Fred, and where his elder sister Violet and his young American cousin Evelyn, who share a love of horses, spend as much time as they can. He is described as a prisoner because he is permanently confined to this bed, and the world he looks out upon is one he can no longer enter. Monica Dicken's story explores how he copes with his enforced idleness.

For the first few months he had struggled: when an exploding shell had removed the lower part of his leg, and a consequent piece of shrapnel had grazed his heart muscle, he had raged against his enforced invalidity. It was the injury to his heart which had most constrained his life, and which continues to do so: he lives in fear of inducing a heart attack, and must avoid all activity and emotional disturbance while he waits for the damage to heal. The story begins with him noticing the extent to which he has mellowed during the intervening months, and his realisation that he has learnt to accept the constraints of this new existence.

The forced change of pace has provided him with an opportunity to observe all the small details which had previously passed him by. He develops curiosity; he notices the intricate pattern on a moth's wings, and the bizarre, obsessive behaviour of the insects at night, inexorably drawn through his open window towards the light as he lies reading. He rediscovers books, and spends his nights reading all those he had previously neglected. Above all, he has time to concentrate, and he finds that with so many hours available for contemplation and observation, and with no competing distractions, he begins to think; for the first time in his life he is able to marvel at the amazing complexity of all that life offers, and so despite being confined to his bed he is never bored.

And he is forced through circumstances to take an interest in something other than himself. As he sits in his bed looking out of the window at others continuing their normal lives, he begins to see himself as a detached observer, so that in time it is not only nature which attracts his interests; he starts to look upon his family and their concerns as subjects which may also be worthy of investigation. And as he reflects on their problems, he begins to believe that this combination of detachment and contemplation means that he is the one perfectly placed to guide them through life's difficulties. But it is a delusion; he soon learns that he is not quite the font of wisdom he believes himself to be.

It perhaps helps that Monica Dickens has created characters displaying behaviours which are entirely decipherable. It seems that in every case there is some underlying belief, or some experience hidden in their past, which perfectly explains why they behave the way they do. There is the misnamed Violet, aware from an early age that she lacks the attributes attractive to men, and who therefore rejects everything feminine and refuses to even consider the marriage proposal advanced by Fred because she is wary of being made to look a fool; there is Heather, flirting with both Catholicism and extra-marital romance, apparently because she feels oppressed by having a husband who appears perfect and her suspicion that she will never live up to his standard; there is Mrs North, who will not let anyone assist her because of a belief that she alone is capable; and there is Elizabeth, Oliver's nurse, who who keeps herself guarded and avoids becoming an intimate of any member of the North family.

But if observed behaviour is entirely a function of an underlying insecurity or a previous experience, then what is it a deviation from? There seems no one in this story who is aloof, controlling, capricious, religious or flirtatious for no reason other than that they were born that way, or because they are allowed to behave that way, with no one they know calling them to account. It was all a little too neat. Despite this, I enjoyed this novel far more than I had enjoyed her earlier books, and this may have been because she attempts here to describe life in rural Britain in the years after the end of the Second World War. Its effects linger in the constraints which are still imposed - petrol is rationed, alcohol is difficult to access, clothing must be purchased using coupons, and chocolate, ice cream, butter and eggs remain difficult to access treats. It was these small details which made the book worth reading.

First published in 1946. Published in Penguin Books 1958. This edition 1965.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 969: One Pair of Feet
Penguin no. 1535: One Pair of Hands


  1. I've been on a bit of a Monica Dickens binge this year, and this one is definitely on my reading list. I'm finding though that I enjoy her autobiographical works more than her fiction.

  2. Interesting idea but it sounds as if it doesn't quite work. At first it reminded me a bit of What Katy Did (when she was confined to the sofa with a back injury) but obviously it takes off in a different direction.

    1. It works insofar as she creates characters which do seem very real; she is clearly very skilled in observing human nature, and in noting all the small traits and recognising the thoughts and attitudes that underpin them. I have seen this book reviewed very favourably elsewhere, and I think it does deserve some of the praise which it has been given. I just wish she hadn't felt the need to explain each character's personality in terms of something in their past.

  3. I enjoyed Winds of Heaven, and this sounds interesting, even if it doesn't quite work. I'm curious to read it.

  4. Like Lisa, I've had better luck with the memoir-style books, but this view of immediate post-WW2 Britain might suit me more than, e.g., the grittier later ones.

  5. This sounds just lovely. What an evocative review.



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