Sunday, 27 July 2014

Penguin no. 15: Four Frightened People
by E. Arnot Robertson

The Sakei were round me when daylight returned: little men, mean-featured, emaciated: the certain extinction of the race within a few hundred years will be a loss only to biologists: they were the worst physical specimens of mankind that I have ever seen.

'I—er—write a little myself—just novels, you know,' said the lean and avid red-haired lady with that air of terrific modesty now in vogue among professional women, who boast to one another of their cooking and their ability to renovate evening dresses and their visits to Ideal Home Exhibitions—being carefully non-peculiar. 'But I don't expect you to know my name! Do you know Malaya well?'

There is an excerpt from what must have been a very enthusiastic review printed on the inside cover of my Penguin edition of Four Frightened People, and I note that there are a number of editions and reprints listed in the relevant section, so this must have been a well-received book when it was first published; it was even made into a film.

But I cannot fathom why: I thought it was a terrible story, underpinned by a premise which simply makes no sense, and focused on the adventures of characters whose actions, judged only by their own accounts, have to be considered reprehensible.

Judy Corder, the narrator, seems possessed of an analytical mind, and so as she recounts the journey undertaken by four unprepared passengers who flee a plague-ridden ship and then walk to safety through a Malay jungle, she reflects on what it is that sets her apart from others, and sets apart those with whom she has an affinity - and by sets apart I mean sets above.

Having read her story I could offer a few suggestions - self-concern and ruthlessness seem the principal attributes, combined with a lack of humanity and compassion. But Judy prefers to characterise people like herself as having a familiarity with poetry, a sensitivity to environment, a sense of detachment and no belief in God.

As a way of reinforcing this idea, Judy contrasts her own behaviour with that of Mrs Mardick, a woman reluctantly included in the jungle trek when she stumbles upon the preparations being made by the other three when they are intent on escaping the infected ship. At the time none of the other passengers had realised the implication of the dying rats, nor of the large wrapped parcels that the crew threw into the sea each evening when they thought no one was about. Judy and her two like-minded friends weren't about to tell them of the risk they all shared, and although she is a doctor, Judy has no intention of taking care of the sick. She is on holiday, and other than relatives and prospective lovers, she only treats the afflicted when she is being paid to do so.

Mrs Mardick's principal transgressions seem to lie in her friendly nature and her equanimity. She is the kind of well-meaning woman who makes encouraging friendships and conversations her business, so that she spends her time on board the ship trying to organise social evenings which might have made the journey more enjoyable for some of the passengers; it simply never occurs to her that others may prefer to be left in peace. And once they leave the ship and set out upon their adventure, she is shown to be self-sacrificing, indefatigable, and capable, but she could never be described as clever, and the other three loathe her for her uncritical acceptance of conventional and commonplace viewpoints.

And so they abandon Mrs Mardick in the jungle one morning when she sleeps too long, making sure to leave everything in such a way that she will be left with the impression that it was she who wandered away from them during the night, and then they barely give her another thought.

I looked for signs that this was a satire, or perhaps an attempt by the author to highlight some kind of limited, self-obsessed way of thinking to which intellectuals of the time were prone, choosing to assess everyone by the particular attribute that ensured they came out on top in any ranking, and not recognising the conditioning in their thinking, or the fact that they too could be judged for some other attribute they lacked (the ability to build an engine, knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics, an understanding of eigenvalues and eigenvectors - once you begin down this path you can really choose anything you like). But no, I suspect this dull book was written by someone who was unaware of the flaws in her thinking.

And are these arrogant characters really so clever? They could have remained on the ship and risked infection, which may never have occurred or which they may have survived. Instead they travel through treacherous territory for weeks - through a cholera-infested village and thirty miles of Malayan jungle known to be home to tigers, panthers, poisonous snakes and plants, crocodiles, apes and mosquitoes. They set off inadequately dressed and without provisions, with little knowledge of the local dialect, no knowledge of the local terrain, and no certainty of securing a guide, all the time unaware of whether their efforts were in vain because any one of them may have already been carrying the bacteria. When you sum across the various dangers, how could the second choice be considered less perilous than the first?

And so it seemed to me that the entire story was ludicrous in its conception and featured characters who were abhorrent. It was a struggle to read all the way to the end.

First published April 1931. Published in Penguin Books 1935. This edition 1947.

And the Very Inspiring Blogger Award -

I would like to thank Harriet of Harriet Devine, Alison of Heavenali and Moira of Clothes in Books for nominating me for this in recent weeks, and for their kind accompanying words. The award comes with a series of conditions which I have listed below, and which I have attempted to fulfil:

1. Thank and link to the person who nominated you. 
2. List the rules and display the award.
3. Share seven facts about yourself. 
4. Nominate other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.
5. Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

Condition 3 - Seven facts:

1. Even though I am very critical of the protagonist in Four Frightened People, I recognise that I probably share many of her traits, and am no doubt considered aloof as I tend to prefer to read or reflect than to engage in conversation with strangers, and aboard ship I too would be hiding from any woman intent on organising parties. Phil of The Age of Uncertainty described it perfectly in a recent post, and I note that he managed what Robertson does not: to explain the aversion without needing to sneer.

2. And so one of my greatest pleasures is travelling on my own, and heading out while it is still dark to explore the city I am visiting while the streets are still empty. As a result I have watched the Eiffel Tower turn pink as the sun was rising, and I managed to spend a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel entirely alone.

3. When not on holiday I work as a Biometrician, which means I spend much of my time designing and analysing the more-complex agricultural trials. I am told such work sounds dull, but I love it and I think I would do it even if no one paid me.

4. My PhD was in Biostatistics rather than Biometrics (i.e. analysing medical rather than agricultural data). I developed statistical methods to analyse HIV data, approaches based on the eigenvectors I mention in the post above. 

5. Yet I was discouraged from studying higher-level maths when in high school, along with most students at my (all-girl) Catholic school, and I carried the idea that the subject was beyond me well into adulthood. It was only after I decided to work my way through a textbook on calculus from the local library that I realised it was something which simply required perseverance. I enrolled in a Grad Dip in Applicable Maths in my mid-20s and never looked back.

6. My favourite film is Bullitt and I never tire of watching it.

7. The most improbable thing that has happened to me occurred in 2010, when at the conclusion of his Australian tour, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) came over for afternoon tea with his wife, daughter, and nephew, bringing with them an aloe vera plant, which I still have, and a stunning arrangement of red roses.

Condition 4 - inspiring blogs:

It is inevitable, in this pyramid-style scheme, that many of the blogs I would choose to nominate have already been nominated, and that if each nominated blogger must nominate fifteen blogs that we will either all be nominated several times or else soon run out of blogs to nominate. And so it seems to me that a more sensible plan, with a much slower rate of growth, would be to nominate only one, or perhaps two to allow for those who opt out. So with most of the blogs I read already nominated, I am just going to mention the one I enjoy the most:

It is The Age of Uncertainty. In the three or four years that I have followed this blog I have yet to see a post which wasn't completely engaging, whether it is about books he has read, places he has visited, photos of strangers he has happened upon, or just observations gleaned from living in middle-class Lewes or a career spent in the book trade. I recommend in particular the Ladybird posts (here, here and here).


  1. I nearly bought this book today (online) so, phew, narrow escape. It sounded sort of curious in a fish-out-of-water way in the description, but this just sounds unbearable. (And I love your nomination of The Age of Uncertainty - what a marvellous blog.)

    1. I can usually find some merit in all of these Penguins, even those I don't particularly enjoy, but this one is in a league of its own, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

  2. I read this book a few years ago and just thought it was awful. I couldn't believe they left the old lady in the jungle. Totally heartless and I had lost interest by the end of it.
    Well done on your blog being nominated for the award above. And I agree, the Age of Uncertainty is a very entertaining blog. It is one of my favourites also.

    1. And I return the congratulations, Pam - I know I saw your blog nominated on one of these lists (perhaps TBR313?)

  3. I too agree with your assessment of this novel. Just bizarre. I too was looking for satire or some kind of commentary on the protagonists and couldn't find one. It is fascinating that it was so popular at the time. What was the resonance? What did contemporary readers see that we can't?
    And The Age of Uncertainty is one of my favourites too!

  4. I've owned this for years but never got round to reading it. So I was fascinated when I came across all the negativity about it on the LibraryThing Virago book. I think I may read it just to see if it *really* is that bad! And thanks for the link to The Age of Uncertainty - what a lovely blog (as is yours!)

    1. Karen, if you hadn't known of The Age of Uncertainty before, then I am very glad to have introduced you, as it is a wonderful and varied blog.

      I am not surprised to read that there is a high level of negativity on LibraryThing as this story has a number of other objectionable aspects beyond those I have detailed - I am sure that others will have been put off by the racism directed at Asians, and by the protagonist's discussions of her affair with a man she knows to be married. And perhaps by the fact that she only ever thinks of herself and about how things affect her.

      To Robertson's credit I will note that her female protagonist is capable and independent, if a little nasty, and this must have been unusual in the 1930s. She is also a capable writer, in terms of writing sentences which are pleasant to read, but the story was ridiculous, so I cannot consider her skilled in terms of plotting.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thank you so much! I go through phases of thinking my blog has gone off the boil and wondering if I should stop, so it makes a big difference to read such kind comments. I will think about nominating a blog and try to come up with seven interesting facts.

    Seeing my name came as a surprise, because I was already in shock from reading such a scathing review. You usually manage to find something positive to say about the novels you've read, even if it's a pretty second-rate book, so I can't begin to imagine how awful Four Frightened People must be! You deserve a medal for reading it to the end.

  7. I deleted the earlier comment because of my lamentable inability to spot glaring typos.

  8. I pick up these vintage Penguins when I find that at various book sales. Right now, I'm buying the new Penguin editions of Georges Simenon's Maigret series. New translations always attract my interest.

  9. Greatly enjoyed your review AND it removed the need to read this book. I did read another by her - I can just see it on a high shelf out of the corner of my eye, I think it's Ordinary Families - and remember thinking it was a good read, and very different from the one above.

    I enjoyed your facts about yourself, and am off to look at the blog you nominate.,

  10. Quick note as another opinion, I didn't hate this novel and thought it quite interesting in her portrayal of obviously narcissistic individuals embarking on an ill thought out adventure in the colonies. She had some intriguing thoughts on male/female interactions and as an adventure/survival tale she did a good job considering she had never visited the area.The racial attitudes were to me off-putting but not atypical of a novel written in that era. Virago reprinted this one so obviously someone thought it worthy of interest on the editorial board. Interestingly the Virago edition features a striking painting done by Gerald Leslie Brochurst of his then young model Kathleen Woodward who he subsequently married although his first marriage had become rocky after an affair with his wife's sister, so even the cover has an intriguing story attached to it.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...