REVIEW: Mr Finchley Discovers His England by Victor Canning
Mr Edgar Finchley, unmarried solicitor’s clerk, aged 45, is told to take a holiday for the first time in his life. He decides to go to Margate. But Fate has other plans in store…
From his abduction in a Bentley by a cheerful crook, to his smuggling escapade off the south coast, the timid but plucky Mr Finchley is plunged into a series of the most astonishing and extraordinary adventures.
His rural adventure takes him gradually westward through the English countryside and back, via a smuggling yacht, to London.
Jerome Jerome meets Mr Bean in this gentle comedy series, which was a runaway bestseller on first publication in the 1930s and retains a timeless appeal today. It has been dramatized twice for BBC Radio, with the 1990 series regularly repeated.
To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting when I read the blurb for this book. The cover gave me the impression that this would be a historical novel (it is), from the 1930s (also true) and that it just might be something cute I need to look into.
Mr. Edgar Finchley, Esq is one of those rotund, middle aged, balding men whom most would pass by without any notice. He’s quiet, unassuming and has worked for years as a clerk in a law office and due to the draconian and outdated policy of the former head of the office, he’s never had a vacation. This changes when the old boss dies and the new one (one of those hearty, avuncular types) insists – no, I insist! – that Mr. Finchley take three weeks off.
Intending to spend it at Margate on the coast, he’s waiting to take the afternoon train when Fate steps in and changes Mr. Finchley’s life. You see, he sort of gets kidnapped while taking a nap – something Mr. Finchley does often. Naps, I mean, not being kidnapped. Anyway before he knows it. he’s in a beauty of a car being sped along the roads and being chased by the police. In a way that will become the standard modus operandi for the next three weeks, he’s off on an adventure and when challenged as to whether or not he’s afraid to carry on, Mr. Finchley has an epiphany.
He doesn’t want to be one of those fellows who finally has adventure come straight up to him, look him in the face and inquire as to whether or not he, Edgar Finchley, is going to plunge into it or shy away and then spend the rest of his life with the knowledge that his courage and sense of adventure have been found wanting. Traveling quickly from London to Oxford to Bristol, Mr. Finchley begins learning about his country. He begins having an adventure.
And thus begins his slow perambulation in a – more or less – southerly by west direction that sees him encountering all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances. He tramps down the highways and byways of England – and even rediscovers the joys of riding a bicycle at one point – discovering that this is the adventure he sought and would never have found sitting at Margate. There will be people he encounters that we’ll never know what happened to them and how they’re getting on as this is way before social media and cell phones. When challenged by a traveling preacher to really live as do the people who must travel as Mr. Finchley is doing – but by necessity rather than by choice – and who don’t have tens of pounds in their pockets, Mr. Finchley takes him up on it and learns to work daily for his bread and bed.
He takes opportunity where it finds him and lets it carry him onward. And in so doing, he discovers himself as well. By the time he reaches London again, he knows he will never go back to being the man he was. It was originally written in 1934 and at times I couldn’t help but think how much the country and people would be changed forever in only a short time. I was also amazed that a writer as young as Victor Canning was then managed to write middle aged Mr. Finchley so convincingly. But it takes you back to a slower, (mainly) kinder time when you always know that Mr. Finchley will come out all right of anything he gets into. And as a woman of a certain age, it’s delightful to see an older, slightly tubby protagonist front and center. B