Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Cold Harbour ~ Francis Brett Young

Francis Brett Young (1884~1954) was born in Halesowen (historically in Worcestershire, now in the West Midlands), the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Brett Young. He was educated at Iona Cottage High School, a small private school in Sutton Coldfield, and then Epsom College in Surrey, where he edited the Epsomian school magazine and won the Rosebery Prize for English Literature. He studied medicine at the University of Birmingham and went on to become a general practitioner in Brixham in 1907, but continued writing whilst working as a doctor. He achieved popular success in 1927, when he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Portrait of Clare, and he was at the height of his fame during the 1930s. Brett Young wrote thirty novels, four short story collections, and three volumes of poetry. These days, however, he is all but forgotten by most readers.

Cold Harbour was published by W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1924. The novel begins on the island of Capri, where a party of four is enjoying an evening on the terrace after dinner. There is the unnamed narrator, his old college friend Ronald Wake, who he hasn't seen for a long time, Ronald's wife Evelyn, and the clergyman Harley. As the topic of conversation turns to the existence of evil, the Wakes appear to be troubled by something and are encouraged to tell their story. The tale that follows is told in part by Ronald Wake, and in part by his wife, with the thread passing back and forth from one to the other as the story progresses.

A fortnight earlier, having been caught in a downpour on the way back home, with a flat tyre to boot, the Wakes stop at an inn for the night. Whilst there, Evelyn meets the strange Mr Humphrey Furnival, who invites her and her husband to his home, Cold Harbour, to view his manuscripts and Roman artefacts. And so they visit the following afternoon, but Ronald takes an instant dislike to both Mr Furnival and his house.
'There it stood, with its dark, grimy brick, a steely light reflected from its windows. It seemed to rise up in front of us monstrously, malignantly, as though it hated us. And God knows I hated it too. If this place were mine, I thought, I'd never rest till I'd got rid of it.' 
As soon as Evelyn is alone with Furnival's wife, the latter confides in her that she fears for Mr Furnival's life and his immortal soul, because he is possessed. The house, she explains, is full of forces of active evil, and many have been touched by its influence whilst staying in it; some have been frightened almost out of their wits, and priests have found themselves unable to pray. And Mrs Furnival sees blood everywhere.

Young constructs an atmosphere of suspense and dread so brilliantly that I don't blame the Wakes for wanting to get away as quickly as possible from Humphrey Furnival, with his terrible laugh and aggressive outbursts, and his oppressive, sinister house.
'We walked away beneath the ghostly autumnal trees. We went like ghosts, the leaves were so thick under our feet. It was as though death hung in the air. Something worse than death. I know death, and this was infinitely worse. Evelyn was tugging at my arm, like a child who is cold and wants to run. I knew what she meant. We began running together. Down the drive, into the road, running away from Cold Harbour, and feeling, all the time, the house behind us, lying there, like a stormy monster, crouched, ready to strike.'
Having placed the facts of the case before their audience, the Wakes ask the narrator and Harley, the clergyman, to offer their opinions. And then Ronald Wake puts forward his own theory regarding the happenings at Cold Harbour and their root cause.

But it's at this point that the novel changes direction and heads back towards the rational: 'the darkness of another world was lifted from us, and the story, which had carried us into regions where our imaginations shuddered and were lost, returned to the familiar plane of human reason'. That might well be a relief for the narrator and his clergyman friend, but it's a bit of a let down for readers like me; I rather enjoy my imaginations shuddering. And the ending is wrapped up far too quickly. So, the end, to my mind, is a disappointment. But the rest of the book is so utterly wonderful that it is still one of my favourites.

A fine copy of the first UK edition of Cold Harbour, complete with dust jacket, is pretty much impossible to find. A near fine copy without the jacket costs about £150 (approx. $120), but it's such a rare book that copies don't turn up very often.

The first American edition was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1925, and that's easier to get hold of. You can pick up a very good copy for about £25, without the jacket.

Ash-Tree Press republished Cold Harbour in 2007, but that edition's out of print and not all that easy to get hold of. Fine copies sell for about £30. I think it's got a rather nice dust jacket (see image left).

House of Stratus published a paperback in 2008, and that's available for a mere £8.99, but as I've never seen a copy of the book I can't pass comment on whether it's a good or bad production. There is, as far as I am aware, no Kindle version available at the moment.

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