I’ve had my eye on Hugh Walpole – one of those traditional storytellers who plied their trade in the early part of the last century, and who fell out of fashion when modernism came to the fore – for quite some time now. But I’ve dithered over which of his many books I should read. Finally though I realised that ‘Mr Perrin and Mr Trail’ had a lot to recommend it:
- Walpole’s first success (and only his third novel)
- A Cornish setting
- A school setting
- A story drawn from experience, of which the author was said to be particularly proud.
And the Cornish library service had a copy!
It proved to be a little gem.
The story is set at Moffatt’s, a small public school, on the Cornish coast. It is a second-rate school, staffed by men who are only there because they have nowhere else to go, the atmosphere made poisonous by a manipulative, controlling headmaster.
Mr Perrin – known to the boys as ‘Pompous’ – is one of those men. He has been there for twenty years; he is middle-aged and shabby; and his dreams of rising to the top of his profession have nearly all gone. Just one dream remains: Mr Perrin dreams of winning the heart of the lovely Miss Desart, who often came to stay with a married colleague and his wife. He is an unhappy dream, but that one dream keeps him going.
But Mr Traill will shatter that dream.
Mr Traill is a new master, in his first teaching post. He knows that it is first step on the ladder. He is young, handsome, athletic, charming, and the boys love him. But he is oblivious to the tension in the air, and he is incredulous when one of his colleagues warns him to get out as soon as he can.
He meets, and falls in love with, Miss Desart. And Mr Perrin’s heart is broken.
Tension grows between the two masters; two men who have such different outlooks on life.
It all comes to a head when Mr Traill, on his way out on a rainy day, grabs the first umbrella that comes to hand from the pot by the door. And loses it. It was Mr Perrin’s umbrella. Mr Traill cannot understand why Mr Perrin is so upset about such a small thing. Mr Perrin cannot understand how Mr Traill can be so careless of another man’s possessions, another man’s feelings.
There is a physical fight.
The repercussions are felt throughout the school, as the staff and their families join different camps.
And then Mr Traill – still oblivious – announces his engagement to Miss Desart.
Something in Mr Perrin’s head snaps. he vows that he will have his vengeance.
Mr Perrin knows that the voice in his head, the voice that suggests wicked plans and schemes, is wrong. He is frightened, he tries not to listen, but he fails.
There is a dramatic finale, on a cliff top, on the last day of the summer term.
The story held me from start to finish.
It was a wonderful piece of storytelling, simply but clearly told. The characters – the masters, the domestic staff, the wives – were very well drawn and very well delineated. They were different people with different characters and different attitudes, but they were all stuck in the same situation.
The settings, the details, are all well done.
And though the story was set in a school, in Cornwall, in Edwardian England, you could transport is to so many different times and laces.
Consider Mr Perrin, Mr Traill and the umbrella; and then consider a booklover, a precious book, and a borrower who is careless with it and doesn’t understand why the booklover is so upset ….
The different characters, the different attitudes of the two, very different men is so very well drawn, so very well defined, and that is what makes the story sing.
There is right and wrong, but it’s impossible to say that one man is right and the other is wrong. One is young and foolish; one is old and set in his ways.
I should mention that there is another book by Hugh Walpole with a very similar title – ‘The Gods and Mr Perrin.’ It’s actually the same story with a different ending; rewritten for the American market. I’d say go for the original ending – it couldn’t be bettered.
I’m sorry that High Walpole had an unhappy year as a teacher – at Epsom College – but that experience gave him a very fine novel to send out into the world.