Readers Rediscover Mr. Finchley's England

Mr. Finchley Discovers His England (1936/1972/2013/2018)
By Victor Canning
Macmillan, 260 pages.

First things first: You will notice numerous publication dates for a work I read this spring as a “new” e-book. This makes more sense if you’re British. Mr. Finchley Discovers His England (1936) was the first of three comedic novels penned by Victor Canning (1911-86). It’s a whimsical tale of a bachelor clerk in a London solicitor’s office forced by a new boss to take his first holiday. It became an overnight sensation that allowed Canning to quit his own clerkship and become a fulltime writer*.

The second thing that will help you appreciate Canning’s novel is to locate it in its own time period and circumstances. Holidays were not a given in the early 1930s, and 45-year-old Edgar Finchley had never taken one under his old boss. Finchley knew little of England beyond London’s metropolitan limits. As Brits had been doing for several hundred years, Finchley’s abstract idea of a vacation was to book a hotel in the faded Kent seaside resort of Margate in Kent–some 80 miles distant. To put it in contemporary terms, it’s the equivalent of a middle-aged man from Trenton taking his first vacation in Atlantic City.

Finchley never made it to Margate. At the rail station he is asked to watch someone’s fancy “motor,” as automobiles were often called in the days in which they were still relatively new. Finchley crawls into the backseat, falls asleep, and awakes to find that he has been spirited away by a thief. It would be the first of several zany mishaps to befall Finchley, many of which involved the fact that a tweed-covered bald man carrying a rucksack and wearing city shoes is not exactly prepared to trudge across moors, fall into ditches, sleep in haystacks, scramble over stone walls, or plunge through nettles. Along a zigzag journey that will eventually take him across Devonshire, Finchley befriends or battles with farmers, gypsies, con men, an itinerant artist, orphans, a street band, a self-proclaimed philosopher, a lunatic, snooty elites, and a smuggler.

You also need to know that the times were somewhat gentler, the recent war (World War I) notwithstanding. Even gun-toting thieves were polite, police were respected, gender roles were prescribed, much of the population was peripatetic, and residents in the countryside routinely took in scruffy strangers in need of a meal and/or bed. It was also a time in which rural roads were such that if cyclists wanted to get away from someone chasing them in van, they could reverse direction and get a half mile lead before the van could turn around and gain on them.

All of this is to say that Canning’s breakthrough novel has a quaint throwback charm for modern readers. To experience that charm one must surrender to it rather than filtering it through today’s realities. It’s almost enough to make one lapse into romantic dreams of “simpler” times. Key word: almost. It’s doubtful that today’s readers will admire Canning’s (non) structure. What we read is a series of vignettes disguised as a novel. Some have compared the Mr. Finchley books to comedian Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean series. It’s a decent comparison, as both characters are basically nebbish innocents overcome by events. To this I would add that Michael Palin’s “Cycling Tour of Cornwall” sketch for Monty Python owes a debt to Canning. I don’t know this for certain, but Palin’s character name of Mr. Pither might be a wink to those who know that Canning originally called his character “Pitchley.” In any event, Pither’s encounter with rural England is similarly fraught with misfortune.

To move from the speculative to the literary, the Mr. Bean and Monty Python analogies work as they call attention to the fact that the Mr. Finchley “novels” are actually disconnected sketches basted together loosely. Many Brits actually know the Finchley books as an individual BBC Radio programs that aired in the 1980s and were revived in 2005. As we see, the Finchley novels also enjoy frequent revival. The moral, I suppose, is that charm, innocence, and frothy frolick transcend time. It would be too much to rank Mr. Finchley–or Mr. Bean for that matter–among the classic works of 20th century humor, but it won’t hurt anyone to take an unexpected detour now and then.

Rob Weir

*In the British legal system, a solicitor generally handles civil cases, whereas more prestigious barristers argue cases in court. A “holiday” is what North Americans call a vacation. Canning spent most of his life in Devonshire near the port city of Plymouth. He was born to working class parents and, though he qualified for Oxford University, there was no money for such an extravagance and he became a clerk at the age of 16. He is perhaps better known in North American for creating the Rex Carver detective series.

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