Brian Alderson finds that good fortune is freighted with delusion for THE UNLUCKY FAMILY
we are among the landed gentry. Here though is not the settled residence where Clarice Clavering met the runaway child or the mansion where the Savages spent their Christmas. Finch Hall comes to Thomas and Maria Chubb fortuitously through the will of a relative of whom they have never heard, a deceased manufacturer of potted lobsters. (Their qualification for the legacy lay in the fact that he had never met them – all his other, nearer relations having found numerous ways to displease him.)
‘a good-natured gentleman’ has an office in the City, and his wife ‘spends most of her time on the sofa, being of a delicate constitution’, which is not surprising since she has had eleven children in fifteen years. These treasures have distributed attributive nicknames among themselves – a useful guide and prompt for this rehearsal of their unlucky activities. The eldest is Dreamy Dorothea followed successively by:
sharp little Emily
and the twins Jane and Josephus who are but eleven weeks old and whose nicknames are thus not yet decided upon.
Before their surprise inheritance
they all lived in a villa near the Crystal Palace and, not being far from Lewisham, one might assume an acquaintance with the Bastable children just down the road. But while that family’s treasure-seeking was carried out with a naïve optimism most sympathetically narrated, the goings-on at Finch Hall are the stuff of unbridled farce.
An At Home
gives rise to a succession of neatly-plotted calamities in which, among other things, a baby is dropped in a fountain, a newly-arrived tutor is nearly shot, and a laundry-basket full of freshly ironed and starched shirts is upended in a river by way of rescuing Tumbling Teddy stuck up a tree. Later on, Greedy George will be found stealing peaches at the flower-show (on the excusable grounds that they are Finch Hall peaches grown by a ferocious gardener who produces them solely for the purpose of winning prizes). Or Meddlesome Matilda takes upon herself a doomed effort to distribute largesse among the poor of the village, offering a purloined bottle of Papa’s whisky to a grumpy resident who had been a teetotaler ‘for nine and forty year’. Or Mr Chubb himself, aiming to prevent Wilful William examining an ancient well and falling in himself, having to be rescued tug-of-war style by his new friends.
With a family of this size
and uncontrollable skittishness, however well-meaning, there is a danger of repetitiousness. But the entertainment is bodied out by the endearing foibles of the adult characters as well. Arriving, and taking a sympathetic part, during the At Home, is the Admiral (much given – to his wife’s annoyance – to tipping small boys half-sovereigns) and the Duke and Duchess of Pontypool (the latter taking a shine to Wilful William). This opens the way for some gentle satire elsewhere, not least with Mr Chubb’s butler, Golightly, ‘who was not always as sober as could have been wished’. Unmarried Aunt Eliza, who lives with the Chubbs as a support for her sister is regular fall-guy, while the misfortunes of Mt Higginbottom, the tutor suggest revenge being paid to some luckless hireling in real life.
Half way through the saga
the General arrives: General Benjamin Finch, the half-brother of the deceased lobster magnate and a good friend of the Pontypools. He too proves a sympathetic addition to the party (and is clearly taken with Aunt Emily Finch) and it is through his arrival that the Chubbs’ torment of trying to take on the role of squirearchy is brought to an end. Wilful William discovers within an aged sofa a late, but unsigned, will in which Joseph Finch leaves all his property to his half-brother so that, thanks to their newly established bond of friendship, the General takes over the Hall and the unlucky family return to the environs of the Crystal Palace where suburban comfort awaits them and Mr Chubb may return to the safety of his natural bourgeois habitat. It is not recorded if they ever met the Bastables.
The Unlucky Family
was first published in 1907 by Messrs Smith, Elder, its author, Mrs Henry de la Pasture, being one of their house team. It was sub-titled ‘a tale for children’ (the lady’s tongue perhaps being in her cheek) and was illustrated by E. Tennyson Reed, whose sprightly wash-drawings lost some of their life by being printed by the dowdy half-tone process. It had a long life, being later published by OUP after Smith, Elder’s demise, but in 1980 it enjoyed a happy revival through the Folio Society with wondrous baroque chapter-titles by John Lawrence. As a bonus there was an Introduction by Auberon Waugh who included an encomium of the book (‘one of the best books that has ever been published … I heartily enjoyed its every joke’) by his twelve-year-old daughter, Daisy.
By way of conclusion one may add that Mrs de la Pasture’s elder daughter, by a nifty translation, became E.M. Delafield, the author of the joyous bestseller, The Diary of a Provincial Lady.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0-7123-5728-9, £25.00 hbk, is out now.