Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, October 13, 2022


 Precious Porcelain by "Neil Bell" (Stephen Southwold), 1931

Stephen Southwold (1887-1961) was born Stephen Henry Critten in Southwold, Suffolk.  He changed his last name because he hated his father and adopted the name of his birthplace.  A prolific writer, many of his early books were children's stories published under the Southwold name.   His preferred pseudonym was "Neil Bell," apparently first used for Precious Porcelain.  Books published under his other pseudonyms ("Miles." "Paul Martens," and "S. H. Lambert" were all republished under the Bell byline.  It is said that he legally changed his name to Neil Bell around 1930, but there is no record of his actually doing so.  He published at least 99 books, some of which were fantasy and science fiction.

Precious Porcelain, his second novel, is an odd book.  It has been desribed as a mystery, as a horror novel, and as borderline science fiction.  It's not really any of these.  To my mind it is part comedy, part red-headed stepchild of a novel of manners, and part village novel.  The village in question is actually a city -- a pretty small one, mind you.  The city of Welling is one of the oldest cathedral cities in England and, with a population of just over 8000, may well be the smallest.  It's near enough to a village for the novel's purposes.

The time is in the early to mid-1930s, although we begin before the turn of the century with the birth of Richard Blaney near the east coast fishing town of Blymouth.  We follow Richard through several chapters through a disgruntled childhood to a long career of teaching eight-year-olds until, at age thirty-seven, he chucks it up and quits, having had enough of his pompous supervisors.  Searching for another position he is offered a job teaching in Welling.  He takes the position and at the very end of November travels to Welling, leaving behind London and his fiance Rachel, whois a secretary to a successful playwright.  It should be noted that although Richard enjoys some aspects of his profession, he would much prefer to be a writer.  One poem published about the education system in England caused part of the tension in his old job.

Richard was not the only stranger to come to Welling at that time.  David Hartley, a rather famous genius. also settled there, puchasing a large estate just outside the city center.  Hartley first gained fame as an innovative surgeon, performing a number of varied "miraculous" operations.  At the height of his fame Hartley gave up medicine and began to practice law.  His legal career brought him as much (or more) fame as his medical one but once he reached the pinnacle of that career, he quit and joined the church.  His talents there were soon evident and he quickly became one of the most popular and well-known clerics in the country until, when speaking to large congregation, he declared himself a Christian who believed that Christ was just a man and that there is no resurrection, no life after death.  Hartley then left the altar and exited the church in front of a stunned congregation, only to vanish from the public eye.  As I said, he eventually showed up in Welling, living a practically reclusive life with only one servant and a seldom-used chauffeur.

We meet a wide range of townsfolk, skillfully described and dissected by the author; the first third of the book taking us to that Christmas with very little happening.  Then, at Christmas services a bedraggled stranger got up and challenged the Dean who was running the service.  He was forcably carried away and arrested for the "melee."  The owner of the local tavern bailed the man out (he couldn't explain why, he just felt he had to) and gave him a job at the tavern.  The stranger, called Alfred Smith, there served a local prostitute who had never been allowed in the tavern before.  When the barkeeper's prudish harpy of a wife saw this, she fired Smith and kicked the two of them out of the establishment.  Smith was never seen again.

The, during the first week in January the town was beset by a series of extreme vandalism:  the inside of the church was desecrated, businesses were vandalized, windows broken, fires set.  Some townspeople felt that th mysterious Alfred Smith was too blame, but as I said, he was nowhere to be found.  No one was ever charged.

Things quieted down in Welling.  Then one of the two spinster sisters who ran the town's lodging house fired a comely maid who was getting too friendly with the males guests.  (She had the audacity to laugh at one of their jokes.)   To replace her, the employment agency sent over Ann Brown, a beautiful girl about twenty-five, who had just applied that morning.  For reasons unexplained, she was hired.  Ann, however, was a human succubus, seducing almost all of the male guests, incuding the virginal thirty-seven-year old Richard.  She was finally caught apres acte by one of the spinsters and was immediately fired.  She, too, was never seen again.  The spinsters decided not to take action against any of the men involved because they just couldn't help it.  Boys will be boys, you know.

The Dean at the cathedral decided that he need a tutor for his two youngest shildren.  David Hartley suggest his nephew Roy, who had been ordained in the church.  Roy could also fill in, on a voluntary basis, as a temporary organist and precenter at the Cathedral.  Roy was  an extremely handsome, personable, and capable man, who also began to seduce well over a dozen of the women in the city, including the Dean's wife and their teen-age daughter, as well as a virginal forty-ish school teacher with constipation, the mayor's wife, and the young  and willing wife of a local farmer.  The result of this wide-spread seduction was a number of pregnancies.  The farmer, who lost the ability to have children in the war, got his now burgeoning wife to confess her (very frequent) affair and he went after Roy with a shotgun.  As they ran through the town, about a hundred townsfolk joined the chase, which ended when Roy junped the fence at the Hartley estate and vanished.  Although it was assumed that David Hartley was hiding and protecting his nephew, Roy was never seen again.

Strangely, all three -- Alfred Smith, Ann Brown, and Roy Hartley -- had very cold hands.

A bit over a year passed since Richard Blaney and David Hartley had come to Welling -- a year of strange happenings followed by long, quiet liulls.  Then on New Year's Eve, two young children on their way to a party vanished.  Their horribly battered (and, in the case of the none-year-old girl, violated) bodies were found the next day.  Over the next two weeks, four more persons died horribly.

At the book's conclusion, the explanation for all of this disappoints.  The murders themselves seem out of place with the rest of the novel, which reads extremely well.   The entire novel is an amalgamation, a quilted work going from a tale slyly driven by character and society to a slightly bawdy (but never explicit -- the characters are British after all) sex romp, to a tale of terror and murder.

It is worth reading?  Absolutely, but I wish the author had decided what sort of book he was writing and stuck to it.

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