I’m still very much on a mission to get people back reading the novels of British author Norman Collins (1907-82). It does seem as if there is a growing buzz for “London Belongs To Me” (1945) as I’ve seen a few recommendations for it over the last couple of years and that is the one title that is available as a Penguin Modern Classic but three more titles in for me and I can safely say there’s a lot of wonderful story-telling, writing and characterisation to be rediscovered in his other 15 novels.
I managed to source this out-of-print title from the reserve stacks of Bristol Library – the particular copy I read has been on library duty since 1962. I’m so glad there are people out there holding onto these books. Like “London Belongs To Me” and “Bond Street Story” it is located in the capital city and that feels to me as if we are on safer ground with books of this vintage rather than the potential minefield of others of his works set in the former colonies, such as “The Governor’s Lady” (which was still a five star read). In “London Belongs To Me” we had a lodging house as focus, “Bond Street Story” had a department store and “Children Of The Archbishop” an orphanage. The Archbishop Bodkin Orphan Hospital is situated in Putney and this novel is concerned with those who help run it, work in and are resident there in the inter-war years (spanning approx 1920-38).
The opening section wonderfully explores the passengers of the No 14 Bus with writing which once again evokes a mid-twentieth century Dickens. Collins flits from passenger to passenger, driver to conductor until we follow a young woman who gets off the bus and leaves a bundle on the orphanage doorstep. This bundle “Sweetie” becomes one of the main characters who we follow for pretty much the first two decades of her life.
Orphanages can equal sentimentality and I wondered if Collins was going to go overboard on this but he doesn’t, particularly in the first half of the book where we are more concerned with the running and the Warden’s distinctly unsentimental approach which shows the orphanage as wrapped up in politics, disputes, personal prejudices and cost-cutting as any institution. The actual “Children of the Archbishop” are pretty much represented by two of the 500 juveniles, Sweetie and Ginger, who are of similar ages and who defy the strict gender segregation to forge a friendship. Some staff members favour these two in a way which feels slightly disturbing and as they are given greater focus in the second half of the book that sentimentality does creep in.
The whole notion of orphanges run in this manner will seem alien to the modern reader especially when compared to the locations of the other London-set books by Collins I have read which feel more readily accessible. Collins, at the time, as with “Bond Street Story” which has a more or less contemporary time setting as this novel, was writing of the distant past, a historical novel set a generation before, I don’t know how different an early 1950’s institution such as this would be from his focus here. For the first time in a Collins novel I sensed that I was reading a book which might not be deemed relevant enough to be in print, but having said that, I really enjoyed it. There were twists I’m kicking myself for not seeing coming and I think that was because the author had drawn me in so much I was unable to step back and see the mechanics of the bigger picture and that represents great story-telling.
The book, as a whole, just falls short of the very best of the three other Collins novels I’ve read and I think it was because of the hospital/school setting rather than anything else but it is another high quality read.
Children Of The Archbishop was published in 1951 by Collins.