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The Far Cry by Emma Smith

The fictionalised account of Emma Smith managing boats on the Grand Union Canal during the Second World War appealed greatly to me. I reviewed Maidens’ Trip a few months ago. I would recommend it strongly. One comment on that post (Kaggsy again!) led me to this novel, which draws on the same author’s experiences in India immediately after the Second World War. She sailed there in September 1946, with a small film crew on a commission from the Tea Board. Laurie Lee was the scriptwriter in the same crew.

Looking back from the vantage point of old age at the young person I was in 1946 I realise now that the ignorance I so deplored was really a blessing in disguise. I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion. I was totally unprepared for it. Engulfed by a teeming multitude of exotic strangers – foreigners – by raucous noises, brilliant colours, pungent smells, the huge surprise of it almost overwhelmed me. (p.ix From the author’s preface)

The endpaper is a late 1930s English printed linen which Teresa’s sister Ruth might have chosen for her bungalow from a catalogue sent out from London.

The Far Cry 

Teresa Digby is 14 years old and at the start of the novel we find that she has not experienced much love so far in her life. Her mother left her father to live in America. As we become acquainted with him in the novel we understand why. This was her father’s second marriage. He has a favourite daughter, Ruth by his first marriage. Ruth lives on a tea plantation in Assam. Teresa had been placed with her Aunt May, who is kind but not loving.

Mr Digby believes that an imminent visit from the US of his second wife means she will take Teresa away. More in a spirit of defeating an enemy, Mr Digby determines that he will not allow it, and decides to take Teresa to India to visit Ruth. 

The novel moves through five sections, beginning at Aunt May’s, on the voyage to Bombay, the train journey to Calcutta, Arrival in Assam, the final outcome.

Each section is rich with understanding especially of Teresa, but also of Mr Digby’s selfishness and unsuitability for this adventure. On board the ship Teresa learns how to make friends and how other people will latch onto you. When she falls ill from sunstroke Miss Cooper looks after her with kindly detachment.

 In Bombay, like the author, she is nearly overwhelmed by India, but is helped by Sam their self-appointed bearer. The unsuitability of her father as a carer becomes more and more apparent. At Ruth’s husband’s tea Garden five unhappy people are thrown together: Teresa, Ruth who believes she deserves much better from life because she is so beautiful; Edwin, her husband who understands her, but despises her attitude; Mr Digby who having achieved his objective finds no place for himself and becomes more and more pathetic; and the deputy manager Richard, who is young and so required to entertain Teresa which he bitterly resents. Edwin is one of the few people who behaves well towards Teresa and does not join in Mr Digby’s racism. The five of them find only occasional pleasure in each other’s company, for example on a picnic. Teresa begins to fall completely for India’s charms and is devastated when after her father’s death Ruth plans to leave Edwin and take Teresa back with her to England. 

They begin their long journey back but Ruth delays in Calcutta and they meet up again with Miss Spooner. The outcome is better: Ruth is killed in a road accident and when Edwin comes to fetch Teresa he agrees to ask Miss Spooner to join them. It is hinted that Teresa will later marry him.

The novel is written with her clear style, with exciting set pieces: arriving in Bombay, the Festival of Light, the trip in the Nagar Hills, as well as long dragging times in the heat. She demonstrates a great deal of insight into the need of young people for affection and friendship and how that can be mishandled.

Here is an example of Emma Smith’s writing. 

She chose her oranges one by one, and the dusty-footed spectators who had gathered to help her choose, stretching their arms past her to pick out and offer the roundest, largest, most sunburnt specimens anyone could desire. They waved them in front of her now; they muddled her considerably. They were so gay, vying with one another to catch her attention: ‘Looky, memsahib – this one good orange,’ She felt like a grown-up at a children’s party. (121)

I was surprised that there was no mention of the war that had so recently finished when Emma Smith visited India, nor of the looming divisions in India’s independence movement that resulted in Partition at the time of Independence in August 1947.

Emma Smith 

She was born Elspeth Hallsmith in 1923 but used her nom de plume because it is easier to say. 

During the war she worked as a boatwoman on the canals. And then aged 23 went to India for nine months with the film crew. On her return in 1948 she published Maidens’ Trip and then The Far Cry in 1949. This was written in Paris where she was captured by the photographer Robert Doisneau, typing beside the Seine. 

Emma Smith and her typewriter in Paris, by Robert Doisneau

She married in 1951, had two children and then was widowed. She went to live in Wales and published some children’s books. Later she wrote another novel: The Opportunity of a Lifetime (1978) and two books of memoirs about growing up in the South West. Susan Hill found an old copy of The Far Cry and was struck by its competence and quality. She wrote about this in 1978 in a piece reproduced as the Afterword.

Emma Smith lived in London until her death in 2018.

The Far Cry by Emma Smith, first published in 1949 and republished by Persephone Books (no 33) in 2002. Afterword by Susan Hill, Preface by Emma Smith. 324pp

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Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

I’ve been reading novels, memoirs and other texts from the Second World War recently. It was a time when social norms were upended, and people were called upon to take up activities that they would not have dreamed of a few years before. And they hoped would never be required to again. Such upheaval is fertile background for novels and other writings. 

I published a post called Novels from the Home Front in WW2 in November. You can find some interesting fictional choices there. I particularly enjoyed Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), republished by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her wartime diaries. I am working on a short story set during the war so it was also research for me.

Originally published in 1948, Maidens’ Trip has the subtitle A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal. I read several reviews of Maidens’ Trip and I thought I would be interested to read about more wartime experiences. It finally got to the top of my tbr pile. I was looking forward to more wartime research.

Maidens’ Trip 

The account of the ‘wartime adventure’ is partly fictional but based on Emma Smith’s years as a boater. She describes it as ‘part fact, and part fiction’.

When, fairly soon after leaving the ‘cut’, I began to write the book, it seemed to me that the best method of describing the couple of years I had spent working narrow-boats on the Grand Union Canal towards the end of the Second World War would be to condense them into a single trip. For this imaginary portmanteau trip I invented as my two companions Nanette and Charity. I also, for the sake of balance and objectivity, exercised the novelist’s right by largely inventing the third member of the trio, named as myself, (sixty years on I deny ever having been so bossy). (vii Preface)

She assures the reader that everything that happened in the book took place. She reinforces this authenticity by frequently referring to ‘we’ but always referring to herself as Emma.

In 1943 three young women (18 years old) become crew of a motor longboat and its butty on the canals, plying their cargo of steel from London to Birmingham and returning via Coventry with coal. 

While the work was hard and at the beginning unfamiliar, it also provided freedom for these young women. And their enjoyment of their outdoor adventure is a recurring theme. We read no references to ‘home’. Their companions become the boating families and as they adopted the boaters’ life they developed friendships and affection for some of the families.

The work was dirty, hard and wet and twice one of their crew was nearly killed. It’s hard to imagine now but their conditions were pretty awful, sleeping in wet beds, always dirty and oily, and outsiders in the world of the boaters and the working men in the docks and locks. But with a heartiness and good grace they put up with terrible working and living conditions. Today we might assume that they felt obliged to do their bit for the war effort. But this was not their chief motivation according to Maidens’ Trip.

The war hardly intrudes, in fact. There is the mention of the blackout and occasional news shouted down to them by lock keepers. By and large they were not there  ‘because of the war’ although their cargoes of steel and coal were no doubt important. 

Recommended

I enjoyed the book for its references to some canals I used to know: Braunston and its tunnel, the Coventry and Birmingham canals and the London Docks. More than the familiarity of those canals I was attracted by the qualities of the young women who volunteered for this work. I think one appropriate word of the time is pluck.

It’s well-written too, despite the author’s claim to have written it very quickly. The decision to create one journey out of her experiences pays off. The rhythm of the journey, the flurry of working the  locks followed by the calmer more deserted stretches of canal, the tying up at night, the early starts with tea from water boiled on the primus, the days move by.

Immediately outside Leamington we passed by acres of allotments, the neat parcelling out of bean-sticks and cabbages on that flat unhedged and seeming, more especially in the failing light, a very attar of depression. One or two blurred figures, grey moth-like creatures surely with every spark of passion ground out of them, bent over spades or shambled down the nondescript paths. Yet behind them flared the giant sky, a citron yellow, massed with magnificent clouds which crowded together round the going sun, snatching up its dying heart to deck their black and purple edges. We passed them, these humble ghosts, like life rejecting death, and turned the bows of the Venus and Ariadne directly into the sunset, strong but tired, tired but still triumphant, and with several more miles to go and two more locks. (103)

The Silvers arrived. … The three old ladies all wore black hats of felt or crumpled straw, the sort of hats that grow on a head as naturally as an eyebrow above an eye. All three wore black button boots going high up round their ankles, and two of them had long black skirts with a motley of pinafores and jersies above. But the third, the one in the straw hat, wore a pair of men’s blue dungarees. She looked about fifty-five, but was probably short of forty, and her apparel was even more surprising in that trousers were seldom worn by the boating women – except the very bold or the very young – being considered unseemly. (104-5)

And reading her account of working as a team, managing the motorboat and its butty on a flight of locks – the bicycle, the windlasses, the pulling or pushing, the leaping, the tying, the shouting – leaves one informed and breathless.

I am ashamed when I think of how my generation told our predecessors they were so square, had made the world a mess for us, and we were going to do it better. Now I think we had everything to learn from these plucky young women. 

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith was first published in 1948. It has been reissued in paperback by Bloomsbury in 2011. 225pp

Related blog post

Tripping Over is a post on Stuck in a Book blog from 2009, but still valid and includes enthusiasm for Emma Smith’s book about growing up in Cornwall, The Great Western Beach. I liked his word ‘energetic’ for the writing in Maidens’ Trip.

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