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 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.
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.
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