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Friday, October 16, 2009

God Is an Englishman

Delderfield, R.F. God Is an Englishman.

This is a book that I've heard about for years without ever seeking it out, so I'm grateful to Sourcebooks for sending me a review copy (even if I'm way behind in reading and reviewing this book and others).

It is a classic and deserves to be.

In 1857 Adam Swann leaves the military with a tiny secret or two or three, a handful of rubies from his service in India. He has a dream, and he intends for the rubies to help finance it. Adam Swann is a capitalist with very liberal leanings; he believes in commerce, but not at the expense of his fellow man.

This is the story of how he establishes his business and grows it from the ground up with wonderful enthusiasm and attention to detail. It is also the story of the men and women who, for various reasons, come to believe in Adam Swann and his dream.

From Hamlet Ratcliff (lion tamer extraordinaire) to young Rookwood who rises from an orphaned boy to a gaffer; from the bawdy Falstaffian character of the old coachman Blubb to Edith Wadsworth of the Crescents -- each of the minor characters materializes into a real individual over the course of the novel. And those are just a few of those who are involved in Swann-On-Wheels, hauliers.

This is also the story of Henrietta, the run-away girl who becomes Swann's wife.. Henrietts emerges from a spoiled adolescent to mother, and finally, to genuine partner in the marriage. She blossoms slowly, learning some hard lessons along the way. Delderfield also has Adam Swann learn a few things about himself and his wife during the nine years of the marriage.

Delderfield manages to keep the story of commerce interesting and includes many historical details from the period. One of the more interesting is the episode concerning the Staplehurst train wreck; Charles Dickens was on the train (along with Ellen Ternan and her mother, although they aren't mentioned) and participated in rescuing some of the passengers.

This is a long novel and the first in a trilogy, but it is an epic worth pursuing. When I picked up the novel again after neglecting it, I couldn't put it down. The last 300 pages flew by.

Fiction. Historical. Originally published 1970. Republication 2009. 634 pages.


  1. Oh this sounds really good. I love big sweeping historical fiction/family sagas.

  2. I really want to read this eventually!

  3. I'd love to read this again - the whole trilogy is marvellous. Your post brings it all back.

  4. So sorry to hear about your daughter, Jenclair. I hope she is feeling much much better. Glad to see you back and posting! I've got this one on my pile and am looking forward to reading it. I had heard of the author but I didn't know about this book until Sourcebooks reissued it!

  5. Until you first mentioned this one on your blog, I had never heard of it before. It does sound wonderful and your mention of it being a classic has me even more curious. Thanks for your great review, Jenclair.

  6. SuziQ - It IS a sweeping historical saga!

    Kailana - Delderfield was idealistic in many ways, and it is interesting the way he combines capitalism with humanitarian leanings!

    Booksplease - :) I'm looking forward to the next in the trilogy, but I have a copy of another of his books, To Serve Them All Their Days (not part of the same series) that I'll tackle next!

    Danielle - Thanks, Danielle. She is back to normal now. Set aside plenty of time for God Is an Englishman, it's lengthy!

    LF - Many of Delderfield's books have been out of print for some time. I love Sourcebooks for taking authors that are on the verge of being forgotten and making their works available again.

  7. I read this one a couple years ago and loved it, except for a few parts where the business aspect bored me. The train wreck with Charles Dickens was my favorite part and I went off to look it up to see if it was real, at the time. I had no idea he'd been a part of such a monstrous disaster.

  8. bookfool - There was a section in the first half of the book that was more business and less character, and it slowed me down, too. After the author began to tell the stories of the men who worked for Swann, I loved it.

    It was one of those strange coincidences that I'd read about the Staplehurst disaster and Dickens' involvement relatively recently, so as soon as Swann spotted Dickens on the train, I knew what was going to happen!

  9. I read some Delderfield back in the 80s and enjoyed it. I never saw this one then so I'll have to try it.

  10. Al - I just started To Serve Them All Their Days by Delderfield last night, and I'm liking it even better! This one is about a young man invalided out of WWI, who becomes a teacher in 1916.

  11. I've read "To Serve..." way back then I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    There was a BBC mini series based on it which was quite good too.

  12. Al - I may order the series through Netflix after I finish. I've heard good things about it.