Friday, October 12, 2018

War looms over village life: RUTH ADAM, There Needs No Ghost (1939)

I've been meaning to get around to this rather odd and quite obscure novel for ages. I've written about Ruth Adam several times before (see here), and I always find her an interesting—and still under-rated—author. Socially-conscious, sensitive, and observant, but also frequently humorous and completely down-to-earth, she tends to provide a unique perspective on the life and culture of the 1930s-1950s.

Ruth Adam

She particularly found her niche, as you may already know, with her final book, A Woman's Place 1910-1975 (1975), a wonderfully readable social history of the ever-changing positions and expectations for women in the 20th century, which is available from Persephone. And her second novel, I'm Not Complaining (1938), about a schoolteacher's growing political involvement in Depression-era England, was reprinted by Virago in the 1980s but has sadly been out of print ever since.

There Needs No Ghost followed just one year after I'm Not Complaining. It's set immediately before, during, and just after the Munich Crisis of 1938 (see here to refresh your memory—I had to) and features two narrators—a vicar's sister in Caledon, a small village north of London, and a young, unmarried mother from Bloomsbury, a former actress and bohemian, who retreats to Caledon out of a desire to protect her child from the inevitable bombing raids expected any day.

Honestly, it sounds a bit more rollicking and entertaining than it really is. Adam takes her subject matter seriously, as is appropriate for the time of crisis she's describing, but although there's certainly humor here and there, the urgency of Adam's mission—to show the contrast of values between urban and rural England, and how they may be brought to terms so that everyone will ultimately be pulling together—doesn't necessarily make for scintillating reading, and it struck me as largely surprisingly dry and lifeless.

Oh, how I hate to be more or less in agreement with Queenie Leavis, the high-brow literary critic who enjoyed being condescending about most of the authors I love the most. But in this case, Leavis, writing in Scrutiny in 1939, could be echoing my own feelings:

Apart from being less well written and of a piece than I'm Not Complaining, Mrs. (not Miss as previously stated in these pages) Adam is less successful in her choice of her chief mouthpiece—the Vicar's sister, though the last drop of juice is wrung out of her, is a bit too limited to have so much rope and her style of thought a bit loosish to enjoy for long. The other chronicler, the Bloomsbury young woman, is first-rate in the line of the recounter of I'm Not Complaining. With all these reservations, the book is good entertainment literature and something over. There is some good back-chat between the Bohemians, an acute account of the emotions set up in complicated people by the Czech affair, and a more than acute display of the process by which the artificial, i.e., mental, values of Bloomsbury give way, in a village environment and in face of the realities of life, to the real values which tradition has found for a class of people who could never have afforded the luxury of artificial ones. Exposure of false values is always Mrs. Adam's strong suit. She is also masterly here in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of simple goodness in grappling with the political scene as well as the unexpected strength of the anima naturaliter christiana [translated roughly, the "natural Christian soul"—yes, I googled it] in personal relations. I for one consider a novel by Mrs. Adam, who has a point of view, a lively feeling for Character as well as for characters, and a personal sense of values, far more worth having than a sackful of art-novels (for instance, those of Miss Elizabeth Bowen and Miss Kay Boyle). Mrs. Adam remains a novelist not only to read but to watch.

Well! One does wonder what poor Elizabeth Bowen and Kay Boyle ever did to Queenie, but otherwise I concur with all of this (which worries me somewhat).

But even if it doesn't all quite add up to the sum of its parts, many of the parts are quite interesting. Ethel Perry, the poor vicar's wife, is limited as a narrator because of her ignorance of world affairs and a general naiveté, but one can see why Adam might have wanted to tell the story from her perspective, as she represents a large portion of any population, of those who are good-hearted and kind but unsophisticated. Naturally, sometimes this results in some good-natured humor at her expense, such as in these two passages:

So I was all alone that day, since Chris had been obliged to re-write his sermon completely since Hitler had changed his mind, and although one was so deeply thankful that he had, it seemed a pity that it should not have happened till the end of the week when the previous sermon denouncing him was already written.


I was sitting in the dining-room, reading in the paper about how delighted the villagers in Czechoslovakia had been to see Hitler and his soldiers, and feeling quite surprised to think what a terrible mistake we had almost made in trying to defend them from something which, as it turned out, they had been looking forward to so much. I could not help thinking that, although our splendid Government had done everything in their power to study the problem, it seemed a pity that someone, perhaps Lord Runciman, had not  cleared up this little misunderstanding before we all had such an anxious time.

I can relate a bit more to Kay, the unmarried mother, whose intellectual cynicism is rather poignantly in conflict with her love for her child:

I wondered how other women managed, and came to the conclusion that they must pick up more of the elementary information about how to run the women's side of life, from being brought up within sight and sound of it all. But I had been in dramatic school since I was sixteen and with touring companies for six years after that, and then with Philip in our studio. And I knew at least a hundred parts by heart and two languages and quite a lot about European politics and was too independent to keep any of the ordinary rules of society, but I did not know whether you could send for the doctor at three a.m. to look at a coughing baby. I wished I had been brought up quite differently, but then, like Alice in Wonderland, I shouldn't have been myself at all, and the situation would never have existed anyway.

And one gets the feeling that the Bloomsbury perspective on the crisis may be more or less shared by Adam herself. There's some passion in the following passages describing Kay and Philip's feelings:

When I had left a message with him, and arrived at the cottage for breakfast, I glanced at the paper, and found it was in a fine state of indignation because the British and French Cabinets had agreed on something, though no one knew what. Philip said it was plain enough they had agreed to sell up the Czechs and give the world meekly up to Fascism. In six months' time, he added savagely, I should have to be entering the baby for his first labour camp, and start embroidering nationalistic slogans on his bibs. At three he would give him his first dear little gun and start teaching him that his first duty was to hate all naughty little Communist boys and dirty Jewish girls.


First, the papers said the Czechs had accepted the plan. Then the radio said they had not. Then the papers said they had, but that Czechoslovakia was in an uproar and wanted to fight or have a revolution. It was like being tortured, given a drink and then tortured again.

Here and there there are also some lovely details of the period. I liked this glimpse of the practicalities of war preparation:

There was a knock on the door and I went weak with relief, thinking it was Philip at last and the awful waiting was over. But it was a man and a woman delivering gas-masks. They seemed afraid I was going to shut the door in their faces or insult them. They reminded me of young men giving you a free demonstration of their vacuum cleaners. I used to get all my carpets cleaned that way and so I never needed to buy one.

The mind rather boggles at all the varied reactions that poor man and woman must have encountered in delivering those gas masks. Many people must have been bewildered by the delivery, others laughing it off, and still others reacting angrily, our of their denial of the possibility of war, to the renewed fears the masks would have awakened. Not the most pleasant job I could imagine (though undoubtedly better than those who organized billets for evacuees).

There Needs No Ghost is a quite interesting novel, and I'm so thankful to Grant Hurlock for offering to share his copy of this vanishingly rare title with me (after my last Hopeless Wish List ages ago—good heavens, it does take me forever to get round to things). It's not, I think, a book for everyone's taste, but historians of the Munich Crisis or of England's preparations for war would certainly be wise to consult it. And Adam's unique perspective and sensibility is always wonderful to engage with.


  1. The Manning Coles mystery, Without Lawful Authority, covers the Munich Crisis period also, from a bit different perspective. I remember a character said that Chamberlain must have meant "Peace for A time", and been trying to buy a breathing space to rearm. (And Manning Coles is really two people, one of them a woman, and thus part of "the list"!)

  2. Opps, forgot to sign the post about Without Lawful Authority.


  3. I love the writing style of the pieces you shared there: a bit Dodie Smith or Barbara Comyns.

  4. AND, I had forgotten that The English Air, by D. E. Stevenson also deals with the Munich Accord. A discussion of that novel is about to begin at the DES group at


  5. Also the first volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles, The Light Years, covers the 1937-38 Munich period too.

  6. Here is a random thought, could the village of Caledon be a small village on the edge of north London called Ridge? The Countess of Caledon had the gift of the living for the church. The village has a small, lovely medieval church.


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