Sunday, July 3, 2022

"When I was young, and had no sense": SYBIL RYALL (later BOLITHO), A Fiddle for Eighteen Pence (1927)

Oh for a copy with this original jacket!

The figures in the mirror hardly matched, and I could only hope that we complemented each other; Mattie so straight-featured and wistful, and I, large-eyed and long-legged, without enough repose. Well, there would be plenty of time for repose later on. All my life after the trip, and then more of it when I lay mouldering in the grave. 

There seems to be something in the air right now that's helping me come across charming travel novels. I recently reviewed Barbara Goes to Oxford, by Barbara Burke (Oona H. Ball), and had a lovely time with it (see here). A Fiddle for Eighteen Pence is along similar lines, though rather more eventful, dealing with two young women on a road trip through France, with sightseeing, periodic car trouble, run-ins with local residents, and occasional tension between the women, who understandably get on each other's nerves now and again. 

Nina Linton, 27, a clerk/secretary in London firm that imports fancy foods for the well-to-do, has always planned to get away and travel after 5 years of work in the City. On the day of her 5-year anniversary with the firm, despite being still a bit shorter of funds than she'd hopes, she makes a fatal error (ordering 1,000 cases of truffles from a supplier in Périgueux in southern France instead of 10), and this is the impetus needed to take her plunge. Rather absurdly, she vows to set out for Périgueux in order to personally explain the situation to the supplier and save her firm's reputation. (Word of warning: The next time I have the slightest misunderstanding with a reader in the U.K., I'm planning to use the same logic and show up at their door—particularly if they live in one of the more scenic areas.)

Conveniently, Nina has a well-to-do friend, Mattie Bird, a bit older and perhaps more conservative than she, who has time on her hands and is game for the journey. They head for Paris, and there Nina buys a car and takes lessons to learn to drive. Disappointingly for auto enthusiasts (of which I am not one—if it has four wheels and goes, I'm happy), she never specifies the make and model, only gives a description:

I walked around a low-swung body on slender, glittering wheels; a lightweight, and painted bottle-green, for hope; an enquiring bonnet and a delicate tapering tail; crisp black upholstery; tucked-away places for boots and coats and books, and a hood that rolled up as neatly as a silk umbrella. A sturdy engine lay beneath all these beauties, the model of the year, big as my typewriter, but good for a spin round the world.

With an occasional shriek of protest from the gears, the women set off, and the reader gets to accompany them on their eventful and entertaining journey. There are some fun descriptions of the French countryside, and there's a pleasant feistiness in Nina's narrative:

The daily fare here, she assured me, as we passed through sturdy, affable villages, was once made up, as everybody knew, of murder, seduction, love, intrigue. In reality or in romance, Touraine was no less thickly peopled with the undying dead, than with those who had never lived at all save in a poet's brain. You fell over them, Mattie said, and I drove timidly, afraid to knock down Quentin Durward, or stumble up Gargantua's toe, or sully the languid skirts of Madame de Mortsauf.

And of course, there's a man who keeps popping up along the way, at first irritatingly and then perhaps less so… One might think there could have been two men who kept popping up, for the purposes of happy endings all around, but alas. And they do finally make it to Périgueux, though perhaps Nina's explanations aren't quite so relevant by then.

isn't a hilarious book, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and perfect as bedside reading or to take one away when a real getaway to France isn't on the cards. And it's interesting, too, in the context of other road trip tales, which were coming into their own around this time. In my neck of the woods only, there's also Rose Wilder Lane's account of her 1926 drive across Europe with her friend Helen Dore Boylston in Travels with Zenobia (only published much later, I think?), and there's Carola Oman's Fair Stood the Wind in 1930, which I mentioned here. No doubt there are many others. They're of interest partly because they capture a moment in time, when auto travel was still relatively new for ordinary folks, highway systems weren't fully fleshed out, and many parts of Europe were yet unvisited by tour buses and throngs of selfie-takers.

Oh, and by the way, the title comes from a variant of the song "Over the Hills and Far Away" that I hadn't come across:

"When I was young,
And had no sense,
I bought a fiddle for eighteen pence,
And all the tunes that it could play
Was over the hills and far away!"


  1. That does sound quite a fun one, I like books like this, especially set in France, perhaps because I've been there a fair bit myself.

    1. As much as I love our actual travels, it's also lovely to be able to travel from the sofa!

  2. A friend of mine says that 'over the hills and far away' is the most romantic phrase in English. I don't know that I agree but it does have a thrill to it. But what I really meant to say was that there's Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emiky Kimbrough and about their 1920s trip to Europe. Not a novel but novelistic and very enjoyable.

    1. Oh yes, of course, I love that book! And many of Emily's later travel books as well.

  3. You would also enjoy Junior Year Abroad by one of the staples of my teenage reading years, Rosamond du Jardin, written with her daughter Judy:

    1. Thanks for the rec! Sounds right up my alley. I'll check it out.


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