I first came across E.V. Lucas while reading a collection of short stories. The short story was called The Face on the Wall. It created quite a deep impression on my mind and I’ve been on the look out ever since for the original collection from which this story came.
After a lot of searching I finally found London Lavender, published in 1912. Now, I expected this to be a short story collection of some sort. But when I started reading it I was considerably taken aback. What was this? Shall I call it slice of life? Or is this another one of Lucas’ essay collections with a touch of fiction? I’m not even sure whether to call this fiction or non-fiction. One thing is for sure, this book is definitely not what I had expected.
E. V. Lucas (1868-1938) was an English essayist, biographer, novelist, and journalist among many other things. He was a successful writer of light-hearted non-fiction. His subject matter ranged from sports to paintings to family life. One of his most noteworthy contributions was a series of scholarly works on Charles Lamb. Lucas was known for his easygoing style of narration. But unfortunately his reputation has gone downhill since his own time. Modern readers have mostly rejected his writings as dull. He has been criticized for being impersonal. His biographers maintain that he was very different from his writings and was a bitter man with a taste for the obscene.
In London Lavender a very loosely co-related series of narratives are recounted by the narrator of the story, Kent Falconer. He is the one thing that is common among the various vignettes. The stories are weird if not unrealistic. But of course some of them are not stories at all. There is a peek in to the development of early cinema. A holiday in Italy. At least three evenings spent at the drawing room of a gentleman discussing contemporary politics, literature and supernatural experiences in real life respectively. A day is spent at the races. Various folk songs and dances are recorded. And then there are the various stories recounted by the characters themselves. Of course there are proper conclusions to some of the stories in the end. The readers are not left hanging. But most of the vignettes do not need a conclusion at all.
And then there are the characters. What a vast array of people! Most of them are so interesting. There is a zoo keeper who is unnaturally attached to ‘apes’ (not monkeys, as he firmly states), a family of delightful young girls (I did not know young women in early 20th century were ever allowed to behave that way), a reluctant ‘Knight’, a couple of ‘modern’ young men and women, a movie director/scriptwriter at the dawn of ‘moving pictures’, a man who becomes a thief by stealing his own property and of course the narrator and his wife.
The writing I found very easy to read. I practically flew through the book.
Lucas’ witty insights and often unorthodox way of looking at things really entertained me. In some places I laughed out loud. Like when the narrator asks a young aviator about his experiences while flying (which was, without a doubt, a very novel experience in 1912),
“What is it like in the air?” I once asked him.
“Ripping,” he said.
“But the sensations?” I continued. “How do you feel?”
“Ripping,” he said.
“And what does the world look like down below as you rush along?”
“Ripping,” he said.
Lucas seems quite liberal towards women. Most of his female characters are strong persons with opinions of their own.
I have only a few complaints about this book. It contains some mild racism and some dull patches. Nothing else really bothered me.
London Lavender was a rather surprising experience for me. Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers is the only book I can think of that comes close to the structure of this book. It certainly left me with the same contented feeling that The Pickwick Papers did.
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