R. F. Delderfield

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Ronald Frederick Delderfield (12 February 1912 – 24 June 1972) was an English novelist and dramatist, some of whose works have been adapted for television.

Biography[edit]

Childhood in London and Surrey[edit]

He was born in Bermondsey, London in 1912 to William James Delderfield (c. 1873–1956). His father worked for a meat wholesaler in Smithfield Market, and was also the first Liberal to be elected to Bermondsey Council. William supported women's suffrage and the Boer cause in the Boer War, and was a firm supporter of Temperance and, until he allied himself with the Conservatives, David Lloyd-George. From 1918 to 1923, the family lived at 22 Ashburton Avenue, Addiscombe, near Croydon, Surrey. The Avenue novels were based on his life in Addiscombe & Shirley Park and many of his works were adapted for television.

Delderfield attended an infant school in Bermondsey, then a "seedy and pretentious" small private school—"seventy boys and four underpaid ushers, presided over by a jovial gentleman who wore blue serge".[this quote needs a citation] He then went to a council school, which he hated but which provided him with the prototype for Mr. Short in The Avenue. This experience was followed by a grammar school whose dedicated teachers inspired several of his characters. Once the family moved to Devon, Delderfield first attended a co-educational grammar school and then finally West Buckland School. In For My Own Amusement, he joked that West Buckland could be likened to schools in The Spring Madness of Mr Sermon, The Avenue and A Horseman Riding By, and that it had earned its fees three times over. Again in For My Own Amusement, Delderfield divided the nation into city and suburb dwellers, rural dwellers, and those who lived in coastal towns.

On a family holiday in Swanage, when he was young, Delderfield caught scarlet fever and had to spend three months in an isolation hospital.

Residence in Devon[edit]

In 1923, Delderfield's father and a neighbour in Bermondsey bought the Exmouth Chronicle, a local newspaper in Exmouth, and William became the editor. In 1929, Delderfield joined the staff of the paper and later succeeded his father as editor. In For My Own Amusement, he describes his work—attending Magistrates' Courts and Council meetings, covering amateur dramatics and other events, visiting the bereaved to write local obituaries, even cycling after the fire engine to see if there was a story, as well as relying on a large number of local correspondents. His experiences during this period were clearly mirrored in the romantic novel Diana. In 1962 he had a house built on Peak Hill in Sidmouth. The house still exists and is called the 'Gazebo'.

Delderfield's first published play was produced at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1936; the Birmingham Post wrote "more please, Mr Delderfield".[this quote needs a citation] One of his plays, Worm's Eye View, had a run at the Whitehall Theatre in London. Following service in the RAF during World War II, he resumed his literary career, while also running an antiques business near Budleigh Salterton, Devon. Having begun with drama, Delderfield decided to switch to writing novels in the 1950s. His first novel, Seven Men of Gascony, was published in 1949.

Autobiography[edit]

In For My Own Amusement (1972), Delderfield discusses the inspiration for the storylines and tells in anecdotes the origin of several of his characters. He believed that authors draw inspiration from the scenes of their youth, pointing out that Dickens's characters nearly always used the stagecoach when he was writing in the age of the train. Delderfield calls his sources "character farms", the main ones being his time in Addiscombe, schooldays, and his time at the Exmouth Chronicle. Of The Avenue and A Horseman Riding By he said, "I set out to tell a straightforward story of a group of undistinguished British people—the only kind of people I really know." Delderfield pointed out in this autobiography that he had been criticized for his very conventional views of women's social roles.

Early 20th century social history as a subject of his writing[edit]

Several of Delderfield's historical novels and series involve young men who return from war and lead lives in England that allow the author to portray the sweep of English history and delve deeply into social history from the Edwardian era to the early 1960s.

Examples[edit]

  • David Powlett-Jones of To Serve Them All My Days begins his teaching of history at a rural public school shortly after being released from a shell-shock ward in 1918. That novel examines the changes in private education and the development of the Labour political movement between the world wars.
  • Adam Swann of the God is an Englishman series is a veteran of the British Army in India who forms a transport business in the mid-19th century. The series explores the economic history of England from the 1860s to the outbreak of the First World War.
  • In the A Horseman Riding By trilogy, Paul Craddock, also an ex-soldier, becomes a rural landlord in Delderfield's own Devon in the early 20th century.
  • The two-volume work The Avenue which follows the residents of a middle-class suburban road over a few decades, begins shortly after the end of World War I with the return of one resident, who finds that his wife has died in the Spanish Flu epidemic and left him with several children to care for.

Other works[edit]

Delderfield also published non-fiction books on Napoleonic history, historical novels involving the Napoleonic Wars, and some isolated novels set in more contemporary periods. His prose style tends to be straightforward and readable, lacking in any influence from post-modernist fiction, and his social attitudes are fairly traditional, though his politics, as expressed via his characters, are a mixture of progressive and free market. In general, Delderfield's novels celebrate English history, humanity, and liberalism while demonstrating little patience with entrenched class differences and snobbery yet also sometimes advocating individualism, self-reliance, and other traditional Victorian values.

Delderfield wrote The Adventures of Ben Gunn (1956) which follows Ben Gunn from sexton's son to pirate and is narrated by Jim Hawkins in Gunn's words. It describes the life of Ben Gunn from the events which led him to leave Devon, and eventually to his presence on Treasure Island and involvement in the story told by Stevenson, and follows up with a brief summary of Ben Gunn's life afterwards.

Select bibliography[edit]

Delderfield's works include:

Series
  • 1958: The Dreaming Suburb and The Avenue Goes to War belong to the "Avenue series"
  • 1966–1968: A Horseman Riding By is a trilogy comprising "Long Summer's Day", "Post of Honour" and "The Green Gauntlet".
  • 1970–1973: God is an Englishman, Theirs was the Kingdom, and Give Us This Day belong to the "Swann saga"

Adaptations[edit]

British TV has made five series based on Delderfield's books. Nigel Havers played Paul Craddock in BBC TV's A Horseman Riding By (1978), adapted from the eponymous novel.[1] And John Duttine played David Powlett-Jones in BBC TV's To Serve Them All My Days (1980), adapted by Andrew Davies[2] from the eponymous novel[3] and as Archie Carver in London Weekend Television's People Like Us (1977), adapted from the Avenue novels.[4] Diana was adapted in 1984 into a BBC miniseries starring Jenny Seagrove in the title role and Patsy Kensit as her younger self. Come Home Charlie, and Face Them was adapted as a mini-series by London Weekend Television in 1990.[5]

The first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant (1958), was based on Delderfield's play The Bull Boys. A 1961 film On the Fiddle starring Sean Connery was based on a Delderfield novel.[clarification needed]

References[edit]