A Step in the Dark

A Step in the Dark
Judith Lennox
Headline Review

Virtually from the first page, one can trace the many influences that have made this book the vast and complex novel that it is.

To start with, Judith Lennox’s heroine, Bess Ravenhart, is quite obviously the literary descendant of Scarlett O’Hara; beautiful and flirtatious, with a naivete and impulsiveness that give way as she grows older, to a canny, calculating shrewdness. To Gone with the Wind too is owed the manner of Bess’s husband’s death in Simla in 1914.

Out riding in the hills, Jack “challenged her to a race, and her sudden fear, her premonition—made her cry out to him: No, Jack!”You can hear the echo of Scarlett’s voice as she cries out “Bonnie, no!”as the little girl urges her pony on to the jump that kills her.

There’s more than a little of Becky Sharp too, at times, as when the young, newly widowed Bess, having left her infant son back in India in her mother-in-law’s keeping, decides on her stratagems for survival in staid, respectable Edinburgh: “She must coax invitations to soirees, at homes and parties…She must discover the richest, most eligible man in Edinburgh, and she must marry him.”

This is on Page 26 of a book running to 473 pages and spanning 47 years, in the course of which two World Wars take place, Britain becomes a modern, industrialised nation and the status of women changes radically. With domestic servants disappearing and working women becoming the norm.

Against this backdrop, the story of Bess is told, intertwining with the stories of the men she marries, together with those of their families and descendants, as well as her own.

There is passion, lust, tragedy and a dark secret which suddenly rears up in the last part of the book.

The wide span of the story and the many characters who come and go within its ambit, are reminiscent of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, and you can see the way the plotting of the novel, and the five sections into which it has been divided, have been devised with an eye on serialisation for television.

Nothing wrong with that at all, and admittedly many of the set pieces would make for vivid cinematography.

The brilliant high summer of Empire, golden with laughing men and charming women twirling elegantly at the Viceroy’s Ball in Simla in the early 1900s; the terrible reverses faced by British troops in the first years of World War I; the turmoil of the General Strike of 1926; London during the Blitz; RAF stations with the gallant young men who fought the Battle of Britain.

But ambitious as the scope of the novel is, a dire suspicion overcomes the reader that the author’s intentions are larger than her skills.

It’s not that the book is not an enjoyable read; it is, though it could have done with rather tighter editing which would profitably have reduced it by a hundred or so pages.

It’s the occasional childishness of the expression that is unsettling, the Mills-and-Boon-ish over-emphasis on the use of italics that grates.

For instance, “On board ship no one played cards on a Sunday. Or danced or read a novel or even smiled, Bess thought desperately.”

This from a woman who has been widowed barely a month earlier and has been separated from her adored child, whose absence she frets over for the next twenty years, is hard to accept without a snigger. And, regrettably, there are many such instances.

R F Delderfield’s Swann saga (God is an Englishman, Theirs was the Kingdom and Give us this Day) covers the same territory much better.

So much so that the most powerful effect A Step in the Dark has had on me is to create a longing to re-read Delderfield once again.

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