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To Serve Them All My Days recounts the fictional story of David Powlett-Jones, a veteran of World War I who becomes a schoolmaster in a public school. His life is seen in the context of the social changes of the inter-war years.
For anyone familiar with Delderfield's novels this is a common pattern. The approach had already been used successfully in A Horseman Riding By and The Avenue Story. Often this results in the writer falling back on old plots and characters that make the story ultimately unsatisfying. By contrast, To Serve Them All My Days was Delderfield's greatest achievement. It rewards repeated reading, and has an emotional impact missing from his earlier books.
David Powlett-Jones is invalided out of the army and is sent for an interview to Bamfylde, a public school in Devon. He doubts his ability to cope with teaching, but the affable headmaster, Algy Herries, persuades him to stay. He finds a measure of peace and a sense of belonging which helps him to cope with his wartime experiences. Later he meets and marries Beth and his happiness is complete. When tragedy strikes he finds that Bamfylde provides comfort and support that helps him to carry on. David relies particularly on the advice and friendship of Herries and Ian Howarth, the sarcastic but steadfast English master, who become the central figures in his life. When a new headmaster takes over and threatens to destroy the spirit of the school, David sets himself on a course of action that can only result in total defeat for himself or the new incumbent.
The appeal of this book lies in the well-crafted central characters who are instantly recognisable as real people. David is no classic hero with a full set of virtues. He is a person who has the ability to inspire his students as learners and people in the way that all the best teachers can. However he can be spiteful, intolerant and vengeful when crossed. This is rarer than it may appear in novels, where the protagonist is usually either a saint or a sinner. Often it is left to a woman to set him on the right road or to tell him a few home truths.
Delderfield has a few wry comments about the inability of men to run their own lives effectively without a female touch. The gradual revealing of Howarth's life story amplifies this theme. It is a beautifully written strand of the story that portrays Howarth as a tragic hero who has given up on love to carry out his vocation.
In many ways Howarth is the most important of the novel's secondary characters. He is David's guide and protector and he gives the story a welcome touch of acidity. Herries on the other hand is an extremely upbeat person with firm ideas on education that David immediately takes to. He appears throughout the novel with sage advice and good humour, but it is clear that he is trying to ignore the modern world. The insistence on good character rather than academic achievement is shown to have disastrous effects when former pupils are forced to face mass unemployment. The effect of losing so many pupils in World War I is etched on his character, and his farewell speech is a masterful restatement of his creed with an emotional impact that never lessens.
What sets this novel apart is the minor characters. Often in other novels, these characters become ciphers with no role other than to move the story along. Delderfield treats these people with extraordinary care by giving them backgrounds and by reintroducing them later in the book to tie up loose ends or to reveal unexpected traits that make them fully-rounded human beings. Very few of these people fail to make an impact in one way or another. This is the case in real life where all of a person's relationships, however short, leave a mark. In this book the reader is very seldom left wondering what happened to a particular character.
In writing the female characters, Delderfield does tend to betray a lack of depth, although the only effect is to make them more likeable. Any faults are brushed aside, but despite this the three central relationships, with Beth Marwood, Julia Darbyshire and Christine Forster, are very well written. Delderfield puts his female characters on pedestals to be adored, and in most cases this works.
Grace, David's daughter, is the only really two-dimensional character in the book. Where others leap off the page she stays steadfastly on it as if she belongs in another book. Maybe Delderfield recognised this himself as her appearances become more perfunctory as the novel reaches a conclusion.
The social history that surrounds this book is fascinating. Sometimes it is a counterpoint to what is happening in the school, and at other times it is in harmony with the prevailing moods. The battle of the miners for decent conditions and the unrest caused by industrial relations in the inter-war years are superbly explained in a way that never becomes didactic. It is the relative infrequency of these forays into the outside world that make them fascinating. The social conditions impact upon David in a personal way that informs his character and his teaching.
The way that Alderman Blunt, a war profiteer, forces through a war memorial to 'honour' the men who slept in his substandard buildings sickens David. Carter's support merely confirms David's opinion of the science master. This leads to the feud between Carter and himself that reaches its height when David is caught up in the General Strike of 1926. Carter jokes that he has been 'hoist by his own petard'. It is an innocuous comment that would have been ignored had it come from anyone else, but it sets off a train of events that end up with David calling Carter a 'trench dodger'.
The Television Adaptation
A 13-part adaptation of this novel was produced by the BBC in 1980. David Powlett-Jones was played by John Duttine (who later starred in the BBC version of Day of the Triffids) while Algy Herries was played by Frank Middlemass. Among the supporting cast were Belinda Lang (2.4 children), Nicholas Lyndhurst, Matthew Waterhouse (Doctor Who) and Philip Franks (Heartbeat). It was, by common consent, an extremely good treatment of the novel. The number of episodes helped, because nearly all of the major plot strands were included. Powlett-Jones' feud with Carter was very well realised, as was the reconciliation and developing friendship. Alcock, Herries' replacement was brilliantly portrayed by Charles Kay (Edge of Darkness) who made him a little more human, and therefore more believable as a moulder of young minds.
The only character noticeably absent was Grace, but this could be seen as an improvement for the reasons outlined above. The casting director obviously had an uncanny eye for detail, because nearly every character appeared to come straight from the page. Frank Middlemass in particular gave a perfect performance as Algy Herries.
A Great Novel
To Serve Them All My Days, for this Researcher at least, is one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century. The way that interest in Delderfield's works has waned is sad, but the public will rediscover his genius. All novelists go in and out of favour, but the epic book will have its day once again and a new generation will give Delderfield his proper place in the pantheon of literary greats.