Rear-view review: The Tumbled House

Winston Graham
The Tumbled House
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1959)

I could have chosen to review any one of a number of Winston Graham’s contemporary novels: Fortune is a Woman (1952), later filmed starring Jack Hawkins; The Walking Stick (1967), filmed starring David Hemmings, and, of course, Marnie (1961), filmed starring Sean Connery.

Why The Tumbled House? Well, there’s a Fleet Street angle, obviously appealing to me given my trade. There’s the atmospherics of professional middle-class London on the eve of the 1960s. Above all, there’s the fact that an apparently-trivial incident at the start of the book is to set off a sequence of events that will upend the lives of the three central characters.

In this it resembles Nigel Balchin’s novel A Way through the Wood (1951), filmed in 2005 as Separate Lies.

Graham was born in Manchester but moved to my mother’s native Cornwall and became a friend of the family, playing tennis with my uncle and inscribing my copy of The Tumbled House to my grandparents, ‘Reg and Tony’ (my grandmother’s maiden name was Stone, and her fellow nurses called her Tony, lest you thought we were rather more advanced than was the case).

Central to The Tumbled House is the question of whether Sir John Marlowe, recently departed distinguished lawyer turned philosopher, is a bounder who cribbed chunks of his best-selling book Crossroads from the lesser-known work of a clergyman, with whom he had enjoyed a friendship. Yes, says an anonymous newspaper columnist, ‘Moonraker’. Marlowe’s son Don, an orchestra conductor with a rising reputation, says no, as does his sister Bennie, an air stewardess in the days when such a position was considered aspirational for a gal of good family.

Don’s wife Joanna is generally supportive, but she is hiding a guilty secret, which is that, when Don was away on a recent concert tour, she rekindled an old relationship with Roger Shorn, a high-flying journalist who describes himself as ‘a season-ticket holder’ at the divorce courts. They spent the night in the late Sir John’s Sussex cottage and, other than a fleeting appearance of a woman’s face at the window, they seem to have got away with their fling.

Shorn is a friend of the family, a status that is swiftly revoked when it emerges that he and ‘Moonraker’ are one and the same person. Joanna has a particular, secret reason to feel hard done by:

‘Tell me, darling, did you sleep with me that time in Sussex just for the joy of going through John Marlowe’s private papers?’
Here it came. ‘You ask me that?’
‘Should I not?’
‘Certainly you should not.’
She said: ‘Well, you have to admit it was a very convenient way of combining business with pleasure.’

Don wants to clear his father’s name, but runs into the formidable obstacle that dead men cannot sue. There is, of course, the caveat that live ones can, so he libels Shorn, in the hope that the journalist will start court proceedings, Marlowe will defeat him and his father’s reputation will be restored. Normally, Shorn would have shrugged it off, but he is hoping to be appointed editor of a national paper by Sir Percy Laycock, a retail tycoon who has heard the siren song of the Street of Shame. Laycock is uprightly religious and believes Shorn must give the lie to Marlowe Junior’s suggestions that he is, inter alia, a louse and a fungus.

Everything henceforward is a spoiler, so be alerted.

Inexorably, the libel action of Shorn v Marlowe grinds towards the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court. Shorn’s counsel puts his case thus:

‘[G]reat reputations bear a heavy burden. The higher they ride the more unassailable must they be to the enquiries of the biographer, the historian, the seeker after truth. The responsible journalist fails in his responsibility if he allows repute to stand when he sincerely believes it to be undeserved, whether that repute belongs to a dead man or to a living.’

Marlowe knew that Joanna had spent a night at the cottage but not with whom. That blissful ignorance is blown away when the woman whose face had appeared at the window is called as a witness.

In a plot within the plot, Shorn’s son Michael falls in love with Bennie Marlowe and she eventually agrees to marry him. Michael is brilliantly drawn, an apparently cheerful, even irrepressible, character who, underneath it all, is sad. He was sent down from Cambridge and his father is determined to push him towards a carer in journalism or publishing, while his real passion is engineering.

The relationship naturally creates some awkwardness within their respective families. A level-headed young woman, Bennie is not in love with Michael but agrees to an engagement. Unable to live on the pittance he is paid by a publishing firm, he falls in with a bad lot and takes part in theft and burglary on the side.

During one such enterprise, he is shot, and the bullet cannot be removed. While convalescing, his father visits and tells him he has lined up for Michael a dream job:

‘Not engineering in its narrowest sense but possibly an approach to industry and engineering through journalism…’ Michael didn’t speak until his father was on the top step.
‘I’d really love that.’

It is not to be. The bullet finally kills him just as Shorn wins a pyrrhic victory in his libel action – only £10 damages and a rider from the jury to the effect that John Marlowe is cleared of all the accusations made against him. It had emerged during the trial that the clergyman had insisted on no acknowledgement from Sir John on learning that the latter did not intend to base Crossroads on a Christian theme.

So Shorn has lost a son and barely won a libel action. He loses also the chance of an editorship – Sir Percy, having listened to the evidence in the trial, has ‘come to the reluctant conclusion that you are not a man I would be happy to see in the editorial chair of The Globe’.

All he is left with is Sir Percy’s daughter Marion, with whom he has formed an attachment.

Don Marlowe is bereft as well, losing both the libel case and his adulterous wife. Or so it seems. He is heading to an engagement in Scotland, and, at the station, she suggests accompanying him:

‘We can – talk it out on the train.’
He orders two tickets to Edinburgh.
‘Single or return, sir?’ said the clerk.
Don looked at his wife. A stray breeze was blowing her hair. She looked back at him with glittering embarrassed eyes.
‘Return,’ he said.

One of my favourite Winston Graham stories involved his research for one of his novels, during the course of which he asked my grandfather, a doctor and the county medical officer, to arrange for him to witness an eye operation. Cautioning ‘WG’ that such operations were pretty gruesome, my grandfather did as he was asked.

As the surgeon removed the anaesthetised patient’s eye from its socket and lay it on his cheek, there was a loud thud as the great novelist passed out cold on the floor of the operating theatre.

Just a last thought. Haven’t I done well to get to the end without mentioning the dread word ‘Poldark’?

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