#1940 Club: He Looked for a City by A.S.M. Hutchinson

My last read for the #1940 club is of a once popular author, now fallen into obscurity. A.S.M. Hutchinson. Born in india in 1879, and later editor of the illustrated London newspaper, The Daily Graphic, Hutchinson was also a novelist of repute who wrote such best-sellers as If Winter Comes and This Freedom.

The novel under discussion today was almost his last novel, published in 1940. The book begins with the death of the vicar of St. Luke’s at Upton Springs. The people are greatly inconvenienced by the death because it occurs just five days before Christmas and with the funeral being held on Christmas eve, the villagers are more concerned about last minute arrangements and shopping rather than the man who had served them for thirty long years.

The book then goes back into the past on the very day, the Reverend Gordon-Brecque had come to Upton Springs and taken up the position of the vicar at St. Luke’s. He had been accompanied by his wife, Laura and four children: John, Mary, Philip and the infant Ruth. Also accompanying the family was a German girl, Minna, who was nanny to the kids and almost an adopted daughter of Laura and Gordon after they had rescued her from a brothel’s madam. The first part of the novel deals with the problems facing the vicar esp as his teachings are seen as heretic: He asks his people to visualise God as a great intelligence without any visible form rather than as a person; is friendly towards priests of other churches, esp the Rev. Hope Hubbard who is disliked because of his rather ‘popish’ rituals. We also see the children grow up. John who is a dreamer and dislikes the physical ethos of the public schools of that time unlike Philip who revels in games and sports and wants to ride the high waves; Mary who is earnest but too stiff while Ruth has a large-heart but is also frivolous. As the children grow up, John becomes a master in a school and a budding poet whose poems show a great deal of promise while Philip joins the merchant navy. However, the placid life of the vicarage is shattered by the war.

The second part of the novel deals with the war. John who is a pacifist doesn’t join the armed forces while his brother is taken into the Royal navy, Mary becomes an ambulance driver in France while Ruth, once she comes of age becomes a Waac. Meanwhile Minna is persecuted by the village community who already angry at John for not having joined the forces now accuse the vicar of harboring a spy. The vicar himself is ridiculed because he doesn’t ask the congregation to hate the Germans. He tells them instead that the war is the result of people turning their faces away from God and Christ and that their sufferings are alike. I found this section of the book to be pretty powerful. The debates between John and the other characters about his decision made for some riveting reading as the author presented both sides of the argument and while I respected John’s principles, I also admitted the force of the vicar’s statement that sometimes individual principles have to be sacrificed in front of national principles. The harassment faced by Minna while epitomizing herd-mentality is also inevitable in times of international conflicts. The section doesn’t end well for the vicarage and I teared-up at the end of it. Since I was in the Metro, I just closed the book at that time.

After the highs of the second section, the third which is about how they pick-up the broken pieces of their lives did not have that kind of power. Two of the children get married, one tries to take up a job while Gordon and Laura, now middle-aged, cope with the vagaries of life. Upton Springs also develops with new attractions coming up. Politics enters the vicarage and it becomes difficult for Gordon to hold on to his principles. Meanwhile there are tragedies of other kind too…

I enjoyed discovering this author and as said before really enjoyed the second part of the novel when it became a novel of ideas. The author is not dismissive of any of the various ideas and gives adequate space to all. Also I thought that it was good of the author to present such a positive German character at the time when England was involved in another war with Germany. While I have little idea of the Anglican Church, the Reverend was the kind of person I would like all religious gurus to be. Not disdainful of other religions, preaching love rather than hate, and full of understanding and goodwill.

I will definitely be searching more of the author’s bks.

Have you read him?


First Line: It was just like the vicar, one couldn’t help feeling, to have chosen to die five days before Christmas.

Publication Details: 1940. London: Michael Joseph, 1940

Pages: 425


8 thoughts on “#1940 Club: He Looked for a City by A.S.M. Hutchinson

  1. IT sounds as though this book explores some powerful ideas, Neeru. And I liked tit that it does so in the context of individuals’ lives, rather than in the abstract. It must have taken courage for Hutchinson to explore those controversial ideas at a time when there was so much war fervor.

    Liked by 1 person

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