Xmas Theatre, Xmas in Manchester

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page. You’d think I’d be running out of Xmas books and scenes by now, but far from it – I have to begin this feature earlier in December each year. More ideas still welcome in the comments.

Holy Deadlock by AP Herbert

published 1934

Euston Theatre of Varieties

‘Christmas in Manchester!’ thought Mary. ‘Oh, dear!’

The curtain fell for the ninth time. The National Anthem came through the curtain, muffled, like the bath-water of the man-next-door, and Mary, sighing and depressed, tripped away to her dressing-room through the busy crowd of stage-hands. Everything was marvellous: the play was a winner and herself the winning jockey. The audience loved her – for a ‘second night’, even on a Christmas Eve they had been ‘grand’ – and dear Figgie was pleased with her, and loved her, and thought she was marvellous; and he said the play would be even more of a winner in London.

Tomorrow was Christmas Day, a whole free day at last, without rehearsals, performances, or fusses, no ‘shop’ at all except perhaps for a word or two with Figgie over a glass of champagne. And yet, ungratefully, she sighed and was depressed. The truth was, she wanted to fling off her Third Act dress, hurry into an old coat and skirt, have one drink at the hotel for luck, dash away to the station and catch the midnight train to London. Always before, after a Christmas opening at Manchester, she had done that: and it was fun to drive through London in the foggy dawn of Christmas morning, tired, grubby, but happy.

commentary: If you tried to guess what kind of a novel Holy Deadlock is from this passage, I don’t think you would get it right. Actress – theatre – touring the provinces – stagestruck girls and backstage parties.

In fact the reason she can’t go to London is because
She did not dare…. There would be a party somewhere, she would stay out after curfew time, something indiscreet would happen, and the King’s Proctor would hear of it. So she would stay in Manchester for Christmas and be good.
The divorce laws in England and Wales between the wars were ridiculous and anomalous, they were unfair and made no sense. AP Herbert (who trained as a lawyer, wrote a lot, and became an MP) worked hard to try to rationalize the laws of divorce (while having a long-term happy marriage himself) and this book was, surprisingly, one of his weapons.

Mary is theoretically the ‘innocent party’ in her divorce, but because of the bizarre and draconian rules, the dissolution of her marriage will not go ahead if she is found to have slept with someone. In fact her husband John is doing the decent thing, trying to give her evidence of his (imaginary) adultery.

Yes it is complicated. And Herbert throws absolutely everything into it: John and Mary are lovely people, who want to do right by each other, but the law is implacable. For the sake of the plot, everything goes wrong that possibly can.

Although the book is entertaining and light-hearted in some ways, the parade of disaster is hard to take, and it gets rather repetitious in the middle – especially as you know from the nature of the book that they are NOT going to get their divorce quickly. But the final twists and turns of an endgame court case become absolutely compelling, and I had to stay up till the early hours to find out what was going to happen.

It's a thoughtful and memorable book, and very funny at times, but with an air of melancholy and regret: surely no-one could read it and not agree with the simplification of the laws.

Mary’s Christmas is going to be more enjoyable than she expects – but the consequences will be disastrous.

The faking of adultery was a key plotline in Sarra Manning’s marvellous new book, House of Secrets, on the blog in August – Sarra praises Holy Deadlock in her acknowledgements to her own book.

And the business of divorce popped up also in Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers, and also plays a key part in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust.

The picture isn’t Manchester and isn’t Christmas Eve, and is music hall rather than a straight play, but did seem to have the air of a theatre full of life and excitement at a key moment in the year. It’s from the Athenaeum, and shows the Euston Theatre of Varieties by Thérèse Lessore.


  1. You're right, Moira. I wouldn't have guessed just from the bit you shared what the main plot point was going to be. It's sad that the divorce laws were the way they were, and it's interesting to explore their impact. I know what you mean, too, about a fictional court case that keeps you up at night to find out what the outcome is. It does sound like an interesting exploration of the era, and that in itself can be worth reading.

    1. Court cases are always such winners aren't they? The reader can't resist reading on to find out what happens. Herbert makes clear what a mess the divorce laws were - but also has a good writerly touch, and knows how to put a novel together.

  2. Manchester could be risky too: Max Beerbohm's fiancée, the actress Constance Collier, broke off her engagement to him because when she was on tour "The leading man was very tall and handsome. We got to Manchester and - well, you know how it is on tour."

    1. Then for some people there was a theory that 'OTDCD' - 'on tour doesn't count darling'. Also said about being on location. I'd be more surprised if actors didn't have affairs with each other - thrown together the whole time, acting out emotional scenes...

  3. Actually sounds quite interesting TBH. I quite expected to be BAH HUMBUGGING it.

    1. I'm surprised too! You must have been touched by some Christmas spirit. It is a good book....

  4. It does sound very interesting. I would have hated to have to go through that to get a divorce.

    1. It certainly makes homicide sound like an attractive option.

    2. Surely no-one could think that was a good system. And Shay - yes, asking for murders...


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