[Narrator February arrives at a rather grand party at the same time as an old acquaintance, another teenager]
Without speaking, Helen and I gave one another a critical once-over, to see which was on top. She was easily; indeed, she had changed entirely in the few months since we last met. Her hair, long before, had been cut short and swept up with a highly artificial effect of casualness, on top of her head. She wore lipstick, high-heeled silver shoes, and a fur wrap, which she handed, with a gracious smile, to a maid. Underneath she had on a long-sleeved frock of blue moire silk and altogether looked about 17 instead of not yet 14 – my age.
“Pretty frock,” I commented. My own red velvet dress had belonged to my mother in her youth.
“Oh, this old tea-gown. Lelia bought it for me in Paris last September. It’s absurdly demode , of course, but all right for the country. I rather like yours too – velvet has such old-fashioned ingenue charm. And doesn’t red have something to do with hunting? You still ride I suppose?”
“Toujours le tomboy…”
commentary: This was one of my favourite books when I was a child: I had managed to find a cut-price hardback in one of Liverpool’s splendid bookshops, and I read and re-read it: the dust-jacket long ago fell into tatters. Heroine February lives a comfortable life in the affluent south – there are boarding-schools, ponies, and – get this – the children are going to have a parent-sponsored DANCE in their barn, inviting their schoolfriends. The grown-up cocktail party above is a very posh affair indeed, given by the local MP, with titled guests.
Well, as the Irish say, it was far from ponies & private dances that I was raised, but I loved every moment of February’s Road, then and now - and as it happens I moved down south and live maybe 30 miles from the Callendars’ converted-farmhouse-with-eight-acres (at least according to the map in the endpages – maps so often lost in paperbacks and library-bound editions, another great gift from the bargain find).
February is a splendid heroine – relatable despite the privilege, and telling an excellent story of road-building, devastated landscapes, and possible corruption, a story that is just as relevant in 2018 as in 1961. She is funny and witty and endearing, as is her whole family. Verney wrote very well, and certainly made a good job of getting inside a young girl’s head – if I read the passage above blind, I would swear a woman wrote it.
I never hear John Verney mentioned these days, though in his day his children’s books, and his memoir of war (which I kept taking out of the library because I thought it was another children’s book) were all well-known. I guess his affluent middle-class settings are not to modern tastes – though in this book there is a funny passage where February considers the expensive education she and her brother are getting at boarding-school, while her younger sisters go to the village school for nothing and apparently learn much more. It’s a pity that he’s forgotten, because this book has great charm as well as an interesting cause at its heart.
He was a marvellous illustrator of other people’s books as well as his own - he did the illos for some editions of the much-loved Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge. The pictures in February’s Road are wonderful – here’s one of them, the children cleaning up the barn ready for their teenagers’ dance (I know, I’m obsessed with this event – which, spoiler, doesn’t actually happen - it was just so different from any kind of life that I had ever come across…)
One feature that puzzled me as a child and still does so many years later: there is a character in the book who is called Mike Spillergun. Simple Spoonerism suggests that this is meant to be Spike Milligan, but the book character is a crusading journalist and columnist, and doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the British comedian. It’s a mystery.
Blue dress is from Kristine’s photostream.