A bookshop made for R F Delderfield

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R F Delderfield (1912-1972) was a popular writer with a talent for telling epic, decade-spanning novels that are still in print today. He was decidedly mainstream, probably quite reactionary, but not without sensitivity. Many of his books were made into lengthy TV adaptations that ran for months on BBC TV in the late seventies/early eighties.

The most successful of these was To Serve Them All My Days, about a teacher from a working class background who returns shell-shocked from service in World War One and takes up a post at a public school in Devon. Several of Delderfield’s novels are set in the Westcountry and his affection for and appreciation for the region and its landscape runs through his work.

In 1983 Andrew Davies (now famous for his version of Pride and Prejudice) adapted Diana, which was a combination of two novels from the early sixties, There Was a Fair Maid Dwelling and The Unjust Skies.

It follows sixteen-year-old John Leigh who has returned from Brixton, London, to his mother’s birthplace in Devon. There he meets Diana, daughter of the wealthy family at the local manor. She proceeds to infatuate him through the 1930s, as he becomes a journalist and moves to London, and into World War Two and the French Resistance. Davies adopted a Brideshead-style voiceover as Leigh looks back on the story and it seems to be quite a cult guilty-pleasure these days with internet message boards anxious for a DVD release.

No, it's not a royal wedding - Kevin McNally and Jenny Seagrove played the roles of Jan and Diana in the BBC TV adaptation from 1983

I remember watching this when I must have been about 12 – impressed by the Devonshire setting and moorland I could relate to, and the Dickens-ish Great Expectations aspects.

Diana and Jan (she renames him, with the confidence of her class, because John is ‘too dull’, but also because her favourite book is Lorna Doone) meet around the moorland which is covered in yellow gorse and purple heather. They call it ‘Sennacharib’, after Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold…

I’ve remembered these lines over the years, even today when the gorse comes out and smells of coconut, and the moors really are armoured in purple and gold. I’m not sure how well the books stand up today – it’s years since I read one – though at his best Delderfield has been compared to John Galsworthy.

There’s another scene in the TV series however which is all credit to Andrew Davies’ adaptation – it doesn’t appear in the book.

In the early days, Jan saves up to buy Diana a leather-bound edition of Lorna Doone. The bookshop he goes to is a bit special because the owner, Miss Westcott, is a fantastically no-nonsense, straightforward and genuine type (the like of which have faded away). It’s just a small role from character actress Mary Morris, but it’s a moment that I want to capture – because she loves books above all, because she is generous with her learning and kindness and most of all because of the way she says ‘Knowledge is power’.

In the first scene, Jan meets Diana’s old governess in the bookshop…

Later, Jan returns to collect the book and Miss Westcott explains why she is running an empty shop in a tiny Devonshire village…

I believe some of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Drewsteignton village (mentioned in this post here.)

I’ve included an interview with R F Delderfield’s daughter from 1983 below – click to view.

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4 thoughts on “A bookshop made for R F Delderfield

  1. When I was a child I loved his The Adventures of Ben Gunn, a prequel to Treasure Island. In fact I thought it was much better than Treasure Island. I haven’t reread it since then. It was on Abebooks last time I looked.

    • Thanks, I’ll have a look – I think he’s a writer who could turn his hand to many things, was prolific and honest about writing for a living – none of which gets much respect when judging an author’s worth it seems.

      I enjoyed reading about Carel Weight in your blog – I was looking for a copy of ‘The Go-Between’ back in January and found the Folio edition so googled so see what the illustrations might be like, not having known of him before. Genuinely fascinating paintings – a great find.

  2. “I’m not a person to compromise. I opened a bookshop in Devon.” – I want to live in Italy and I want to own a bookshop, if only it were that easy!

    My mum persuaded me to read Diana (I was always very daunted by the size of it!) I really enjoyed the first part, when the characters were young and passionate. But what I really have to thank Diana for is that it made me pick up an old copy of Lorna Doone (that I had also put to the side because of i’s daunting length). Both are great books!

    I should really try to find a copy of the adaptation for Diana. I like the two clips shown above!

    (PS. Sorry if I posted this more than once, my Internet went funny and I’m not sure if it posted the first time I tried!)

    • Yes, I think you’d have to be a dog or a cat to be so free of compromise! Pleased to hear it’s still a good read. I think maybe ‘A Fair Maid Dwelling’ is better realised and they’d work better as separate novels again. Interested to hear that Lorna Doone is great, I’ve tried to get going with it several times but it seems really unwieldy, lots of perseverance needed next time then…

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