Faint lights at sunset… or on the horizon

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Random Harvest, James Hilton

From 1941, James Hilton’s novel Random Harvest… a really excellent cover with just the credit ‘Reeves’ in the corner. It’s the book of the film which I mentioned here. It was a best-seller in the forties (second on the New York Times list of bestsellers for the year). James Hilton is another of those authors unfairly lost in time because of a mis-informed assumption that the work is simply reinforcing bland, reactionary values. He’s actually analysing class and small-mindedness as well as anyone. For example:

“Have you ever been going somewhere with a crowd and you’re certain it’s the wrong road and you tell them, but they won’t listen, so you just have to plod along in what you know is the wrong direction till somebody more important gets the same idea?”

Hilton worked in Hollywood from the 1930s and was involved with some of the most well-loved films of the era such as Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon. I saw the latter at my grandma’s house as a small child, fascinated as Ronald Colman rescued the love of his life from a magical Himalayan valley. I remember my grandma telling me to wait and see what happened. It was worth it, as she knew, because the rescued girl shrivelled into a 200-year-old crone the moment she stepped from the magic valley, which had us in fits.

Hilton also created the story and the film Mrs Miniver from Jan Struther’s diaries, which along with Went the Day Well is a classic wartime morale-booster.

Road Through the Woods, Pamela Frankau

Road Through the Woods (1960) was bought for the cover initially (not that I didn’t check it was worth reading) but I soon discovered another once well-known and regarded author in Pamela Frankau. J B Priestley wrote that her work ‘just gets better and better… with every word she writes her pen is sharper’. Frankau was also part of Rebecca West’s circle. I want to know why she disappeared, so she’s a name I look out for when browsing the unloved and forgotten in second-hand bookshops.

The Distant Horns of Summer, H E Bates

And finally H E Bates, from 1967. His time will come again without doubt. Just now, those horns of summer seem way behind us. Britain has just had the most beautiful summer in years, so autumn is a little more melancholy this year. Pan has gone away for now…

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9 thoughts on “Faint lights at sunset… or on the horizon

    • So many ways to design a book cover – I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but lots of book covers over here take inspiration from covers of the 30s up to the 50s just now, but still look contemporary… you see more handwritten fonts and illustration too. I think it’s part of people appreciating what’s special about owning a book when a Kindle takes a lot of the ‘experience’ away. Hope you blog your ideas for your cover for your motherhood anthology.

  1. What a great selection! I admire your quest to uncover these old gems. Makes me want to go on an expedition to my local used bookstore. Who’s to say why writers fade away. Doesn’t make them any less spectacular. For to tell a story — and a good one at that — is timeless.

    • Yes, it’s a mystery why some just fall by the wayside – mostly because they are associated with a particular era and people want perspectives on life ‘now’ I suppose. But then, it’s the universal ideas that people wrestle with that makes writing live for centuries, like you say, that brings us back to them. A lot of the novels I read now are from a different era and they seem fresh and interesting, whereas a few years ago I was reading lots of current stuff – which seemed quite predictable after a while.

      • I purchased Random Harvest. On Kindle. Which obviously is not as gratifying as plumbing the depths of a used bookstore, but it gets me the words and the story nonetheless. It’s wonderful! I’m a few chapters in, and the writing is amazing. Especially the dialogue. I’ve become enamored with this new author. “New” to me, that is. Yet the cover — you mentioned being drawn to the covers of old. Hand-drawn fonts, a certain style of artistic renderings. The cover in your post seems a more apt depiction of the storyline (from what I’ve read so far) than that offered on the Kindle, or other paperback forms for sale online. Yours shows the mountains and the small lake. Mine is wholly consumed by a woman with her toes in the water, sumptuous and beautiful, with a handsome older man off to the side admiring her. I wonder, then, if you had found an edition with my cover, if you’d have been as inclined to peruse and then purchase it? It looks like the cover of a romance. When it is so much more than that. The mystery, the study of human nature, the taut descriptions of the secondary characters — thank you for introducing me to such a great read.

      • So great you were inspired to look it up! I read it four or five years ago and agree it has quite a hold. I’m fascinated by book covers – as you can probably guess from the blog – and it’s a shame the book isn’t available in a decent reprint, although just found that it seems to have been reissued with an original cover

        The whole area of how books and films are marketed means a lot of great stuff misses its true market I think. I knew Random Harvest from the film (watch it after the book!) so would have picked it up in this case because it was my grandad’s favourite film. But a lot gets lost. So many interesting films get written and then mangled by studios by focusing on any available conventional romance element, and if they do get made, they can get plastered with a rom-com title and packaging. (It’s quite a laugh to see how even really critically respected, complex films get transferred to DVD with blurbs that end up sounding like Cinderella – I imagine a lot of disappointed customers in some cases!)

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