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James Hanley: Against the Stream

Hanley’s final published novel (though it is a rewrite of an earlier one) pursues the same theme of his earlier ones, the enclosed environment and the effect of the people in that environment of this enclosure. This one has a slight difference but the principle is the same. The story is about a run down house called Greys, in the Welsh countryside. It is owned by Gabriel Mortimer and his wife, Celia. However, they shares it with his two brothers – Geoffrey and the defrocked priest, Arthur, and his two sisters, the widow Agatha and the spinster Isobel. There are also two servants, Joan, the housekeeper, and Thomas, who has not been paid in three years and who wants to marry Joan. Gabriel and Celia have a daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was attracted to an army officer, Lieutenant Dolphin, and married him, against her parent’s wishes. However, when the war was over, Dolphin turned out to be merely a good-hearted lorry driver. She soon got tired of him, though not before producing a son – Robert – and ran off with a man called Christopher to Italy.

At the start of the novel, Dolphin has just died in the run down lodgings he and Robert share. Robert only knows that his father won’t wake up and, indeed, shares a bed with the corpse for two days. However, when the police find out, Thomas is dispatched to bring him to Greys. His reception is mixed. The older people are not used to having a child around the place and Gabriel, in particular, is not happy about it. Agatha welcomes him as the child she never had. Geoffrey is also happy to have a temporary son to go fishing with. Arthur, still guilt-ridden about his failure as a priest two years later remains in his room as he has done for the past two years. Robert, for his part, is not happy. He misses his father and does not relish sharing a home with a crowd of grown-ups who don’t seem to want him or love him. His inevitable reaction is destruction, leading to a showdown where both Gabriel and then Celia hit him and he runs away and hides. He ends up getting ill. At this point, Mrs. Dolphin, Dolphin’s mother, turns up to claim her grandson. (Robert has spent some time at her house, so he knows her.) The final choice is Robert’s.

Hanley’s final novel is one of his best. The decaying Mortimers and their varying reactions to the incursion of first Robert and then Mrs. Dolphin are superbly portrayed. Each Mortimer is separate and distinct, with his/her own foibles, as are the two servants, particularly the slightly odd Thomas. But, unlike some of his earlier novels, it is the closed environment that wins and Robert is sucked in.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Horizon