Warwick Deeping

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By Rudolph Robert
To many people, even educated and well-read people, it may come as a surprise to learn that Southend-on-Sea has a number of interesting literary associations. For example, Sir Edwin Arnold wrote his great poem The Light of Asia while living in the town in a house that was, alas, demolished. Benjamin Disraeli, who was a distinguished novelist as well as a politician, visited Southend twice, in 1833 and 1834, when in the middle of his writing career, and found the surroundings not only stimulating but ‘very pretty.’ G. Warwick Deeping, with whose life and work this article is concerned, was actually born in Southend, and therefore holds a special place in the esteem and affections of its residents. True, the novels that he wrote, inclining as they do to sentimentality and uplift, are the very antithesis of dominant trends in contemporary fiction. His moral and intelligent story-lines, like his plots and characters were considered to be distinctly old fashioned not ‘with it’ and yet, as even the most cynical critic must agree, the old novels, like the old songs, are often the best. Medical Studies The son of George Davidson Deeping, J.P., George Warwick was born in 1877, at a time when books were still the principal means of obtaining entertainment and instruction. Other forms of distraction were virtually non-existent, for the cinematograph, the radio receiver, the television set and even the gramophone had yet to be invented. Authors able to weave tales that ‘held the young from play and kept old men from the chimney corner were honoured and revered to a degree that is almost inconceivable today, when a star footballer ranks higher than even the most distinguished man of letters. Prospect House, which stood opposite the Royal hotel at the end of the High Street in Southend, was Warwick Deeping’s birthplace and there he spent the earliest years of his life. When presently, while he was still an infant, his parents moved it was to no great distance no further, in fact, than Royal Terrace, where Princess Caroline had spent a holiday earlier in the century. From the upstairs windows of the new house the growing boy could look over what are now the cliff gardens, and watch the endless procession of ships passing into and out of the estuary. No doubt he also studied for he had ample opportunity the behaviour of a typical cross-section of Victorian society, from the very young to the very old. Deeping’s father was a doctor, doing well and therefore in a position to give his son a good education. George Warwick was in due course sent to Merchant Taylors’ School and to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his BA, MA and MB degrees. The original intention had been that he should following his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and become a doctor. On leaving the university, therefore, he went to the Middlesex Hospital, London, to complete his training and gain practical experience. For about a year he actually practised as a doctor, and then as so many others have done from Keats to Cronin abandoned medicine for literature. His earliest books, however, lacked confidence and made little impression on the reading public. Soon after World War 1 had started Deeping joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and saw active service in Gallipoli, Egypt and France, and though this put a temporary stop to his writing the Army helped to mature him and deepen his understanding of life. Out of those wartime experiences came, in 1925, Sorrell and Son the work that first established him as a popular novelist. Despite its well-worn theme that of a father’s sacrifice for his son it marked a great improvement on the novels that had gone before. The characters were real, and their story was told very adroitly and with complete conviction. Sixty Books Deeping had, in fact, by then developed his talent to the fullest possible extent. More and more books flowed from his pen, Roper’s Row, Corn in Egypt, Mr Slade, and Mr Gurney and Mr Slade being among the most popular. None of them was a masterpiece indeed, he never again quite reached the standard of Sorrell and Son - but all appealed to the wide circle of readers he had made his own and whose loyalty was unfailing to the end. The secret of his success is not difficult to explain. His books are not only competently written, but have a sense of purpose. They are a little staid and unimaginative, but have the compensating virtues of common sense, healthy optimism and sincerity. Altogether Warwick Deeping wrote over sixty books. Their range is wide, but three at least have a specifically county interest. Two of them have already been mentioned above Mr Slade (1943) and Mr Gurney and Mr Slade (1944), in which the setting is the late Victorian Southend he had known as a boy. The same applies to The Dark House, which was published in 1941 and is therefore, in point of time, the first of his local novels. Among the characters in this book are two Dr and Mrs Richmond who were modelled on his own parents. Publisher’s Tribute Warwick Deeping died on 20th April 1950, at Weybridge, in his seventy-third year. Newman Flower, his publisher, has left it on record that he was one of the most modest men he had ever known, ‘hating the limelight and avoiding publicity like the plague.” He had a struggle to establish himself, but once that success came, with Sorrel and Son, he did not change. As a friend, according to Mr Newman Flower’s testimony, he was generous to a fault ‘one of those very fine men who gave to everyone.” He never boasted about the success he had achieved; in fact he never spoke about his books unless the subject was raised by someone else. With advancing age he became more and more retiring, shunning the crowds, the newspaper reporters, and the autograph hunters. He continued, however, to observe human beings and the new post-war environment in which they lived. He went on writing, too not for greater fame or more money but simply because of a total dedication to his craft. Work, for Warwick Deeping, was life.
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