A Horseman Riding By – R.F. Delderfield

A Horseman Riding By ALB

A historical saga about an Englishman who buys an estate and finds fulfillment in looking after the land and its tenants during the first half of the 20th century. 1966.

When I was a teenager, we spent a summer touring the Southwest with two other families. There were eleven of us in all: three moms, two teenagers, and six kids. Three of those kids were five year olds. We all lived together in a 24-foot RV for three weeks. Three weeks.

As anyone could imagine, the trip was very memorable. One of my favorite memories is when we were trying to squish everyone’s stuff into the RV. My mother looked over at my allotted cubic foot of space and sighed, “Oh Bree, why did you bring that huge book? We hardly have any space, and you’re not even going to finish that!”

Well. I know a challenge when I hear one. I read a hundred pages a day and finished the book in just over a week. Ha! That showed her…(The book, by the way, was Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.)

And yet, that reading experience—as legendary as it was—was NOTHING in comparison to this one. This is a huge book. Actually, it’s two huge books. This is because the first American edition combines the first and second books of the A Horseman Riding By trilogy. More often, it seems readers find the books published as a trilogy (rather than a mega-book and a sequel, The Green Gauntlet).

I’m gonna say it now, and I’m gonna say it later: read it as a trilogy! Read the first book, Long Summer Day. If you love the book (which I’m betting on), think long and hard before continuing the series.

Long Summer Day begins in 1902 with Paul Craddock, a soldier who’s just returned from South Africa, where he’s been fighting in the Boer War. He’s been shot through the knee, and for a while it looks like he might not live, or at the very least he’ll lose his leg. Gradually, he begins to recover, and while he’s lying in the London hospital he wonders what he’ll do with himself. Because of his injury, the military career he’s been training for is now out of the question; he would have a desk job at best.

In his hours of lying in the hospital bed, the marks on the ceiling overhead begin to take on different shapes. He imagines/hallucinates that the shapes are soldiers, armies fighting against one another. These images disturb him so much, he tries to break away from them by straining his head to one side, where he can catch a glimpse of the greenery rustling outside. From this sliver of a view, he discovers a new meaning for life.

With the help of his deceased father’s eccentric business partner (scrap metal! oh my), Paul manages to buy an estate out in the Devon countryside. He has no background as a landowner, nor does he know anything about farming. Paul does, however, make several quick and loyal friends. One of them is the estate agent, who becomes his new best friend as well as advisor. Paul also adopts this little Cockney boy whom he encounters at the scrapyard (and who then becomes my favorite character!). Then there’s this aloof Devon local, a relative of the family who used to own the estate. Paul falls for her almost at first sight, and his decision to buy the estate stems in part from a desire to know her better.

This book has a huge cast, and we’re introduced to them almost from the start. Luckily, the bulk of the cast is the tenant farmers, so they can all be grouped according to family and farm. At this early stage, when Paul is first meeting everybody, each family grouping has a predominant trait: one is lazy, another is friendly, and so forth.

A Horseman Riding By / Long Summer DayOver time, as Paul becomes a member of the community, these families flesh out into individuals, each with their own temperament, histories, and dreams for the future. I really loved this feature of the series. In just a few pages, for instance, you read all about a courtship between a young man and woman, your heart thumping with joy as these two souls find their way toward happiness. After that, you read all about their neighbor, his philosophy on life, and his distrust of this new-fangled machinery. It means that there’s not just one great big story here. Instead, there’s a whole network of stories, and their beginnings and endings are all interwoven.

When I read a book, I want to feel like I understand the characters. Delderfield not only allows you to understand the main characters, through digging deeply into their histories and thoughts, but he extends this same courtesy to even the most minor of characters. It gives the story an all-encompassing sense of realism. By the end, the characters felt like my own friends and neighbors. I actually look forward to many years of looking back on them with fond remembrance.

Long Summer Day covers the years leading up the the first World War, ending in 1910 with the coronation of King George. There’s a bit of political talk, mostly “Tories” versus “Radicals,” with Paul siding with the liberals and making a politician friend. Paul’s first wife is also majorly into women’s suffrage. Then there are some background grumbles about the Kaiser over in Germany. So yes, there’s some politics, but as always it’s about the story, so the characters take the forefront. In other words, if you’re not into politics (as I’m not), this should strike a nice balance. In many ways, it reminded me of The Passing Bells.

Post of Honor covers 1914 to 1940. Yes, there’s one war plus a little bit of the next. This is where I start to complain. Sometimes the war part is dull; sometimes it is just hard to keep straight who’s in what part of France doing what kind of fighting. My biggest complaint, though, and the reason I’d actually advise you to stop after Long Summer Day, is that Post of Honor is a bitter pill to swallow. At one point I felt like everyone whom I’d grown to love in Long Summer Day was now being killed off.

It’s accurate, yes, considering the astounding number of casualties from WWI. But it wasn’t just soldiers who were dying. Perhaps I was just bitter because several of my favorite characters died all within the span of about one hundred pages, and I didn’t see why, for the story to “work,” they all had to die. This section also contained a gross historical inaccuracy pertaining to the Spanish influenza epidemic, which made me want to slap Delderfield for assuming rather than researching. (And then there were the 1920s, which were…missing.)

There’s a part in here, however, that I totally love. On the day the war ends, one of my favorite characters, an easy-going, good-natured farmer, is out in the trenches. He notices the ceasefire, figures the rumors of a treaty must be true after all. So he pops up out of the trenches and starts squishing his way across the muddy no man’s land. His comrades are horrified, convinced he’s going to be the last casualty of the war. Nothing happens, though, and the farmer reaches the German line unharmed. He ends up trading his cigarettes for souvenirs from the Germans soldiers. They ask, through a translator, if he would like to shake hands. Then one of them comments that he looks like a farmer.

Henry was so delighted at this that he seized the Saxon’s hand again and shouted, ‘Youm right first time, Jerry! Now for Chrisaake ‘ow did ‘ee work that one out?’ and after some difficulty, arising perhaps from the officer’s unfamiliarity with the Valley dialect, the officer said Henry’s hands had given him away…

The British officers then yell to Henry to come back to their side, that the war may be over but this is still fraternization. Fraternization is promptly forbidden, and this doesn’t sit well with Henry.

Somehow it never occurred to him that the men he had been fighting all this time were identical, men who, in better times, plodded about tending pigs, herding cows, ploughing up land and banking swedes for winter cattle feed. He had thought of them, if at all, as a race of efficient robots whose trade—if they had one—was war, who had never lived anywhere but in holes in the ground and whose tools included mustard gas and shrapnel. The encounter in no-man’s-land undermined his entire philosophy of war and now, looking back, it seemed to him a very stupid, profitless business and he wanted nothing so much as to be done with it and go home.

It’s sections like this one, taking up only a couple of pages, that makes the book worthwhile. Through these episodes, the narrative flows along, but I wouldn’t call it an easy read. The paragraphs are ridiculously long, frequently taking up an entire page in my large, hardbound edition. Worse, Delderfield has a confusing dialogue quirk: if two characters are having a short back-and-forth, he puts it all in one paragraph. Countless times I read a paragraph and went, “Wait, who said that?” and then had to go back and re-read it. Delderfield also could have used a crash-course in proper comma use.

I’m happy, beyond and doubt, that I read Long Summer Day. It’s fun to complain about because it’s such a big book—-reading without propping it on something actually made my muscles burn—-but I averaged about 120 pages a day without even trying. I’m also happy I continued into Post of Honor, although it was a little disappointing and should have been about 200 pages shorter.

In all, I recommend Long Summer Day whole-heartedly. Post of Honor I recommend with reservations. Personally, I doubt I’ll be finishing the series (unless I get lonely for the characters Delderfield hasn’t killed off…yet). If you stop after Long Summer Day, you can pretend they all live forever! Ah, but they do, in a way…don’t they?! *tear*

4 thoughts on “A Horseman Riding By – R.F. Delderfield

  1. I love Delderfield and this (or rather this series) is my favourite of his books. I have the books in trilogy edition and for years I would stop after the first two, too scared to read The Green Gauntlet and see everything come to an end. When I finally did read it, I cried almost the whole way through. It’s wonderful but when you’re as emotionally attached to the characters as you doubtlessly are by that point, it’s also rather devastating.

    I read Delderfield’s autobiography a few years ago and was so intrigued to find that he really had intended Grace and Paul to have a happy, lengthy marriage and for Claire to be just a minor character!

    • That’s really interesting! I was definitely in favor of Claire, right from the beginning. I also enjoyed that neither of the women were passed over, in terms of depth of characterization. I forgot to mention this in my review, but I was amazed by how well Delderfield fleshed out his female characters just as convincingly as his male ones. I always get irked by male writers who make all their female characters enigmas. Maybe it’s just because, as a female reader, I want to be able to identify with the women—and it’s hard to identify with an enigma!

      Just curious: what other Delderfields have you really liked? I’m open to reading more!

      • The “Avenue” books (set between 1919 and 1947) are enjoyable, though much more modest in scope than this. Delderfield’s “God is an Englishman” series is even more ambitious than “A Horseman Riding By” in terms of characters and time span and, though Adam Swann is different from Paul Craddock in every conceivable way, it’s equally wonderful. The Serve Them All My Days is good but I’ve never really clicked with it.

        • I’ve looked into To Serve Them All My Days before, but I admit the whole “teaching at a boys’ school” theme isn’t something I see myself relating to. The Avenue series definitely looks like the next series I’ll try. I like the idea of a more “modest” Delderfield—sometimes the rapid passing of the years made individual episodes feel a little…insignificant, somehow? Thanks for the recommendation!

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