It can be unnerving starting to read a book knowing a number of other people really didn’t like it at all. I plucked Four Frightened People off the shelf – not even sure where I had got it – intrigued by the title and the blurb, I think it was one my sister found me in a charity shop, alerted to it by the dark green Virago spine. A few pages in and I discovered it was referred to as ‘that book’ by members of the Librarything Virago group – whose opinion I trust. My heart sank. I had started a dud; the trouble was I couldn’t put it down. Well I suppose by now we are all very well aware of how opinions on books can differ greatly, and Four Frightened People is a case in point. Although I do understand why some people dislike it and there were elements which made me uncomfortable, I enjoyed it a lot.
Four Frightened People propelled its author E. Arnot Robertson to literary fame in the early 1930’s- she had already enjoyed some success with her previous novels, but it was this novel that was highly acclaimed and re-printed numerous times. I can see why it was such a bestseller.
Judy Corder a no-nonsense, twenty-six year doctor, recovering from a broken love affair, is travelling with her cousin Stewart on a slow ship to Singapore. The heat is almost unbearable, 107◦ in the shade, and there is no shade, and here these two now cynical, old childhood playmates are incarcerated with their fellow passengers who include the slightly pompous Arnold Ainger – a married civil servant, and linguist and Mrs Mardick a hearty, managing woman, whose persistent good cheer and garrulousness soon sets all their teeth on edge. Furtive activity under cover of darkness among the Chinese crewmen alert Judy and Arnold to the danger on board – plague has broken out, and the terrified crew are already disposing of the bodies out of sight of their western passengers. Judy has selfishly hidden her profession from her fellow passengers – doesn’t want to have to hand out free medical advice – nice girl!
Judy, Arnold and Stewart hit upon the idea of leaving the ship at the next port and then travel over land on foot through the Malay jungle to Kintaling from where they can secure safer passage back to England. Stupidly Judy dresses for the jungle in silk stocking and some kind of flimsy sounding shoes – which she soon has cause to regret. At the moment of departure they find they must take Mrs Mardick with them, whose cool acceptance of the situation is almost unnerving.
“…after we had watched the ship sail, a thing of such beauty in the night, jewelled with tiers of light, that it was hard to believe that she carried the pollution and wretchedness we knew to be aboard. She was not far from us, but before we heard the rattle of the cabl;e coming home we saw the phosphorescence, a thin ghost of fire, a milky radiance just discernible against the black water at that distance, light faintly under her stern and drip from the stem as the anchor came up. I have never seen this living gleam in the water in the water, before or since, as brilliant as it was that night.”
Once on land things never ever get any easier. Their proposed journey of a few days – turns into weeks, weeks of adventure and peril in an inhospitable environment. They hire – ‘a guide’ Deotlan who is later joined by his former lover Wan Nau, Deotlan is part Malay, part European, his English is passable, his knowledge of the Malay jungle only slightly better than that of his clients, he is staunchly proud of his European heritage, although this has left him somewhat isolated from both communities.
Here, deep in the Malay jungle, civilisation has been abandoned to an extent, and the true natures of each of the group are brought to the fore. In the midst of their trek, they encounter wild animals, sickness, hunger, and come to make some shocking decisions which impact on others in the group. Judy recognises and ruminates on her own sexual desires, especially as they may relate to the two men who are her companions. Judy can appear arrogant, at first I found her cool, and not very likeable – but I warmed to her as the novel progressed. She is in many ways a modern woman, she knows what she wants, she’s intelligent and she is certainly unlike many female characters of this period, she chooses her own lover, and accepts the likely transitory nature of their relationship.
Which all brings me to the many reasons that a lot of people won’t like this book – and I acknowledge they are very real reasons – I’m not even sure why I didn’t react differently to the book than I did. Firstly – and one of the most unlikeable things about the book is what I can only call its racism. I have read many books of this period – and whenever there are western people in a non-European setting I know to take a deep breath and expect the inherent racism that was an everyday accepted thing at this time. That such language is so prevalent in 1930’s literature tells us a lot about the society in which it was written, however it remains uncomfortable for us today, and it was the one thing in this book that I disliked strongly. There is a definite, and unpalatable feeling in this novel that westerners are superior in all things to the poor stupid Malay people – which is deeply offensive – and would usually be enough to make me dislike a book intensely. However there was so much of the adventure and the interplay between these characters that fascinated me that I really did have a job putting it down. Another criticism seems to have been that characters are unlikeable – I found Judy improved as things went along – and although I quite liked Stewart I was constantly irritated by him, I rather liked Arnold, and Mrs Mardick is well drawn and not as unlikeable as she is probably supposed to be. I wanted to know Deotlan and Wan Nau more than I was allowed to – they were infinitely more interesting to me.
There is a slight sense at times that Robertson was out to shock a little, certainly she never romanticises trekking through the jungle – things do get realistically dirty and unpleasant, although even Robertson shies away from any details of how Judy manages the period she blithely informs the reader Judy feels coming on. So there is a little bit of ickiness, and pages and pages of trudging through jungle, really why did I like this book? And yet I did. The one section of the novel that jarred perhaps was the end – which just seemed a little off kilter with the erotic, malevolence and survival of the fittest nature of what had come before.
This is certainly not a faultless book, I am rather surprised I enjoyed it at all, but I did so while recognising its faults and considering it as a social document for the times in which it was written it is interesting. It also happens to be very well written, but this is not a novel for everyone, that much is clear.