When I read Thomas’s review of Victoria Four-thirty, I had to buy it immediately. I was a little disappointed that my copy didn’t have an original dust jacket like Thomas’s – but it didn’t detract from the wonderful reading experience. My battered old 1938 edition is inscribed: Cleveland Ohio USA June 1938 A.Q.G. My book it seems is something of a traveller itself.
I had never heard of Cecil Roberts, and still don’t really know very much about him. (The oracle that is) Wikipedia tells me that Cecil Roberts was a literary editor and war correspondent as well as a novelist, poet and dramatist. What surprised me most perhaps – given that I hadn’t previously heard of him, was the long list of his works, Roberts was hugely prolific. He began publishing poetry in 1917, following it with more poetry, novels, biography and five volumes of autobiography in the 1970’s.
Victoria Four thirty published in 1937 – explores the stories of travellers on the 4.30 boat train out of Victoria station, which will connect with the Arlberg-Orient Express. Each chapter for the first two thirds of the novel tells the story of thirteen different people, one of them a young porter at the famous station, twelve others who are preparing to catch the Victoria four-thirty. I couldn’t possibly tell you about each of these characters in any great detail – there are far too many and we’d be here a long time. Europe of the late 1930’s was a place in turmoil, and there are several moments when we are reminded sharply of what the ruling party in Germany were about – and what horrors were just a few years away.
Readers who don’t like episodic type narratives might struggle to engage with the constantly changing characters, but I loved the multiple stories, all different, featuring a host of characters from across Europe. I was confident I would meet them again, discover something of what comes next for them, I was hoping for lots of happy endings, dreading sad ones. Something about Roberts’s writing and particularly his superb storytelling meant that I became instantly involved in the lives of each character as they came along.
We begin our journey with Jim Brown, a young railway porter at Victoria, a cheerful dreamer, with a girl called Lizzie. Jim watches the passengers rushing through the station, spots the exotic labels on the luggage thinking he’ll never see those places himself.
“Jim Brown walked along the smoky little Pimlico street that lay immediately behind Victoria station. That station, whose wide glass roof he could now see over the high brick wall and the long line of dingy houses that backed on to the shunting area, symbolized the barrier between two styles of life.”
Friedrich Gollwitzer a world famous conductor, will be travelling on the boat train alone, Hans, his valet-secretary (his only friend and companion) having to stay behind for a couple of weeks following surgery for appendicitis. Newly-weds Dorothy and Derek Blake, will embark upon their new life together from Victoria at 4.30, a three-week honeymoon in Austria – followed by a posting to Burma. We first meet Dorothy on the morning of her wedding, excited, nervous and besotted. Hotel worker; Nikolas Metaxa originally from Athens has been in London for five years, learning his trade, saving to make his dream come true, the love of his life back in Athens. Nikolas is travelling home, finally to his Xenia.
The most poignantly drawn character, is Prince ‘Sixpenny.’ A boy prince from Slavonia – finds himself unexpectedly and tragically a young king, while staying with a school friend. Devastated by his father’s assassination, he is bundled into the train, clutching a box with a pet rabbit, relieved, in his misery to see the familiar face of his dear governess.
“Preceded by the gentleman in the frock coat they reached a reserved carriage. As foretold, an English gentleman, also with a top hat, was presented to him. Was he going to see nothing but gentlemen with top hats, all very solemn and yet wishing to be kind? The Englishman presented his wife, a pretty lady who gave him a small packet and said with a lovely smile for him, “I hope Your Majesty likes chocolates.”
Mr Henry Fanning a popular novelist, is sent off by his worried wife – in search of plot. The anxious writer already convinced that he is ‘finished.’ Emil Gerhardt of Berlin, is an actor, his blond good looks and superb physique have been exploited by the Nazi party in their propaganda films. Emil has been staying in London, with friends, but now, despite his friends’ concerns, returns to a Europe in turmoil uncertain of what lies ahead. A nun; Sister Theresa is preparing to travel back to her Transylvanian mountain convent, following a medical appointment and a visit with her family. Bachelor, Percy Bowling of Derby – has taken his savings and done a flit – leaving his selfish, money grabbing unappreciative family behind him – in search of adventure. Wealthy businessman, Alexander Bekir, is a Turk, now living in London, married to a Frenchwoman, with three children. Embarking on an annual trip, while his suspicious old mother-in-law is sure he is keeping financial secrets from her daughter. General Zoronoff. Once a great Russian general, now makes ends meets as a chauffeur and tour guide to wealthy tourists. Dr Wyfold is asked by his sister in law to travel to Austria to find her son, who it appears has cut off all contact, and failed to return to begin his university studies. Lastly we meet Elise, an eighteen-year-old maid – her connection to the train is unclear at first.
I loved the world in which this novel is set. The world of luxury 1930’s European travel, proper luggage and railway porters, the world famous boat train, the wagon-lit. Trains are just not the same these days (not that I ever experienced those days of course) – but I still rather love them.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers – as I think I may not have been the only one who rushed off in search of reasonably priced second hand copies – so I’m saying nothing about the final third of the novel, which finishes off the stories of these wonderful characters. Suffice to say – this is a marvellous read, which I would love to see re-issued.