Between 1947 and 1956 London barrister John Mortimer wrote six novels. In the decades since, he has turned out numerous plays for radio and the stage, as well as book reviews, other newspaper and magazine pieces, and an autobiography; he also has written a number of television plays, including the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and the Rumpole of the Bailey series. Though Paradise Postponed is his first novel in thirty years, its genesis links the book directly to his recent television work, for when he was asked in the early 1980’s to do a multipart television drama about life in Great Britain since World War II, Mortimer decided that instead of adapting someone else’s book, he would write his own and then adapt it. Paradise Postponed, then, was written both as a novel and as a television play at the same time, but—the episodic form, flashbacks, and dramatic set pieces notwithstanding—it is not merely a cartoon for a more fully realized work. Rather, Mortimer has reached back to the nineteenth century for his patterns, creating in Paradise Postponed a novel in the manner of Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. (When the book was published in Great Britain in 1985, Mortimer said in an interview: “I’d been saying for a long time that the television writer is like a Victorian novelist. He has a big audience and a work that comes out in instalments.”)
While focusing upon one family between the 1940’s and 1980’s, he develops an expansive social commentary that is at times sharply satirical and on other occasions simply funny. Mortimer once wrote that in his Chekhovian one-act plays he attempted “to chart the tottering course of British middle-class attitudes in decline,” and he also said that comedy “is the only thing worth writing about in this despairing world,” which “is far too serious to be described in terms that give us no opportunity to laugh.” In the novel, as in his plays, Mortimer’s entertaining wit effectively tempers his sometimes poignant chronicle of malaise.
Adding a further dimension to the novel and functioning as the connective thread which sustains the plot is a mystery that is not unraveled until the end of the book, at which time the full significance of the title becomes clear: The earthly paradise that the main characters were striving to achieve remains elusive, even to the one person who seemed to have it within grasp.
The main setting for the action is a seemingly idyllic village, Rapstone Fanner, two hours’ drive west of London. Living there are the Simcoxes: Simeon, the rector; his wife, Dorothy; and their sons, Henry and Fred. Simeon, whose family owns the local brewery, is a socialist who devotes more of his time to ban-the-bomb marches, writing protest letters, and other political works than to ecclesiastical duties; he approaches most of the events in his life “with a puzzled good will under which lay a certain dogged persistence.” Dorothy is a patient, indulgent wife. Henry, the older son, is a novelist whose artistic idealism has been corrupted by Hollywood. At first reluctant to allow film producer Benjamin K. Bugloss to make changes in The Greasy Pole, his first published novel, Henry succumbs to the lure of money and ultimately becomes the quintessential establishment Englishman and, at the same time, a hedonistic man of the world. Mortimer describes him at the vicar’s funeral:He was a tall, thickening fifty-year-old, whose red hair was now flecked with grey but to whom watery blue eyes and a look of perpetual discontent gave the appearance of an irate, retired sea captain. . . . When [he] published his first novel his name had been connected with a group of angry young men; now he was a grumpy, late-middle-aged man. Once his political ideas had been thought as red as his hair; now he gave many warnings on the menace of the Left and wrote articles for the Sunday papers on the moral disintegration of life in Britain today.
Henry’s younger brother, Fred, however, remains a self-effacing idealist. Since childhood he has played the drums, first in his room in the rectory and then with a local jazz combo. He also, while young, begins to accompany the local physician on his rounds, and after studying medicine, he joins Dr. Salter’s practice. He becomes romantically involved with Agnes, the doctor’s daughter. When she becomes pregnant, and Fred cannot raise the money needed for an abortion, Agnes turns to Henry (newly affluent through the largess of Bugloss); he finances the operation, and they go together to Hollywood, eventually marrying. After several years, the marriage breaks up, and when the novel ends, Agnes and Fred are on the verge of rekindling the flame.
Intertwined with the Simcox saga is that of Leslie Titmuss of nearby Skurfield, whose father is an accounts clerk at the Simcox...
(The entire section is 1999 words.)