Five Farthings by Monica Redlich

Five Farthings by Monica Redlich

‘Five Farthings’ is a family story about a family of five – the Farthings – who uproot themselves from rural Sussex to the heart of London, just before World War 2. The reason for the upheaval is the poor health of Mr Farthing who requires prolonged hospital care for his medical condition. With no one to support the family of five, Mrs Farthing accepts a job at a London departmental store. It is left to the eldest child, seventeen year old Vivien to take care of the family and undertake the housekeeping but first of all thefamily must find a suitable place to stay.

One day, Vivien and her teenage brother John come across a suite of rooms in an old building in Central London, very close to St Paul’s Cathedral. The sitting room commands a most wonderful bird’s eye view over St Paul’s and the other rooms are adequate too, to suit the family’s needs. The downstairs neighbour’s are warm and welcoming and the family moves happily into their new rented quarters. A few chapters are devoted to domestic details of settling in to the new house and those readers like myself who appreciate this type of story, will really enjoy it. Vivien, being new to cooking undergoes a few trials and errors but gradually the family settles into a daily rhythm. The descriptions of her first culinary experiments are quite interesting.

” … roast meat with roast or boiled potatoes, and cabbage or carrots or some other vegetable which was not too hard to cook. For sweets she made jelly out of a packet,or bought some ice cream, or gave them stewed or fresh fruit with cream, or simply something out of a tin. It was all quite eatable, except perhaps for her gravies …”

When she has some spare time on her hands, Vivien visits many of the churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren. She is fascinated by their history and design and she spends many days happily finding the many Wren churches dotted about London. One day, whilst she is visiting one such church she befriends another fellow Wren enthusiast, a middle aged man called Walter Blueley who works at a publishing house that is right next door to their flat. Vivien, with her secret personal writing aspirations becomes closely involved with the publishing company and finds her first job there, reading through various manuscripts and providing her unvarnished opinion about them. The company has a young and an old partner and it is with the young partner, Tim Broadstreet, that Vivien forges a close relationship. There’s an aspect of mystery and intrigue in the novel too regarding leakage of publishing house secrets but to my mind this is not the strongest plot point and though this aspect adds interest to the novel, the book is more about family, London, architecture, book publishing, young love and finding one’ s feet in the midst of crisis.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the flat the family lived in and its view over St Paul’s. Sir Christopher Wren played a large part in the story – certainly his architecture and the buildings he designed are variously described and admired throughout the book.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Monica Redlich’s ‘Five Farthings’ is so good. London is vividly described and domestic details of family life have a comforting appeal. I can picture an old fashioned black and white cinema being made from the story with the cinematic climax, a host of endearing characters and plenty of period detail. Monica Redlich hasn’t written many novels but I’m curious and eager to read more of her other elusive titles.

Readers who enjoy the domestic details of Gwendoline Courtney, and family stories like Noel Streatfeild’s ‘The Bell Family’ (also set in London about an impoverished family) will appreciate this book.