An Early Childhood as an Evacuee
Some readers of Charlotte Lamb novels may be aware that she was caught up, as a young child, in the evacuation process that took place during the Second World War. Being from a family based in the East End of London, a very dangerous place to be living at that time, she was separated from her immediate family on numerous occasions, and passed much of the war amongst various relations. Like many people, she coped with the sense of displacement this brought in later years, particularly in her teens, by turning to fiction, where she soon made friends with many of the classics of English Literature. This was something which often got her into serious trouble at her convent school, where the nuns took a dim view of any child obsessed with reading works of fiction - considered dangerous and unhealthy for a young mind!
The Influence of Charles Dickens
Here is a rather touching account by my father, the classical biographer Richard Holland, of my mother’s abiding love for the work of Charles Dickens, and how this may have coloured both her experience of childhood and her later aspirations as a writer:
‘She was fond of telling me that her first readings of Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend took place when she was still young enough to suppose that the London of Lizzie and Gaffer Hexham and the Golden Dustman was contemporaneous, or nearly so, and that if only someone would take her a few miles upstream of the Isle of Dogs (where she knew her absent father had been born) she would find a river bank and a city overflowing with Dickensian life in all its colour and variety and its raw emotions.’
In Charlotte Lamb’s richly detailed novels, with their fast-moving, multi-layered plots and deftly drawn characters - particularly in her penchant for the eccentric or memorable minor character who nevertheless influences the hero/heroine in some subtle and unexpected way - we can see that early love for Dickens working its way into her own writing.
One of the most telling examples of this, perhaps significantly based in a sprawling, multicultural dockland area of London, is her one-off romantic novel written under the pen-name Victoria Woolf, Sweet Compulsion, which was published by Mills and Boon in 1979.
Sweet Compulsion is a beautifully written and playful novel, full of joie de vivre, with a mischievous tomboy heroine called Marcy Campion and the ‘forceful Randal Saxton’ as the hero, a ruthless property developer she’s fighting to prevent a house she has inherited and its surrounding area being destroyed in the name of progressive development. It’s also a novel which draws deeply on that self-constructed ‘memory’ of Lamb’s own childhood in a run-down Dickensian London, with a rather gawky eighteen-year-old Marcy inspecting her deceased aunt Thomasina’s house for the first time and sadly noting the disparity between its elegant decaying beauty and the shabbiness of the streets around it.
Yet in Sweet Compulsion, and in other Charlotte Lamb novels set against the background of inner city life, there’s also a sense of regeneration happening alongside the inevitable decay, a triumph of human determination over a lack of public funding - perhaps even something of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ and its aftermath in the gradual rebuilding of London, which my mother would have witnessed at first hand as a child:
When she first saw it, she thought that there had been a mistake, but then she looked again at the name on the corner of the road. Paradise Street.
The house stood in a vista of corrugated iron fences, broken pavements and dirty wisps of paper blowing desultorily along the filthy road. There were no buildings apart from the house itself.
All around rose high flats, like concrete mountains looking down upon a grimy valley.
At the other end of Paradise Street a narrow alley intersected, choked with workmen’s cottages and shabby shops with peeling paint, cracked wood and uneven roofs.
A fence had been erected around the site of the old house and she could not find an opening. She saw the upper storey over the top of the fence - a flat Georgian facade with a stark elegance born of functional lines and generosity of proportion. The dusty windows seemed to appeal to her mournfully against the dull sky ...
‘Change and decay in all around I see,’ murmured Marcy to herself.
‘Gloomy, ain’t it,’ Wesley agreed, shuddering dramatically.
When they emerged into daylight they found a work party busy building an obstacle course with old tyres, planks of rotten wood and piles of bricks - the tyres swung from the trees, the planks were raised on heaps of rubble and brick. The whole garden was filled with children, playing and working with vigour and noisy enthusiasm.
A little crowd of women were standing at the opening in the fence. Marcy took a deep breath and walked over to them.
They looked at her suspiciously.
She smiled and began to talk. Soon she was sitting on an orange box, a mug of tea in her hand, listening as the women talked about the new development.
(From Sweet Compulsion, Mills & Boon, 1979)