Book Review: God is an Englishman

The Swann family saga, by R F Delderfield:

God Is an Englishman

Theirs Was the Kingdom

Give Us This Day

In 1850, Adam Swann returned from India to his native England, having decided that a career in military service (especially in what he now viewed as basically a mercenary force, the East India Company’s army) was not for him.  He had in his possession a valuable cache of jewelry which he had acquired on a battlefield and (probably illegally) kept for himself.  While in India he had kept abreast of events in England by reading several-month-old newspapers, and was intrigued with the possibilities unleashed by industrial expansion. His original intention was to sell the jewelry and invest the proceeds in railway stock or in actually building a railroad branch line somewhere–but was dissuaded by a chance meeting with a railroad official, who advised him that railway building was in a bubble and that most of the lines now being constructed would prove uneconomic.  The official had, however, an alternative suggestion: put the money on the horses.  But not in the usual way.

There’s more future in horse-transport than the Cleverdicks would have you believe.  The railroads can solve all the big problems but none of the small ones…If I were you, Mr Swann–and I wish to God I were and starting all over again–I would spend the next week studying the blank areas of that map there.  Then travel about and take a look at the goods yards of the most successful companies, and see merchandise piled in the rain on all their loading bays for want of a good dispersal system.

Swann takes the man’s advice and sets off on a cross-country ride to evaluate the prospects for a new horse-drawn freight transportation business.  On the way, he meets Henrietta, who is fleeing a prospective marriage arranged by her father, a coarse and greedy mill owner.  It is Henrietta who proposes for the projected transport company the name Swann-on-Wheels and the wheeled-swan logo that will soon adorn the sides of hundreds of wagons rolling throughout Britain.

The series is the story of Swann-on-Wheels, of Adam and Henrietta’s marriage and family, and of British society in the time period 1850-1914.  Unlike most historical novels covering this period, the aristocracy plays a very minor part, to the point of being almost completely irrelevant to the story, other than as a source of status markers:

In the England into which he had been born, blood and breeding were still paramount and continued to call the national tune. Ancient wealth was still the legislator and determiner of the national destiny.  But all this had changed when he was still a lad.  By then the man of brass and the man of iron had come into their own, elbowing their way forward and demanding, at the top of their voices to be heard and heeded…Adam, who sometimes conjured with these abstracts, saw the process as a second Reformation, a phase of history repeating itself, with inventors, engineers, and their sponsors matching the hard-faced adventurers of Tudor times…For his part, he welcomed the transformation.  To him it was a cleansing tide, notwithstanding the mountains of muck and rubble it left behind…(but) it seemed to him that the wives and daughters of the men of brass took no pride in their menfolk’s astounding victory.  All they wanted, it appeared, was to replace their former masters without deviation by so much as a single inch from their ways of life, or discarding a single one of their prejudices.


Adam Swann is a mild nonconformist and rather a crusader, albeit more of the evolutionary than the revolutionary type: his approach to management is much more collaborative and decentralized than that of his tyrannical father-in-law, and he is willing to take a chance on hiring and promoting boys from the streets, some of whom rise to high positions in the company.  He does not totally share the Victorian worldview:  most especially, he does not believe that sexual pleasure should be reserved for the male and that the woman’s role is to “lie back and think of England.”  Nor does he share the High Church attitude toward the Dissenters.

I am very impressed by the author’s achievement in bringing a fictional business organization to life.  The strategic issues and mistakes, the personalities of the various region managers (“viceroys”) and the interactions among them, the operational and financial crises, the whimsical internal names assigned to the regions…these things are very well sketched, if perhaps in a little too much detail for many readers.  (Someone at Amazon observed that “His world of Victorian transport is as elaborate and and extensive as any of Tolkien’s fantasies”)

While Adam is the main character, there are frequent shifts to the viewpoints of other characters.  Delderfield seems to make a special effort to get inside the heads and skins of his female characters.  Few of the characters, male or female, are irredeemably bad: just about everyone has something to be said in his or her favor.

More attuned to the deeper trends in society than those around him, Adam by 1914 is seriously concerned not only about some problems affecting the transport business (by now largely motorized) but about the state of British and European civilization as a whole.

You’re all sleep-walking, and if you don’t prick yourselves awake you’re in for a God Almighty tumble. For here we are, with everything to make a new world and a new society, but all people with money in their pockets are concerned with is a month at the seaside, the next country house-party, Fanny’s coming-out dress, a search for gentility and soft living generally.  Even the international apparatus we rely on to keep the garden-party going is as antiquated as feudalism and not nearly so efficient, and this attitude has a nasty habit of spreading down to the city clerk, whose main ambition nowadays is to hoist himself another niche up the social scale.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that–as a spur, for it’s what makes the world go round.  What’s wrong is the way he goes about it.  Not by hard work, clear thinking, self-education, and self-reliance, but by putting on airs, currying favor with the fellow above him, and learning to talk with a plum in his mouth.  It’s all a sham, and I hate shams wherever I find ’em.

A very worthwhile series of books, which in addition to its coverage of Swann-on-Wheels provides a good picture of the regions of Britain and the events and trends affecting that country throughout the period.  Recommended.  For those lacking in-depth familiarity with the geography of Britain, a good map would be a worthwhile companion for this book.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: God is an Englishman”

  1. I read a good many of Delderfield’s books, back when they were on the shelves at various discount booksellers. The Avenue was another good two-parter, about a street in London through 1918 to the end of WWII. Still have the books, bought at Vromans’ in Pasadena, for about 95 cents each.

  2. Neville Shute has been a rare writer who knew about business and was positive about it. I had my two younger daughters read “A Town Like Alice,” which is about a young woman starting a business in Australia after World War II.

    I’ll read this series.

  3. It sounds like some very good writing and I am ashamed that I don’t quite remember him. England had a diverse amount of opinion, despite the stereotypes.
    In did those feet in ancient times – is all I know of the rich tradition of Christianity in Britain.

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