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Mr Finchley Takes the Road (1940)

Novel (320 pages, 100,460 words)

1940 first edition
First edition
1971 reissue
Uniform edition

Mr Finchley Companion
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

The Book

The dedication of the book is "For my daughter Lindel". She was born in 1939. There is an opening quotation from The Wind in the Willows, which was the source for the main theme.

... they saw a gipsy caravan, shining with newness, painted a canary yellow picked out with green and red wheels.
"There you are!" cried Toad, straddling and expaning himself. "There's real life for you, embodied in a little cart. The open road, the dusty highways, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here today, up and somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you and a horizon that's always changing."
Even though the book appeared nearly a year after the war started, the setting is completely pre-war and there are only a few throwaway references to potential hostilities.

The book starts with Mr Finchley married to Mrs Crantell, the woman he had met in Cornwall in the first book, and attending his retirement party. They have adopted Robert, the waif that Mr Finchley befriended in Paris, and sent him to boarding school in Kent.

Mr Finchley takes a fancy to a horse-drawn caravan that he sees for sale. His new wife does not relish the prospect of a caravan journey so goes to visit her brother while he sets out to explore Kent and go house-hunting. He has various mishaps while learning to handle the horse and the caravan, and encounters an array of scroungers, eccentrics and country characters and sees several unsuitable houses.

Meanwhile other people are showing an unnatural interest in his caravan. It gradually emerges that it contains a secret, and in the ensuing mayhem, Mr Finchley is imprisoned in an empty house from which he is rescued by the enterprise of his wife and of Robert. The house he is rescued from turns out to be on the market and just right for them.

Canning was living in a rented house in Kent (Forest Farm, Benenden) around the time he wrote this book, and the descriptions he gives of Mr Finchley's ideal house resemble those of the house he himself eventually bought in 1950, Marle Place, after his war service and success with thrillers.

Publishing history

This was the third and last book featuring Mr Finchley, the middle-aged clerk, a sequel to Mr Finchley discover his England and Mr Finchley goes to Paris. It was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1940 at 9/- with a print run of 7,700, and there was an American edition by Carrick and Evans in the same year. It was included in the Heinemann Uniform Edition in the 1970s. The new edition from Lulu.com is the first in paperback. It is also available as an e-book.

The first edition is the rarest of the Mr Finchley books.

There was a dramatisation of this book and its predecessor, Mr Finchley goes to Paris, broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 1990. This has been repeated in 2005 and again in 2009 and 2012 on the digital channel BBC Radio 7, now called BBC Radio 4 Extra. Mr Finchley is played by Richard Griffiths (the actor who plays Mr Dursley in the Harry Potter films) and Mrs Finchley, the former Mrs Crantell, by Dinah Sheridan ("Mother" in The Railway Children). The script was by the father-and-son scriptwriting team of Eric and Andrew Merriman, distant cousins of Victor Canning.

A short review in The Times of 24 August 1940 talks about Canning's "kindly gaze" on his characters and the countryside, and that sums it up well. In many ways this is the best of the three Mr Finchley books, and must have cheered up its readers and distracted them from war. Canning himself enlisted in the Royal Artillery in June 1940, soon after he had finished it, and wrote very little for the next seven years.

Rob Illingworth of the Kent Library Service has produced an attractive web page about this book with a map of the area around Canning's home in Marle Place.