Dean Spanley, a Novel

Written by Lord Dunsany

Review written by Isabelle George

Isabelle George was born and grew up in Yorkshire and first found her way to detective fiction via the gift of an Agatha Christie book in her teens. She is developing her writing career and has been published in The Spectator magazine and the Madurai Messenger in India. Her particular favourite in the crime genre is the country house classic, as well as some of the more eccentric entries from countries in which she has travelled.


Dean Spanley, a Novel
Harper
RRP: £8.99
Released: April 20 2017
PBK

This is a curious publication – a literary hybrid formed by the combination of a work of fiction and the screenplay of a film derived from it.  As such, it is difficult to know quite who the intended readers are; students of film writing and the craft of adaptation or those who enjoyed the story and would appreciate its appearance in both forms.

Lord Dunsany (1878 – 1957) was an Irish aristocrat famous in his lifetime for an enormous output of works of fantasy in all literary forms.  He wrote plays, poems, short stories and novels. Dean Spanley was first published in 1936 and best considered as a novella, although the definition of novella has been the subject of recent debate.  Officially, a novella is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, but with no word count specified these are loose boundaries.  Certainly some short stories would suffer if drawn out to the longer novel form and this story is one of whimsy which would not sustain serious length.

Dean Spanley – or to give its original fuller title “My Talks with Dean Spanley” – is written in first person narrative and the author has consciously restricted his parameters to a three character drawing room piece.  The drama takes place exclusively at the narrator’s dinner table over a period of several months.  The narrator has deduced that a reputable, if unimpressive, cleric is the present reincarnation of a dog and wishes to learn all that he can about the process of, as he terms it, transmigration.  In order to gain this knowledge he sets about teasing useful reminiscences out of the unwitting clergyman.  The means of doing this are plying the man with a particular and rare wine – Hungarian Tokay – which the narrator goes to some trouble to procure.

At first intermittently but then more regularly the cleric falls back into recalled days of his former existence and remembers the joys of hunting rabbits, regrettable fights with other dogs and the assessment of his human ‘masters’ and their need for him.  These reminiscences can only be achieved by inducing the cleric to drink exactly the right quantity of Tokay so just as the narrator passes the dinner waiting for the exact moment to pour the prompting extra glass and so open the gates to all that he longs to hear, so the text is built up with much peripheral description and preamble until paragraphs can be dotted with the intriguing passages of revealed memory.

The narrator’s emphasis is on learning about transmigration, but his is a selfish desire for knowledge that will serve him should he find himself similarly translated into another animal form.  He is kindly and sympathetic but is trying to impress upon his current mind things which might prove of use in another life.  He later draws on the company of others to assist him at his dinners, but one friend is intent only on the superficial amusement of hearing a staid cleric rhapsodise about rolling in manure.

There is some whimsy in the interpretation of dog behaviour and I think the author was wise in keeping his story to the shorter novella form but the finale, when it comes, is both tantalisingly oblique and abrupt.  There is a slight sense of dissatisfaction as if the author had tired of his eccentric subject but also knew that he had reached its limits in the form he had chosen.

This is not a crime novel – there is no death or detection, other than the mystery of reincarnation and an exploration of its more comic aspects.  It is more of a salon piece, a sketch or drawing room comedy which can be read almost at a single sitting.

Following the novella, there is a short passage by the director of the subsequent film, explaining how he found the story and decided to expand upon the book to give the film a wider aspect.  I have seen the film and remembered that as being something of an oddity too: like the book, it had charm and a certain quaintness and I would recommend both to a gentle reader.

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