This proved a curious novella, from a writer unfamiliar to me, with echoes of those black and white Ealing Studio movies, where the British cast spoke in plummy tones and the criminal classes were still referred to as ‘rascals’ and ‘scoundrels’. Less surprising when the reader realises that Henry Cecil is the pseudonym of Judge Henry Cecil Leon (born 1902), yet the humour coursing through this charming tale does make it satisfying, albeit in a rather nostalgic way.
Cambridge-educated, Cecil was called to the bar in 1923 and post-World War II was appointed a County Court Judge in 1949. Still, it is unusual that such a pillar of the establishment should expose some of the potential absurdities of the law and how it might play out within the vagaries of ordinary lives.
In this example, the reader is introduced to Mrs Harriet Hunt, who was successfully married to her husband (Graham) for twenty years, when without warning, he disappeared. That was seven years ago. Having experienced the predictable gamut of emotions, Harriet might have reasonably assumed Graham was dead, when he did not return home or make contact. However, the arrival of a mysterious cheque for £100 every month since, from a firm of solicitors, lent probability to her husband’s survival and increased the likelihood that he had in fact run off with another woman. Harriet continued to be perplexed by such a scenario, when she felt certain they had been happily married, but she was also hurt by the possibility that Graham might have 'pensioned her off' in this way. Still, in the light of the prevailing evidence she reluctantly accepts the need to settle the future and having been pursued assiduously by the couple’s former friend, the gentle George, seeks to petition the court for a divorce.
Stage set and having sealed the legal argument with an agreement to go to bed with George later that evening to consummate their relationship (to be followed by supper), Harriet returns home to find Graham has also returned, just as suddenly as he departed.
In his mild and comical approach to this story, Cecil almost imperceptibly weighs complex issues, such as the disparity between the moral and legal status of marriage, the expectations of men, women and society and the meaning of ‘love’. For the contemporary reader it might appear dated and yet I suspect, if one cares to settle down with a ‘whisky and a splash’, this is a funny, short, but welcome glimpse of a mythically halcyon era.