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Love In Youth


Love in Youth is probably Harris's least known published work, after How to Beat the Boer. It is also one of his least successful, in both commercial and artistic terms. And, as it was published in 1916, some years before Harris became notorious for My Life and Loves, the publisher Doran did not even have the option of selling it as smut, a tactic used to swell the sales of another unpoular Harris novel, Pantopia.

As the title suggests, Love in Youth is a love story. The scene is the French Riviera, a location Harris was very fond of and knew well. Morton Bancroft, a young American, has blown all his money in the casino and is forced to seek employment. Fortunately he has a car and so is able to offer his services as chauffeur to Foxwell, an American millionaire on holiday, who wants to travel to Paris. By hiring Bancroft, Foxwell is indulging his spoiled, hypochondriac wife who would prefer to go by road in order to see more of France than would be possible by rail.

The journey is not due to start right away, but in the meantime Bancroft is taken on to convey Foxwell's wife and daughter round the locality as they require. This daughter, Jenny, is young, pretty and also somewhat spoiled. When she keeps him waiting around all day, seemingly on a whim, Bancroft takes a great dislike to her.

By this point in the narrative, it is clear that Bancroft and Jenny Foxwell are to be lovers. In this kind of story the art is in the placement of authorial obstacles before the hurrying wheels of the affair. The first hindrance is the social gulf between them: Bancroft is a chauffeur and she is a millionaire's daughter; he thinks she is spoiled and she does not think of him at all. This is resolved once the journey to Paris gets underway as he shows himself to be educated, able to spout endlessly about the places they visit, and - most importantly - brave. His physical courage is demonstrated by a willingness to rescue dogs from awkward situations with his shirt off, and by an amazing exploit in which he saves the entire party from a nasty encounter with a train, earning a reward from Mr Foxwell of one hundred thousand dollars. In turn his early aversion to her melts away as she proves an eager audience for his non-stop tourist information lecture.

Given that Bancroft is described as being somewhat below average height and rather ugly, and that he is clearly a great talker, an encyclopedia on legs, there can be no doubt he is based on the author - who likewise was renowned for his ability to talk entertainingly at great length. We have the evidence of Enid Bagnold's letters that his conversation was also a major part of his armoury of seduction. Harris also makes Jenny rather talky, a second mouthpiece for his own opinions. He undoubtedly liked women who could hold their own in a discussion, though whether any real woman has ever talked like Jenny does is open to doubt:

"How much you've taught me!" she exclaimed, "and how unwilling I was at first to learn from you! You've made a new world for me and filled it with pictures and stories and new ideas. I'm glad we met."

The next great impediment in the lovers' way is Jenny's mother, Mrs Foxwell. She wants her daughter to marry someone more socially significant than Bancroft: specifically, Lord Favershall, a typical young English aristocrat, landed though not wealthy, who has previously proposed to Jenny, though without yet getting an answer. Cunningly, Mrs Foxwell telegraphs Favershall to meet them when they reach Dijon, but in the event he proves unable to compete with Bancroft's knowledge of art and architecture. For the moment Mrs Foxwell is thwarted.

When they reach Paris, however, Mrs Foxwell tries again, this time with more success. By her careful machinations Bancroft is persuaded that Jenny is engaged to Favershall, and Jenny that Bancroft has been seeing her former maid, Berthe, on the sly. An angry confrontation occurs between the lovers: the affair is off. Consequently the Foxwells travel to England while Bancroft remains in Paris.

Once in England, having to spend her time with Lord Favershall - who now thinks of himself as Jenny's fiancé - proves an utter bore for the lovelorn girl. He is only interested in racing, and - unlike the great Bancroft - never takes her to ancient sites to instruct her about mediaeval edifices. He is not much of a kisser, either.

Realizing at last that she loves only Bancroft, she dispatches her father to find him. He does so, the two lovers are reunited; and the story ends in much the time-honoured fashion, though Harris cannot resist including a superfluous exchange between the now-married couple in which they tiresomely analyse their feelings for one another. Their exploration also includes one of Harris's favourite sex tips :-

He laughed a little.

"Sometimes, dear, your lips are ordinary. I kiss them and kiss and all of a sudden they are glowing hot. They I know that ---" And he broke off as she kissed him, exclaiming:

"Now my cheeks are hot. I understand."

I cannot think that Harris had a high ambition for this novel. Presumably it was intended to be just a simple love story, a true and touching portrait of how two young people found each other. One problem is that it is too earnest to appeal to the unsentimental reader, while - given its prolix and unhandsome hero - not really aimed at those who like conventional romantic fiction, either. But its major fault is that everything that Harris gives us here has been done so much better elsewhere by other hands; there is no originality in it; as he showed in The Bomb, his fiction works better when off the well-trodden track: then his over-seriousness and clumsy dialogue do not matter so much as they do when - as in this case - the situation is inevitably reminiscent of the works of greater writers.

It is not surprising, then, that Harris's novel was neither praised by the critics nor bought by the public at the time, and the passage of nearly ninety years have not given it any greater sheen. If you do happen upon a copy, buy it if you like, but you may leave it unopened without offense.

Selected editions