The Bell of the Four Evangelists (by Violet Needham)

Violet Needham was born in 1876, and raised in comfortable conditions for the era. She started writing novels for children - mainly historical - in her sixties. My mother, a child of the 1930s, was a huge fan; she kept some of her childhood favourites, and as an adult found several others in charity shops. She was delighted when the ‘Girls Gone By’ publishers started re-printing these books. For some reason, I never read any of Violet Needham’s novels while my mother was alive, but now have them on my own shelves, and am slowly discovering them.

‘The Bell of the Four Evangelists’ was written as contemporary fiction in 1947. It features a 12-year-old girl called Penelope Merivale whose parents must travel abroad, and cannot take her. She has the option of boarding school (which she dislikes heartily) or going to stay with her cousin-once-removed Tabitha. Tabitha, we learn, was in love with Penelope’s father (her first cousin) and when he married someone else, she determined never to see him again. But she is eager to meet his daughter. Penelope is not very keen when she first hears of the suggestion, but she’s a thoughtful child, prone to ‘hunches’ - and after some pondering, she decides that it would be a good idea to stay with her cousin after all.

Tabitha is probably only about forty, or even a little younger, but she has some unidentified illness that makes her seem much older than she is. The occasional line drawings in the book make her look rather older, and I forgot, sometimes, that she is really quite young. Penelope and Tabitha find themselves becoming friends rapidly, and Penelope starts to learn about the house where her cousin lives and an ancient family feud; confusingly the two branches of the family are called Merivale and Marvell, and I did not always remember which was which…

As Penelope explores the countryside and gets to know some local folk, she’s puzzled by strange happenings - owls hooting unexpectedly, visions of people from the past, odd conversations that she does not always remember. Then she meets Guy Marvell, a somewhat distant cousin, and although they are from opposite sides of the feuding family, they find themselves in rapport and liking each other very much.

It’s quite an exciting book, with secrets and tension, and a supernatural element that’s oddly prosaic in some ways. Even though I didn’t always follow every subplot precisely, I enjoyed it very much. Penelope is a likeable heroine, and the often acerbic Tabitha is a delightful companion despite her frailty. The ending chapters are quite dramatic - perhaps overly so but somehow it didn’t matter - and I found it hard to put down.

The book is fascinating from the point of view of real social history - written in the 1940s as a contemporary novel, it gives a great picture of what life was like for a well-off and intelligent but somewhat lonely girl such as Penelope. There are assumptions made about the ‘class’ system, but it’s remarkably egalitarian, considering the era.

There’s a good introduction to the book, written for the 2011 reprinting, which first-time readers are warned contains spoilers. So I didn’t read it until I had finished the novel - and then enjoyed the general background and commentary that were given.

I feel a little sad that I didn’t get around to discovering Violet Needham’s books until now but am glad I am finally doing so. I assume this book was written for older children and younger teens, but it would probably appeal to any fluent readers of about eight and above who like adventure stories and don’t mind a bit of unexplained mystery.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 19th September 2013

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