I knew the story was not about medieval Crusaders from the illustration on the front cover. I also knew that I wanted very much to read the book when it was handed to me by a friend. The name of the author stirred a memory of enjoying a book by Cronin a very long time ago.
The story starts in a rectory in Sussex in the early years of the 20th century. The main character is a vicar's son with an Oxford education who fights family expectations of him remaining in the family rectory and continuing his father's work.
The hero Stephen Desmond travels in France and Spain and lives in Paris and London after he leaves home on the Sussex Weald. When the 1st World War begins he refuses to return to England to join the army. By now fixed on enduring a life as an unacknowledged painter, he becomes in thrall to a circus girl and seeks her company by joining the company and doing instant portraits. Eventually returning to Sussex after the war is over, he moves on to London after painful public shame.
English life has changed for the worse since the war, reliable servants are no longer easily found - so says his sister a plain spinster resigned to looking after their father for the rest of her life.
Stephen has by now toughened himself to a life of poverty, and of painting for its own sake. Luckily, in Stepney he finds a life in painting the river Thames, boats and boatmen, in all weathers. Will he find a greater fulfillment, or does he even want one?
It sounds a very downbeat story but it is highly enjoyable. Open the book and enter a vanished Europe.