Not Your Typical Young Adult Novel: CHARLEY IS MY DARLING, by (Arthur Lunel) Joyce Cary (1957)

I first got a copy of this British novel when I was 11, from an airport vending machine, but only got to read it thoroughly recently. Despite the youth of its protagonists (Charley Brown, 15, and his girlfriend Liz/Lizzie/Bessie Galor, 14), it is very much an adult novel, all of 331 pages full of heavy and sometimes unintelligible description. You may not have the patience to follow all the details of Charley’s breaking into Burls House, which takes up an entire page. And I still don’t understand what’s happening on the last page of the book, which is mired in British slang! Yet it’s one of the finest novels I’ve ever read because of the powerful story it tells.

When I was in junior high or so, we were taught that there were three kinds of novels: those of plot, character and setting. This novel is strong in all three areas. Every description of this work that you’re likely to run across will tell you it’s about a few “vackies,” children sent from working-class London to the safer English countryside during World War II. But the war isn’t really part of the setting as the children are concerned. At first, they see their new environment as a rather desolate place, far from restaurants and movie theaters. Boredom is the main motivation for their actions: the older boys bully the younger ones, who in turn wish to escape to more entertaining places and say so. Charley alone gives his relationships with others primary importance, in part because having his head shaved to treat it for lice has put him at a social disadvantage, but also because of his unique character and that of his village girlfriend, Lizzie, a person whom Charley understands with a sophistication that all of the others lack. Seeking to be liked by all, he inspires love in some others, which is his undoing because of a very ironic series of events.

Lizzie is an especially insightfully drawn character. She is partially deaf, apparently handicapped enough to have trouble following lectures in school; she has primitive reading skills and her description of a local production of a Shakespeare play suggests that she hadn’t been able to hear the lines. Throughout the novel, her treatment by the village adults suggests that they assume her to be mentally retarded and unable to understand social expectations. Her parents, who call her "Bessie," are irritated at her for seeming to be indifferent to their wishes, while in fact she carefully weighs the relative pros and cons of disobedience and punishment and uses her younger sister Susan's help to deceive them about her activities. She also shows a strong practical intelligence in dealing with Charley, discouraging his risky behavior and even making an effort to avoid him when she recognizes his developing criminal repertoire. But when the older neighborhood bullies threaten his life with their antics one winter night, she rescues him, at great risk to herself and her reputation. Their well-described developing romantic relationship reflects a surprising maturity even as its sexual aspect dooms them.

Great relationships and doomed lives don’t come from nowhere; there’s a long story leading up it, in which Charley seeks to establish respect from his peers and trust in the adults who supervise him. His parents are relatively minor characters: his father is mentioned on only one page, while his 27-year-old charming but irresponsible stepmother (whose first name is never provided, by the way!) gives him the wrong message. One key adult is Lina Allchin, a 22-year-old woman who takes care of her rigid, eccentric, and possibly demented mother and supervises Charley in her war service role. He’s respectful to her, unlike her rude nephew, and shows talent and interest in art, so she finds it difficult to imagine him as a criminal. Her kindness shores up his self-respect, but her na├»ve trust, and apparently runaway feelings for him, allow him to carry out increasingly ambitious criminal acts, all to gain the admiration of the younger children and respect from the older bullying ones. Charley’s exploits are indeed outliers characterized by brilliant strategy and tactics. Stealing and driving cars, snatching a purse undetected, sneaking into a house at night, and escaping from a remand home are only part of what gets him sent to what’s apparently the equivalent of a reform school: he is eventually characterized as the callous rapist of a mentally incompetent girl.

One difficult question is placed before the readers: how much blame can be placed on Charley for his disastrous actions? The empathetic narrator is clearly biased in his favor, excusing his behavior on the basis of his immaturity, lack of parental guidance, supervision by a young and untrained townie, and a judicial system that makes harsh assumptions about the behavior of "good" children while maintaining a lax and ineffective rehabilitation program. The innocence that results from this situation leads naturally to curiosity; as Cary puts it in his "Prefatory Essay," to a child "the 'crime' is a moral experiment." However, I remember vividly how Charley casually takes advantage of Lizzie when she rescues him from the bullies, filling her head with lies about his intentions of having them escape together to America and making a point of avoiding her later: he is clearly aware that he has committed a serious wrong, responding to that awareness with fear rather than guilt. Even as he grows to love her and to develop a mature sense of responsibility toward her, he continues to expose her to the risk of pregnancy; he has apparently come to rationalize that his growing resolution to marry Lizzie justifies this course of action.

We all know that adolescents tend to be misunderstood everywhere in industrialized societies, especially those with exceptional intelligence, imagination and passion, perhaps because of their misleading naivete; this problem is aggravated when the adults in charge of them are unwilling or unable to get to know them. But this novel, which should have become a classic, explains this far better than in any other work I know.