Water Gipsies by AP Herbert (1930)

I recently purchased a copy of AP Herbert's novel The Water Gipsies. This should not be confused with Annie Murray's much more modern book with a very similar title that covers the "Idle Women" period during WW II and is spelt more conventionally as Water Gypsies.

The Water Gipsies was a very popular novel in its day. It was first published in 1930 and although my copy is also from 1930 it is a second edition. It is the story of Jane Bell who, ever since their mother died, has lived on an old barge moored in the Thames along with her feckless father and her sister. She would like her life to be more like the movies she loves but reality is far from that. She is courted by an illiterate canal boatman, Fred Green, and whilst cleaning the studio of a local artist, Bryan, she develops a hopeless crush that leads her to refuse Fred's offer of marriage. When her father loses his job and takes to gambling on the horses and dogs, her sister Lily takes up with a rich young gambler. Jane becomes married to Ernest a worker on the Underground, whose socialist beliefs represent the only fixed set of ideals in her life. She also acts as Bryan's sometime model and muse. I won't describe the rest of the story but there is tragedy involved and plenty of pathos and social commentary. To my mind the plot is somewhat similar to Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, but not as dark.

For canal enthusiasts there are some well described sections particularly when Jane joins in a trip along the Grand Union Canal with Fred Green and his parents working pair. There are also some atmospheric descriptions of life aboard the Bell family barge and sailing small boats on the Thames. Herbert, was of course a lover of the waterways. He was the MP for Oxford University for many years, when the universities had parliamentary seats, was a member of the Thames Conservancy and was also a president of the Inland Waterways Association. The book was so successful when it came out it spawned a musical play, the music from which is still available, and, in 1932, a film starring Anne Todd.

Although The Water Gipsies is definitely a  novel "of its time" since it is steeped in the class system of life between the two world wars, I enjoyed reading it. Many copies of The Water Gipsies are still around and are easily available through Amazon and ABE books. There are some very cheap paperback copies available and also some copies that date from around its first publication. Details of the bibliography of The Water Gipsies, and some great images of the first and US editions' dustcovers, are given on the excellent Old Waterways Books web site.