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Sanctuary from the dragon (1938)

Novel (288 pages, 82,980 words)

Sanctuary first
First edition

The Book

The action takes place in a fictional village called Hartsden in Kent, exact location not specified other than it is several days walk from Maidstone and not on the coast. Three men, an out-of-work electrician, a depressed shop-walker escaping from his family and a disillusioned upper-class gent, converge on an old manor house to ask the caretaker for shelter during a storm. They stay on to help the old man with his chores and to collaborate with the vicar who is trying to re-establish an ancient local ceremony commemorating St George and the Dragon.

The electrician falls for the teacher in the village school and she for him. Meanwhile the villagers increasingly resent the three men, whom they see as intruders and freeloaders. There is a tense climax when a village girl falsely accuses one of the men of rape and a lynch mob sets off for the house.

Publishing History

This book was the third of the six that Canning wrote as "Alan Gould". It was published by Collins in 1938. The first edition is now extremely hard to find. There was a reprint in 2008, now withdrawn.

There is some social commentary on the evil of unemployment, and we know that Canning's father had lost his job at the car plant in Cowley in 1930, so Canning had some direct experience of this. Most of the book's message, however, is about village communities and their suspicions of outsiders.

Review by L. P. Hartley in the Observer, 22 May 1938.

Sanctuary from the Dragon reminds one of the earlier novels of Mr. J. B. Priestley. The chief characters are all literally and metaphorically “benighted” when they reach the hospitable roof of Stigand Manor. In the lives of each of the three men a crisis had arisen which made home impossible for them, and little knowing they were to meet they had taken to the road. And, as in Mr. Priestley’s stories, a threat of danger disturbs their new-found security; danger that later is to find supernatural expression on the haunted Knoll and, less fantastically, in the hostile attitude of the villagers; they resented the newcomers with the native’s primitive resentment of the foreigner, and not altogether without cause, for the latter’s presence made them suffer in heart and pocket. Gradually the situation grows more tense until with the pageant of the Dragon (a yearly local celebration of ancient date) it breaks out into violence. Mr. Gould is exceedingly successful in tracing, by discreet and unexaggerated touches, the beginnings of enmity in a peaceful community; this, we feel, is the way that a war starts. He is less successful in individual characterisation. Some of the figures—Mr. Wookey the clergyman, for instance, are well drawn, but the majority are neither very distinct nor very consistent. I cannot believe that Mr. Mallet, who worked in a shop when he was not busy with carpentry, knew about the funeral of Sardanapalus.