Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


Molly Gordon

By Patt Erisman

An article on happiness in the U.S. News & World Report of 3 September 2001 contained this observation: "Happiness is the emotion that arises when we do something that stems from our strengths and virtues." A number of Nevil Shute's major female characters come to mind as embodying this kind of happiness, in particular Molly Gordon of "Lonely Road".

Molly is a professional dance partner at the Palais de Dance in Leeds, whom Malcolm Stevenson meets as he seeks some entertainment on a lonely overnight stay. Molly's job is to dance or "sit out" with patrons of the Palais, charging sixpence per dance or sit-out. She had once attended theatrical school but preferred dancing to being on the stage. The job gives her pleasure despite late hours and few benefits, enables her to move from one city to another, and provides her with enough income (with her tips) to have a little bed-sitter, buy a few clothes, and even save a bit for a holiday. She speaks during her time with Malcolm of wanting to travel, of her desire to have a kitten, and her enjoyment of a morning at the baths teaching a friend to swim. She sums her philosophy up in these words: "Seems to me it's just a question of being happy with what you can get, and not bothering with the things you can't afford."

On a subsequent visit Malcolm discovers she has had to use her holiday savings to pay for medicine and doctor bills brought on by an illness. He is quite stunned to realize that she would have to forgo a holiday trip due to the loss of what seems to him a trivial sum of money. He is described early in the book as a "man of very considerable estate" and, although the early years of running his shipyard had been a drain on that estate, it now was becoming quite profitable. On this visit he thaws noticeably and speaks about the sea and his love for it. They dance and laugh together.

Malcolm, a solitary fellow with few friends or relatives, finds Molly companionable and asks her to come and stay with him for her holiday. She makes it very clear that she won't be a party to any immoral conduct and he quickly assures her his intentions are strictly honorable. After some encouragement on his part she agrees to stay with him.

As they travel to his home and during the time she is there he begins to see the world through her eyes. She is quite knowledgeable about plants and spends time daily outdoors with the gardener. She takes to crewing on his yacht like an old salt. She loves the little beach area for swimming. She plays the piano and knows numerous cabaret songs. Malcolm finds he enjoys these activities as well as others with a gusto he did not have previously; indeed, his whole house and life are filled with a degree of happiness he has never experienced before.

He is even able to talk with her about an incident during the First World War in which he killed a number of enemy sailors who were going to surrender. Molly listens and tells him he shouldn't feel so bad, because people on both sides of the war did bad things and, with roles reversed, the enemy probably would have killed him.

Their happy time is tragically cut short when Molly is shot as a result of her part in the espionage plot in which Malcolm had inadvertently become involved. During the hours he spends with her in hospital he tells her all the things they will do together when she gets well and they are married. They are the things she has brought to him: time in the garden and the sunshine, a kitten to enjoy, a real holiday with sailing and bathing. He even talks about travel abroad, something he never thought of doing before she had come into his life.

In writing of the whole incident a short while after Molly's death, Malcolm describes their brief time together as a time in his life "when he must realize that for the last three weeks or six he has been living as a stranger to himself." He is very much aware of the specialness of the whole episode and wants to remember "the details, the silly little things that meant so much to me...." He has tasted happiness.

I'm not sure why Shute felt he had to have Molly die and Malcolm retreat to his solitary and lonely life. In his Author's Note in a reprint edition, he says that "the character studies and love story appear to have smothered the plot a bit, and these aspects of the book now seem to me to be the best." Nonetheless, Molly has had a great influence on Malcolm, and although their hours of happiness were few, they enjoyed what they had.