Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


Noel Strachan

By: Carolyn E. Ramm

Noel Strachan - Noel Strachan is one of the most tragic characters Nevil Shute invented. The tragedy is that he acts against his own interests over and over again to support the woman he loves, knowing that she cannot and will not love him in the same way.

At the beginning of "A Town Like Alice" (aka "The Legacy"), which opens at the end of World War II, Noel is an elderly attorney whose even more elderly client in Scotland has just died, leaving Noel the task of locating the client's great-niece and -nephew, Jean and Donald Paget, who are his heirs. It develops that both had gone out to Malaya, where their father had managed a rubber plantation, as young adults. Donald had died in the war, but Jean was back in England and after some trouble Noel was able to locate her. She was living in London and working as a secretary in a leather-goods company.

When Jean came to Noel's office to hear about the legacy from her great-uncle, Noel fell in love with her almost immediately. She was about 27 at that time, and extraordinarily mature. Of course many people suffered in the war. But Jean seemed to have some sort of secret about her war experience. After cultivating a personal friendship with her, Noel was finally able to learn what it was. She had been taken prisoner by the Japanese when they invaded the Malay peninsula in 1941 and, since the Japanese had no prison camps for women in Malaya, had been forced to walk all over Malaya, from town to town, for three years. During that time all but about 15 of her original party of 40 women and children had died on the road. Their Japanese guard had also died. Jean had assumed the leadership of this group and finally negotiated with a village headman to let them stay in his village for the duration of the war.

Jean's story took a tragic turn when she told Noel how she had met up with two Australian POWs who were driving trucks for the Japanese in Malaya. One of them, Joe Harman, took pity on the group of women and asked how he could help. He stole petrol from the Japanese truck to trade it in the village for drugs and soap for the women. Unfortunately, he also stole some chickens for them which turned out to have belonged to the local, sadistic Japanese commander. The commander had Joe arrested and ultimately beaten and crucified, while Jean and her party were forced to watch. He was left for dead, and Jean and the women marched on in unbelievable shock and horror.

Noel was shaken and at the same time inspired by Jean's stories. He had spent all of his life as a quiet solicitor, and the news of these exciting and dramatic events had a big impact on him. But when Jean told him she wanted to use part of her inheritance to go to Malaya and build a well (as a thank offering to the women who had cared for her in their village), he felt major qualms. He did not want her to leave London. Even though she was so much younger than he, Noel found that his life felt empty when he thought of it without her. (His wife had died a few years earlier.) However, he did the right thing as her trustee under her great-uncle's will, and allowed her to have the money needed for this project. She wrote to him often while on her trip, and he cherished hopes of a reunion when she came back.

But she never did. While in Malaya she learned by chance that Joe Harman, the Australian who (she thought) had given his life for her, was still alive. She decided on the spot to go on to Australia and try to find him. Noel never saw her in England again.

But he did see Joe Harman. Just as Jean had arrived in Australia to look for Joe, Joe had arrived in England looking for her. He had won the Australian state lottery, which had enabled him to afford the trip to England. Joe had tracked down an aunt of Jean's in Wales and learned from her that Noel was Jean's attorney. So Joe came to Noel's office and asked to be put in touch with Jean. But Noel (being well aware of who Joe was) pompously told Joe that he did not have authority to give out Jean's address or to forward a message to her.

Joe went out and got drunk that night, and Noel ended up bailing him out of jail and then took him home to stay with him. This enabled Noel to form a good picture of Joe's character, and he ended up liking and respecting him. However, he still sent Joe back to Australia by sea without telling him that Jean was in Australia. Of course the voyage took several weeks. Noel's hope was that Jean would come home to England when she was unable to find Joe in Australia. However, his conscience finally forced him to write to Jean and say what he had done.

Jean decided to wait in Australia for Joe. She went to Willstown, the tiny and miserable Queensland town near the cattle station where Joe worked, and found herself with a lot of time on her hands there. After seeing an alligator skin a local hunter had brought in, she thought of a way to keep herself busy during the three weeks Joe was en route to Australia. She would try to make a pair of alligator shoes. (She knew about fancy leather goods through her job in London after the war.) The local residents were interested in this project, and gradually the idea of starting a small business in Willstown to make shoes for sale in England evolved in her mind. Noel received a long letter from her, detailing this plan and asking him to release 5,000 pounds of her inheritance to finance it. As her trustee, he felt the need to test the viability of Jean's scheme. So he called on the head of her old leather-goods firm, Mr. Pack, to see what he thought. Not only did Mr. Pack think it was a good idea, he offered to help by distributing Jean's products in England and even sending out an experienced supervisor from his company to help her set up her shop and train her employees. Noel was rather sorry, I think, that the idea turned out to be sound. But, having validated it, he felt he had to let her have the money. Thus was born, with Noel's help, Jean's first business venture in Willstown.

When Joe landed at Brisbane a letter from Jean was waiting for him saying that she was in Australia. When the two of them finally met, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would get married. However, Jean wanted to wait a year before the wedding, to see if she could adapt to Willstown and whether she and Joe would still like each other after they'd known each other awhile. (Of course they did.) During that year she started the shoe workshop and several more businesses in Willstown, all aimed at improving the quality of life there. Noel let her have the money for each venture, all the while realizing that her investments in Willstown would make it harder and harder for her to return to England.

Despite her continuing investment of money and sweat equity in Willstown, Joe still worried about Jean being happy at Midhurst, his cattle station. However, she helped him save a neighbor's life by riding 40 miles on horseback in the wet, and after that she seemed to belong there. Then they proceeded to get married. As far as anyone can tell, they lived happily ever after. And Willstown itself began to thrive, largely as the result of Jean's entrpreneurial efforts, and improved almost to where it was "a town like Alice."

In the book Noel is devastated to hear of Jean's marriage to Joe but realizes he is too old to offer her much and becomes resigned to the situation. He does go out to Australia by air to visit them one time, and has the chance to see what she has built in Willstown. By that time he is over 70 years old and as he returns to England he realizes that he will never see them again. (In the BBC miniseries he is present at Jean and Joe's wedding and acts all jovial there, but that is unrealistic in the tragic framework Shute has set up.)

So I always feel sad for Noel. He is a man of high character and always behaves classily. He often acts against his own interests in supporting Jean in what she wants to do. And he really misses Jean and wishes he could have married her himself. His knowledge that he will never get what he wants, and his support of Jean, even when it works against his own interests, make him a really tragic figure.