Last Recollections of My Uncle Charles comprises a set of seventeen linked stories. The most obvious link between them is that they are all recounted by the same character, namely the eponymous Uncle Charles, an amiable sponger (or ‘professional guest’ as Balchin more tactfully puts it) of advanced years. Another, more subtle, theme running through much of the collection is Balchin’s concentration on dissecting relationships that are in difficulty (and often on the verge of disintegration). Love triangles emerge as a very popular narrative device and in more than one case the lovers comprise an older man besotted with a younger woman who in turn is in love with a man of her own age. Many of the tales, in terms of their subject matter, resemble those Balchin novels, and especially later ones such as A Way Through the Wood, that take place outside the workplace.
Among the most noteworthy stories here are ‘Mine Host’ (about a hotel run for the pleasure of the proprietor rather than to make a profit), ‘Cards for the Colonel’ (in which Charles is forced to plot the death of Colonel Noader, the defeatist incompetent in charge of his World War One battalion), ‘Patience’ (card-game shenanigans on the French Riviera with a convincing pair of confidence tricksters) and ‘God and the Machine’ (an account of a ‘mechanical brain’ that takes on Charles at draughts and learns a painful lesson in the process).
Other tales have a more personal connection with their author. ‘The Forgetful Man’ shares a plot line with a story that George Ordyne attempts to write as part of his correspondence course in creative writing in No Sky. ‘The Bars of the Cage’ is said to have been inspired by the fallout from Balchin’s marital break-up, although it is difficult to discern much resemblance between the two sets of circumstances. And ‘The County Wench’, an altered and greatly extended version of ‘The Heriot’, one of Balchin’s earliest published short stories, was apparently based on a real occurrence.
The final story, which is also by far the longest contained in this volume, is called ‘Among Friends’. The reader eavesdrops on another of Balchin’s much-loved triangular romantic situations. Charles’s niece, Josephine, has become engaged to Carl Stockman, an attractive businessman who is going places:
“He was a big, handsome man of just over thirty; a good athlete, intelligent, good at his job, making a good income, and obviously going to make a much bigger one.”
Stockman introduces his fiancée and Charles to a friend of his, a struggling playwright called David Hewer who is an altogether feebler specimen. Josephine, in the memorable words of a reviewer in The Times, is “a born helper of lame dogs over stiles” and as Hewer can emphatically be filed under the ‘lame dog’ heading she duly recants her earlier decision and ends up marrying the playwright instead of the businessman.
Some years later, Charles is staying with Hewer and Josephine at their cottage in the New Forest when Stockman turns up unannounced, soaked to the skin and on the run from the law having become embroiled in some shady financial dealings. The closing scenes, which involve an anxious wait for a decisive piece of action, could quite easily have been slotted into one of the post-war novels, for example A Sort of Traitors or A Way Through the Wood. The story resolves itself satisfyingly by way of a tight, tense, minutely observed psychological study in the author’s finest manner.