Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerThe Home-Maker, which was published in 1924, was certainly a radical novel for its time. It has themes that resonate even today, although in some ways it is dated.

Evangeline Knapp is one of those super housekeepers whose home is always immaculate. When we first meet her, she has spent hours scrubbing a grease stain on the floor. But she does not love her work, and her unhappiness creates an atmosphere of tension in the house. She continually picks at her children for not meeting her standards, and everyone is afraid to upset her.

Lester Knapp works as an accounting clerk at a department store and hates every minute of it. He is not earning points with the new management for his dreamy demeanor or love of poetry. Although he is a good husband and father, he is perceived by his community as ineffective and a poor provider. Early on, we learn that he did not get a promotion he was hoping for, and his family will continue to be poor.

A terrible incident forces the two Knapps to swap responsibilities after Lester is injured. Lester takes over the household and child-rearing while Evangeline gets a job in the department store. Her new employers are struck by her energy and dedication to her work, while Lester’s patience with the children makes everyone’s temper and health improve. Everyone learns to adjust to a certain level of messiness.

The idea of swapping roles was much more controversial at this time, so much so that the novel is forced into a shocking conclusion. That was the only thing I didn’t like about this novel, which is touching and compassionate in its view of its characters. However, there probably wasn’t a better way to resolve the situation at the time.

This is a fascinating novel for its time, exploring the ideas of roles for the sexes and how well they actually apply, what happens when a person has no challenging life’s work, and so on. The novel’s themes are applicable to today, even if the times would not require such a resolution.

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Day 1025: Dolly: A Love Story

Cover for DollyDolly lives a Bohemian life in what she calls Vagabondia with her sisters and artist brother Phil, his wife, and baby Tod. They are poor, so Dolly works as a governess for her disapproving Aunt Augusta. Dolly is not pretty, but she is witty and vivacious, and at a party she attracts the attention of the wealthy Mr. Gowan.

Only Dolly’s inner circle knows that Dolly has been engaged for seven years to Griffith Donne. The couple has not married, because they can’t afford to, although they dream of the day they can. Grif is a volatile young man who gets discouraged at the lack of progress in his career and becomes jealous of Dolly’s flirtatious behavior. He has a wealthy aunt, Miss Berenice MacDowlas, but she disapproves of him.

Dolly’s troubles begin when Aunt Augusta dismisses her, declaring that her children are too old for a governess. She must find work, and she finally gets a position as companion to Miss MacDowlas. Unfortunately, she must live in, which limits her meetings with Grif. He becomes more and more upset until an unfortunately convergence of circumstances and a true emergency lead him to believe Dolly is toying with him. He breaks from her without allowing her to explain.

Burnett creates a warm family life for Dolly, and we get to know and appreciate her family. She is also good at appealing to our sympathies for her heroine.

This novel was marred for me, however, by my dislike of Grif. The core problem between him and Dolly is that Grif does not trust her, but Dolly takes the blame because of her flirtatiousness, a Victorian conclusion, for sure (and worse, the novel accepts the problem as her fault). Even in their ultimate misunderstanding, when Grif refuses to listen to her very good reason for missing their date, Dolly blames herself. Well, obviously attitudes have changed, but these days his behavior would raise all sorts of red flags. I very much preferred the behavior of Mr. Gowan, who proves to be a true friend. So, I guess in this case I am guilty of judging a book by today’s standards.

And, to give away a plot point, Dolly goes into a decline. I thought that she was an unlikely character to do so. So, a mixed reaction to this one, one of Burnett’s first novels.

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Day 1024: Vittoria Cottage

vittoria-cottageVittoria Cottage is a gentle post-war romance with likable characters. Caroline Dering is a widow with three children. She was married at a very young age to a selfish, complaining man many years her senior, and the marriage was not a happy one. Now she is alone with her two teenage daughters, her son James being away in Malaysia.

Caroline meets Mr. Shepperton, a stranger to the village who doesn’t say much about himself. Caroline gets along with him very well, and he begins making himself at home with her family. Everyone likes him but her older daughter, Leda.

Leda, unfortunately, takes after her father. She soon announces her engagement to her childhood friend, Derek. Caroline and Derek’s father both have reservations because of the young people’s ages, but frankly Caroline does not believe they will be happy. Still, she and the admiral agree that the young couple can become engaged, as long as they don’t marry until Derek gets his degree.

But the central romance in the story is between Caroline and Robert Shepperton. Caroline falls in love with him and thinks he is in love with her. But then her sister Harriet arrives for a visit, and Caroline comes to believe he prefers Harriet.

It isn’t often that I develop an affection for a character within a few pages of meeting her, but that was how I felt about Caroline. The other characters are mostly engaging. This is a pleasant and touching little novel about post-war village life.

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Day 1021: Mariana

marianaAt the opening of Mariana, Mary hears that her husband’s ship has struck a mine and that there were many casualties. Her phone is dead and it is nighttime, so she must spend the night convinced her husband is dead. She goes back in her memory to her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood to consider how her life began.

As a young girl, Mary lives for her summer vacations at Charbury, her grandparents’ home, and it is Charbury she first remembers. Charbury means her wonderful room at the top of the house, her pony, and lots of running around with her cousins. In particular, this means Denys, with whom she is infatuated. Dickens’s descriptions of Charbury are delightful.

In the fall, Mary reluctantly returns home to the small flat where she lives with her mother and uncle, a largely unemployed actor. Her father married beneath him, but since his death Mrs. Shannon has insisted on her independence, and the small family struggles along. Certainly, her upbringing is unusual, because her mother and her brother are on the Bohemian side, although certainly affectionate guardians.

This novel follows Mary as she grows up and through her various relationships in her youth. We are pulled along by our interest in her and our curiosity about who she marries rather than by the plot. This novel is romantic without being a romance novel as such. Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter, and she certainly inherited his ability to tell a tale.

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Day 1012: Phoebe Junior

phoebe-juniorBest Book of the Week!
Rich but insolent Mr. Copperhead is hosting a ball. He has invited Lord and Lady Dorset and the Misses Dorset along with their cousin, Ursula May. It is Ursula’s first ball, and she is happy to dance three times with Clarence Copperhead. She also admires from afar the popular girl dressed in black.

That girl is Phoebe Beecham. Phoebe is the daughter of Reverend Beecham, the dissenting pastor of Crescent Chapel, outside London. Her mother was Phoebe Tozer, daughter of the butterman who featured heavily in Salem Chapel. After Phoebe Tozer married the pastor, she was thought by her peers in Carlingford to be putting on airs, so the Beechams moved to London and brought up Phoebe Junior as a fashionable and proper young woman.

Phoebe Junior has met her Tozer relatives only occasionally, because the Beechams have kept her away, so she does not know what to expect when she travels to Carlingford to care for her ailing grandmother. She is shocked and dismayed at her grandparents’ vulgarity but determined to do her duty.

Ursula also lives in Carlingford. She is the oldest of motherless children, the daughter of Mr. May, the incumbent of St. Roque’s. When we meet the Mays, Mr. May is trying to force his son Reginald to take a position at the College, caring for the welfare of poor old men. Reginald is high minded and doesn’t want to take what he sees as a sinecure with no duties. But Mr. May is extravagant with money and sees the position as an expense off his hands.

At a meeting, Mr. Northcote speaks against the established church and uses Reginald’s sinecure as an example of its abuses, naming the Mays. Knowing that Reginald will refuse the position if he hears, Mr. May forces him to make a decision. Oddly, Reginald and Mr. Northcote meet as enemies but become friends.

Ursula also befriends Phoebe when she meets her on Grange Lane. Grange Lane is no longer what it was. Now it is peopled mostly by old folks, and the location is not as desirable. So, both girls are happy to have a neighbor of the same age.

When Clarence Copperhead arrives to be Mr. May’s pupil, a cheerful set of unlikely young friends develops. But underneath the gaiety, Mr. May’s mishandling of money is brewing a disaster.

I really enjoyed this last novel in the Carlingford Chronicles, about how good and generous feelings can overcome prejudices in class and religion. Phoebe Junior is a redoubtable heroine and Ursula a naive and good one. I have finished the Carlingford novels but will continue to read Oliphant.

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Day 1010: The Antiquary

Cover for The AntiquaryThe Antiquary was considered Scott’s gothic novel, but I felt it was more a romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The only gothic elements involve trickery and a ruined abbey. This novel was Scott’s favorite, as well. It is not mine, but it does have a good deal of humor.

The antiquary is Mr. Oldbuck, loquacious to a fault, a man who likes to lecture others on the history of every object that he sees and every subject in conversation. He befriends a young man he meets on a journey, Mr. Lovel, who arrives in the area on undisclosed business.

Mr. Oldbuck has a friend, Sir Arthur Wardour. Sir Arthur handles his money poorly and is in the thrall of a German conman, Herr Dousterswivel, who is trying to further deplete him. Mr. Lovel has formerly met Miss Wardour and proposed to her, but she has turned him down because of his lack of birth.

There are several plot lines in The Antiquary—the machinations of the German, the state of Mr. Lovel’s romance, and a terrible secret of the house of Glenallen that begins to emerge upon the death of the countess.

The dialogue for this novel is in Scottish dialect except for the well-born characters, and there is a good deal of humor around the characters of Mr. Oldbuck and of the rustics.  A beggar named Edie Ochiltree acts as a deux ex machina so often that I began to think the novel should have been called The Beggar. I enjoyed this novel, just not as much as I  have some others of Scott’s.

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Day 1002: The Crowded Street

Cover for The Crowded StreetThe Crowded Street was Winifred Holtby’s second book, and like her others, one of its themes is a woman’s duty to herself and to a larger society than her local community. The novel’s main character is Muriel, who always tries to do what is right and good.

We first meet Muriel when she is nine and follow her for the next twenty years. In the first scenes of the novel, Muriel is excited to be attending a party. But her desire to enjoy the party by watching the others conflicts with the ideas of her mother, who thinks she should be dancing and socializing.

During the party, she dances with Godfrey Neale, who becomes important to her later in the novel. But in trying to escape her mother, Muriel falls into a situation where her behavior is misunderstood and the party is ruined for her.

Muriel begins a pattern of always trying to please her mother. Mrs. Hammond, though, has married beneath her and has spent her career social climbing to make up for it. Although Muriel would like to learn about astronomy and is interested in math, the only way she can please her mother is by marrying well. Unfortunately, she is shy and only moderately attractive. Still she decides fairly early on to devote herself to her mother.

Only one friend, Delia, urges her to do more. She tries to get Muriel to go to college, but Muriel is naive and for a long time believes what her mother tells her, which is that men do and women wait for them to act.

It took me a while to relate to Muriel, probably because she is so naive. But eventually I became engrossed in her story, as she learns to view her world and her mother with a more skeptical eye. Having grown up in the 50’s and 60’s, I remember my own mother coming out with some of the things implied or said in Holtby’s novel, only my own reaction was one of indignation. But that was 30 years after the setting of this novel.

I very much enjoyed this novel about Muriel and her slow turning toward a more feminist outlook.

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