Day 1048: Hide and Seek

Cover for Hide and SeekHide and Seek is Wilkie Collins’s third novel. It acknowledges inspiration from Charles Dickens and shows his influence in plot and characterization. It is getting closer to the works he is most famous for but is certainly not his best.

The novel begins in the household of Valentine Blyth, an artist. Valentine is a breezy, accepting person with an invalid wife. The one thing he fears to lose is his adopted daughter, Madonna, whose parentage is unknown. He is afraid that someone will come and take her away sometime.

Valentine himself took Madonna from the circus. She had been taken in at birth by Mrs. Peckover, a clown’s wife. Her mother died having her, refusing to speak of her people and leaving behind only a bracelet made from two people’s hair. Madonna later became a deaf/mute after an circus accident, and Valentine saved her from harsh treatment by the circus master.

Valentine has befriended a careless young man named Zach, with whom Madonna is in love. Zach in his turn befriends a rough man named Mat, who has just returned from adventures in the Americas. Here Collins’s geography breaks down a bit, for Mat speaks mostly of adventures in South America and claims to have been scalped in the Amazon, when scalping and some of the other things he mentions are definitely North American. It is through the identity of Mat that the plot thickens.

In this novel, Collins’s characters tend to be one-dimensional, and his plot is often easy to predict. Several times I was ready to quit because I felt the novel dragging. This was probably because, although most of the characters are likable, I wasn’t particularly interested in them. I think Collins is at his best in mystery plots (although this one has its mysteries), and his characterization eventually becomes much richer.

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Day 1044: The Lark

Cover for The LarkBest Book of the Week!
The Lark was E. Nesbit’s last novel for adults, and it is a delightful romp with lovable characters. I had been reading her books in order, but because of the recommendation of a friend, I skipped to this one. Written in 1922, it is set in post-WW I England.

The novel begins with a few scenes set several years before the main action. Exuberant 15-year-old Jane Quested finds an old book with a spell for seeing her true love, and she is determined to try it in the garden at night. John Rochester has just been advised by his mother to marry the wealthy Hilda Antrobus. (Jane and Rochester. Can this be a coincidence?) John is walking in the woods after missing his train and happens to come upon the scene just after Jane finishes her spell. She thinks she’s seen a vision of her future.

The war intercedes, and Jane and her cousin Lucilla are still in school at the end of it, both of them orphaned. They are surprised to get a sudden summons from their guardian, Arthur Panton. They are delivered to their new home, a small house called Hope Cottage, where they learn that Panton has lost all their money in investments and is leaving the country. He has left them with the house and 500 pounds.

Instead of being discouraged, Jane declares that they will live life as a lark, and the first thing to do is find a way to make money. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to do anything.

One morning Jane hands out flowers to the workmen on their way to work. One of them suggests she sell the flowers. So, she and Lucilla begin selling flowers out of their garden but soon find the garden isn’t big enough. The next thing to do is to find a place that is.

Of course, John Rochester appears on the scene, as the nephew of the man whose house they want to lease. But Jane is determined not to be side-tracked by a vision from making her own way in life.

This novel is lively and full of enjoyable characters, as Jane and Lucilla attempt to earn their living and so meet all kinds of interesting people. It is a light-hearted novel that I enjoyed immensely.

At the suggestion of my friend Deb, I’m attaching a link for The Lark online, since it is difficult to find: http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/N10292048.pdf. I myself bought E. Nesbit’s complete works from Delphi Classics, also in the form of an ebook (the only disadvantage, in my opinion). If you live in the U. K., it looks like there are some newly printed paperback copies available.

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Day 1039: The Home-Maker

Cover for The Home-MakerBest Book of the Week!
The 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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