An American Girl in London by Sara Jeannette Duncan ~ 1891. This edition: Rand, McNally & Co., circa 1900. Inscription: “To another American girl – Mary Couch Huntington, Xmas 1900.” Hardcover. 290 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
This is that most pleasant of things, a book purchased on a whim for a for a minor sum, which turns out to be a grand read, and then, even better, to add another author to the “keep an eye out for” list.
I paid 50 cents for this “genuine antique”; it was half-price book day at the local Sally Ann; I dipped into the gilt-edged, obviously well-read volume and it looked promising, well worth a tiny monetary gamble. I had initially thought that it was a volume of genuine reminiscences, but early in I realized that it was instead a gently satirical fiction. I found myself completely drawn into Miss Mamie Wick’s fresh and frank dialogue, and I eagerly followed her as she solitarily travels from Chicago to New York, and sets sail for England.
What a grand period piece this amusing novel is! Written in the late 1800s, the narrator is not shy of poking gentle fun at herself and the thousands of her American compatriots who are eager to explore England’s historical places and partake of whatever social whirl they can shoehorn themselves into.
Our own Miss Wick is extremely fortunate in her shipboard acquaintances; she makes a strong impression on a young British aristocrat (how strong becomes quite apparent to us early on, and to Mamie herself at long last, near the end of the story), as well as on an initially frosty elderly ladyship who completely unthaws under the influence of Mamie’s unusual charm, with interesting further consequences.
Mamie does all of the typical American tourist things; she visits Madame Tussaud’s, the London Zoo, the Epsom Derby, boat races at Oxford, and all the rest, but her aristocratic acquaintances smooth her way to higher levels and grander experiences than most American tourists ever attain, and she shares every impression with us. I did truly get a vivid picture of what the England of the time (at least in the relatively “higher” circles in which Mamie’s social class moved) looked, sounded and felt like through Mamie’s eyes; the author, while maintaining a delicately cynical tone, obviously had a great fondness for all of the best aspects of contemporary and historical England and her inhabitants.
The protagonist is thoroughly likeable and full of little unexpected insights and surprises; I laughed out loud several times at her philosophizing and her witty internal voice; she doesn’t miss much, but she continually minds her manners and behaves with impeccable politeness, much to her credit, as the same cannot be said of some of the people she encounters.
My only complaint was that the ending was much too sudden; it was the only part of the story that felt a bit forced; but as we could have gone on with Mamie forever I suppose it was a necessary break.
I was so impressed by this story and its unexpected quality that I researched the author. Lo and behold – Sara Jeannette Duncan turns out to be a well-respected and quite well-known turn of the century Canadian author and journalist. Here she is:
Several of Sara Jeannette Duncan’s works are available on Project Gutenberg, and many of her works are still in print; she is apparently a staple of Canadian women’s studies courses at our universities. Who knew?! (Well, obviously a lot of people. Just not me. But I know now!)
And I am mildly thrilled to discover that An American Girl has a sequel, A Voyage of Consolation. I started reading this on Gutenberg last night, and then decided to quit with that and try instead to find a print copy; I want to read it in perfect comfort, meaning not on a screen, and then place it on my shelf next to my newest antique, ready for re-reading at my leisure.
Sara Jeannette Duncan’s more serious works, fictional and journalistic, are now top of my look-for list, and if these light novels are any indication, she will be a smooth and witty read in any genre.
Bonus: I can add this review as my second entry in the 6th Canadian Book Challenge: http://www.bookmineset.blogspot.ca/2012/06/6th-annual-canadian-book-challenge-what.html
This author is authentically Canadian, despite the title of this piece, which had led me to initially assume she was American, and her body of work reflects her native land, though she did leave Canada both to travel widely in her journalistic career and to accompany her British husband on his postings abroad. Sara Jeannette Duncan died in England in 1922, at the much-too-young age of 62.