My rating: This is one of the more difficult ratings I’ve had to mull over in the eight months since I’ve started this blog. I’m going to say, after much consideration, 6/10.
That rating may change if I can get my hands on some of the author’s other works; I am curious to see her next developments as a writer.
I thought this was an ambitious and strongly written first novel. There were a few rough patches here and there, and I bogged down a bit about a third of the way through, but the narrative then picked up speed, and I had no trouble staying engaged until the bitter end.
The following review is divided into two sections, the first for those who haven’t yet read the book, and the second for those who have; I have some comments to add to the recent online discussion regarding Guard Your Daughters and, of course, its inevitable comparison to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
I’m very fond of my new friends, but I do get angry when they tell me how dull my life must have been before I came to London. We were queer, I suppose, and restricted, and we used to fret and grumble, but the one thing our sort of family doesn’t suffer from is boredom.
So speaks this novel’s narrator, Miss Morgan Harvey, looking back on the circumstances of her nineteenth year, the year when everything changed, and when she and her sisters finally emerged from their mother-woven cocoons and ventured out into the larger world.
“Queer” and “restricted” are apt descriptions of the Harvey ménage. Father is an immensely successful mystery story writer, distantly busy in his study churning out his manuscripts and emerging occasionally to pay the bills and blink short-sightedly at his daughters. Mother is an oddly attractive though emotionally needy and mentally fragile creature whom the other six treat with extreme care tinged with apprehension – “What if something should set her off?” they all whisper to each other – every word and action weighed with care to ensure the avoidance of a quivering, wailing breakdown. Friends are forbidden the house, and indeed the girls do not appear to even have friends; they were not allowed to attend school, and their last governess left four years ago. There is no telephone – “it worried mother” – and no outings but for the necessary trips to the village shops and to the next door farm for illicit black market acquisitions of butter, cream and eggs (the story is set in post-World War II England, when food rationing was still in effect). And there are, most emphatically, no opportunities to meet young men.
The oldest sister, twenty-two-year-old Pandora, has unexpectedly escaped and been recently married. Now living in London, she’d caught the eye of a visiting young man, grasped her rare opportunity, and speedily carried out a courtship whilst officially occupied teaching Sunday School. To everyone’s surprise, the marriage was accepted relatively quietly by Mrs. Harvey, but the rest of the sisters are now even more aware of their restrictions, and are beginning to cast their glances speculatively around for their own chances to blossom forth.
Thisbe, second eldest, is twenty-ish, Morgan is nineteen, Cressida eighteen, and Teresa fifteen, but they all have the dual personality of the overly sheltered but mentally bright child, a combination of beyond-their-years intellectual sophistication and total social naïvety. Snobbishly proud of their status as daughters of a best-selling author, their good looks, their various “arts”, and above all their determined and deliberate “eccentricity”, they play these points up for all they’re worth when they do have their rare social interactions.
As the narrative starts, Morgan has just captured (apt term!) a young man whose car has broken down at the Harvey gate, and his enforced stay to tea allows us to sum up each sister’s particular persona.
Pandora is absent, though she arrives that evening for a visit and turns out to be wonderfully “normal”; bloomingly happy in her marriage and eager for her sisters to share in her good fortune. Thisbe is proud of her own witty tongue, and delights in shocking people with her cutting comments; she privately pursues the muse of poetry, shutting herself up to write with little care of the boring logistics of helping with household chores. Morgan is musical; she has occasional piano lessons and works away on her own, though not strenuously enough to gain the skill needed for her talked-of concert pianist’s career. Cressida is the handy sister, the practical one; yearning after normalcy and highly aware of her family’s general oddness, she cooks and cleans and mends and tries to keep her careless sisters as decent as she possibly can, to their frequent mild scorn. Teresa is a very young fifteen, and thrilled to have reached the age when the visits of the country education inspector need no longer be feared. She has surrounded herself with books and lives in an intellectually precocious world of her own, while clinging to her mother and indulged by her older sisters; a true baby of the family, talked of and treated as if she were five or six versus on the cusp of young womanhood.
The eventual implosion of the Harveys’ private little world and the true nature of their mother’s “ailment” forms the climax to which this hectic story builds. And though billed as a “social comedy”, there is a much darker undercurrent to the facetious surface story; I was uncomfortable as often as I was amused.
This next bit is addressed to those who’ve read the book – alert to others – there may be spoilers.
I did enjoy the actual reading of this book; I was drawn into the story and I was decidedly curious as to what was going to happen next; my expectations changed drastically as the narrative moved on, and I began to pick up on darker elements of what initially seemed like merely an amusing “light” novel.
Paradoxically I did not like or admire most of the characters in any sort of personal way, and I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable as the comically brittle farce turned into something much darker. I think this was a deliberate ploy by the author; in which case she deserves high marks – this novel, if viewed as a dawning-of-an-awful-light portrait of a severely dysfunctional family, is, in my opinion, decidedly a success.
If, on the other hand, I’m reading the author’s intentions completely wrong, and this was indeed meant to be an amusing romp, it fails utterly and dismally. This is not a feel-good book. I felt that the frenetic posturings of the narrator serve initially to hide, and later to sharply accentuate, the misery of her life and the psychological damage to all five of the siblings and their father by the emotional malfunctioning of the family’s mother. In turn, the mother has been deeply emotionally injured in her own earlier life; the five sisters of Guard Your Daughters are classic cases of victims of the victim; the “spiral of abuse” – that handy modern catch-phrase – applies most appropriately here. That the abuse is prompted by love – albeit love gone terribly wrong – in no way lessens its effects on the many victims, though it may excuse the perpetrators of deliberate viciousness and leave them guilty only of the lesser crime of thoughtlessness.
Though some reviewers (see links at the bottom of this post) have felt that this novel is strongly derivative of other stories, I felt that though it may have shared a few vague similarities of plotting with other “classics” of similar genre (and yes, I’m referring here to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle), by and large I felt that it was an original work by a creative mind, not a copycat work by any stretch. There are only so many situations out there; the repetitive themes of young people (in this case young women) yearning after both romantic love and “suitable” mates, and, indeed, the struggle to break free of parental influence and to escape from childhood into the wider world of true maturity, are universal and repeated time after time after time, because writers and readers so strongly identify with them, whatever the era.
The frequent humourous situations were well portrayed, and they did make me smile; but my final impression of Guard Your Daughters is that this was not a happy book; the humour is not the point here, it merely fulfills the part of the curtain that refuses to stay drawn over the utter awfulness of the understory.
The Harvey sisters did not gain my instant affection as did Castle‘s Mortmains; Morgan as narrator was not nearly as charming and individualistic as Cassandra; I never could shake the feeling that I was being overtly manipulated into accepting Morgan’s point of view, while Cassandra’s narrative became an effortlessly absorbed voice in my head for the entire time of the reading of the novel.
While both sets of fictional sisters are snobbish, the Mortmains recognize this and admit it as a failing, while the Harveys revel in their snobbishness and deliberately mock anyone of lower social status who draws their attention, from their departed governess to their lone domestic to the farmer’s wife who sells them their black market eggs to the bookstore owner who promotes their father’s bestsellers.
This continual self-regard and deep snobbishness was what prevented me from embracing the Harvey sisters as truly “lovable” characters. All five had some good points, some complexity of character, but I never felt like we were equals. In their world, I fear very much I would be one of the mocked commoners, with boringly bourgeois views and the wrong ancestors and accent.
The continual selfishness of all of the Guard Your Daughters protagonists is the most difficult trait standing in the way of my sympathy for them; while they occasionally acted in a disinterested way towards the members of their inner circle, their inward-facing focus added to their greater problems; at some point in the story I felt like shaking each and every one of them and hissing “reality check, you fool!” in their silly faces. Morgan most of all!
I’m glad I read Guard Your Daughters, and I’m very curious to read more by this writer, though this novel will definitely not join the “comfort reads” in my personal stacks. I think it might best be placed with the ones on my “love-hate” shelf, alongside Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and their ilk, to be taken in small doses when the need for an emotional shake-up of sorts is desired; literary bitters to add piquancy to a milder, more easily digestible, dare I say, generally more enjoyable everyday reading diet.
I’m not completely happy with my review above; it seems that my after-midnight thoughts have not all quite made it to the page, but I’ll leave it there for now – a new midnight is fast approaching! The following reviews are the ones that started me on this very interesting examination of Guard Your Daughters. If you haven’t already, please visit these for a wider discussion of this slightly controversial read.
Stuck in a Book – thought it was grand!
Jenny’s Books – generally enthusiastic with some reservations.
The Captive Reader – decided it wasn’t her thing.
Book Snob – loved it.
And here, by way of a little bonus, are two teaser reviews for Diana Tutton’s second and much harder to locate novel, Mamma, published in 1955.
From Kirkus, April 1955:
A pleasant autumnal blooming for Joanna Malling has its problems which are fortuitously solved. For Joanna moves to a new house, after a widowhood of twenty years, only to find that she must ready it for her daughter’s (Elizabeth aged 20) wedding to Stephen Pryde, 35 and a Major expecting to be stationed abroad. Joanna, at 41, finds him stolid and slightly inimical. But when his orders do not come through and she must do the necessary and provide a home for them when he is assigned to her locality, she begins to find many things in common with Stephen which Elizabeth can never achieve. Stephen, too, is not unaware. The impasse is resolved when Stephen’s mother dies and there is a home of their own for Elizabeth, now pregnant, and Stephen, so Joanna, rid of her temptation, faces an undisturbed future. A British blend of feminine frailty and domesticity provides an amiable amble.
And from Jet, May 1955:
Attractive Joanna Malling, who at 41 had been a widow for 20 years, is appalled (and pleased) when she finds herself falling in love with the husband of her 20-year-old daughter Libby.
This is the core of Mamma, a novel by Diana Tutton (Macmillan, $3.50). It is a lean English novel that attempts to be “modern” in facing a basically tragic problem that Miss Tutton strains to solve as a “social comedy”.
Before she even met him, Joanna was prepared to dislike Steven Pryde, an English army major, primarily because Libby’s affection for her would be deflected. But when Steven and Libby visited Joanna at her little cottage outside of London, Joanna found her 35-year-old future son-in-law more than attractive. After the marriage, pneumonia felled Steven and Joanna had Libby bring him to her home to recover.
Proximity drew Joanna and Steven together but he never quite gave in to his impulse to take her into his arms. Joanna, on the other hand, plotted to culminate an affair, her conscience all the time reminding her that Steven was her own flesh and blood’s husband. Aching for one last fling, after so many barren years, Joanna almost gives in to indiscretion.
With a woman’s infallible intuition in these matters, Libby is not unaware of what is transpiring, but she makes no over moves, except to conveniently become pregnant before she can tell Joanna that she strongly suspects her of being in love with Steven and trying to steal him.
In what is described as a “social comedy”, Miss Tutton solves this three-pronged problem with cool English efficiency, but the reader is led to expect more than Mamma offers.
Well, are you as curious as I am to investigate this one? Methinks Diana Tutton may have had some “mother issues” of her own which she was working out on the page!