My rating: 3/10. The 3 points is for, um, something.
Let’s see, now.
The best I can come up with is that it was engaging in that I read it to the end, hoping for some sort of unpredictable plot twist to crank it up a notch. (Sadly, that never happened.)
Every once in a while I read a real clunker, which serves to remind me that all vintage books are not really worth saving.
The Web of Days was mesmerizing in its awfulness; I read it cover to cover, with increasing queasiness. Like the proverbial train wreck, I just couldn’t look away.
In a phrase: Melodramatic Gothic Southern Romance.
Prim, virginal, stunningly beautiful Yankee governess Hester Snow is engaged by the master of the derelict Georgia plantation called Seven Chimneys to care for his young son. The boy’s mother is a hopeless alcoholic, and Miss Snow finds the plantation to be an absolute disaster – the house is filthy, the servants sullen, and the master’s wife and mother viciously scornful of the new governess’s insistence on tidying up and tackling jobs for herself.
Hester immediately sets about fixing everything. Single-handedly she whips the house servants (ex-slaves, as this story takes place just after the end of the American Civil War, in Georgia) into shape, tames her sullen young charge, Rupert, and attempts to save the self-destructive mistress, Lorelie, from herself. She catches the attention of every man who sees her, from the riverboat captain who has delivered her to her new home, to the master of the Seven Chimneys plantation himself, Saint Clair LeGrand. More importantly, she has herself fallen in love with Saint Clair’s estranged half-brother, Roi LeGrand, who gallops in and out of the story on his fiery steed, Sans Foix.
Lorelie conveniently wanders out into the swamp and drowns herself one night, leaving the field open for Hester to marry the new widower, which she promptly does. Roi gallops in, chews on the scenery for a bit, and gallops off, leaving Hester deeply embroiled in a deep dark situation wherein her new husband schemes against her and attempts to engineer the death of young Rupert. It’s all to do with inheritances and such; Hester was assigned under the late Lorelie’s will the care of Seven Chimneys and Rupert, cutting out Saint Clair. (It’s complicated.)
Hester resurrects the plantation by master-minding a return to profitable farming; she also gets pregnant and eventually gives birth to young David, Saint Clair’s son, but widely suspected by all, including Saint Clair, to be Roi’s child. The plot sickens, er, thickens, ending in the violent demise of Saint Clair and the reunion of Hester and true love Roi. (That’s the condensed version. Now you won’t have to read the book! You may thank me for saving you that.)
As an orphan tumbling about in the world trying to make her own way, one would think Hester Snow would be a somewhat sympathetic character, but author Edna Lee has created an absolutely unlikable protagonist, whom I increasingly despised as the book progressed.
My biggest “queasy-making” issue was that the character Hester Snow is viciously misogynistic towards to the many black characters she encounters; I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a reflection of the author’s personal feelings as well. She (Hester Snow) is also very full of herself; self-confidence is an admirable trait, but add to it deep smugness and ruthless ambition, and you get a Scarlett O’Hara-type figure, but with less likeability. Scarlett had her moments where the reader could “get” why she was like she was and sympathize somewhat with her attempts to maintain control of her own life in an unkind world, but I’m afraid Hester never inspired such a feeling in me, much as I wanted her to.
The writing style itself is rather interesting, in that it is has a very nineteenth century feel to it in the phrasing. If deliberate, this is a good conceit on the part of the author, as the story is written in first person narration by Hester Snow herself, and the voice sounds authentic. There’s a fair bit of bodice-rippingly bad sex in a 1940’s style, in that we never really get a description of the act itself, just the prologue and epilogue; the velvet stage curtain swishes shut at the bedroom door.
A real period piece, but “of an inferior period, m’lord”, to paraphrase Bunter in one of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales – a quotation which I adore and use much too much.
Debating the fate of this book, I’m tempted to chuck it onto the giveaway pile, but while doing an internet search on the author I see she has several other “bestsellers” of her time which receive a fair bit of discussion: The Southerners, The Queen Bee, and All That Heaven Allows, among others. The Queen Bee was made into a 1955 film starring Joan Crawford, while All that Heaven Allows was made into a 1955 film starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. (1955 was a good year for Edna Lee, apparently.) Both received a fair bit of popular, if not critical, acclaim, which just goes to show I’m not sure what – maybe that melodrama sells?!
I may tackle Edna Lee again in future. It was an interesting experience, and greatly highlighted the excellence of much of my other vintage reading in comparison to The Web of Days‘s deeply schlocky shlockiness.