My rating: 9/10.
Completely met expectations, up to and including the blush-inducing ending, which lost the story its single “you’ve got to be kidding!” point. Golly, D.E. Stevenson often bobbles in those last few pages, doesn’t she?!
Well, really, the ending’s not that bad. Just…hmm…maybe just a little bit rushed? And a little too good to be true? But hey! – that’s why I’ve come to quite adore D.E. Stevenson. This story in particular is escape literature at its delicious, romantic, improbable, suspend-your-disbelief for hundreds of pages, period-piece-vintage best.
Okay, here’s a brief overview of the set-up of this novel. It’s very nicely done indeed; one of the author’s melodramatic (versus her more placid and thoughtful) minor masterpieces.
I wonder how a hermit would feel if he had spent twelve years in his cell and were called back to the world to take up the burden of life with its griefs and worries and fears; if he had passed through the fire of rebellion and achieved resignation; if his flesh had been purged by sleepless nights and his mind had found the anodyne of daily work. Would he feel afraid of the world, afraid of the pain awaiting him, afraid of his own inadequacy to deal with his fellow men after his long, long years of solitude? Would he refuse to listen when the world called, when his conscience whispered that his duty lay outside his cell, or would he gird up his loins and go forth, somewhat reluctantly, into the world which had turned its back upon him for twelve years?
My mythical hermit is standing at the parting of the ways, and so am I. Two roads are open to me, one lonely but well known, peaceful and uneventful; the other full of dangers and difficulties which I cannot foresee…
Our narrator is middle-aged Charlotte Dean, inhabitor of a dreary London flat, efficient and self-effacing librarian at a quiet geographical library – repository of “any book that adds to the geographical knowledge of the world” – recluse from that very world. Her only friend, aside from her kind employer, Mr. Wentworth, and her dedicated charwoman, Mrs. Cope, is her diary, in which she records her daily doings as she has done from childhood.
Ah, childhood. Happy days, indeed, when Charlotte was the beloved child of the Parsonage in green and flowery rural Hinkleton, running wild with her bosom friend, Garth Wisdon, equally beloved child of the Manor. Charlotte and Garth were inseparable, and their friendship was not at all disturbed by the advent of Charlotte’s small sister, Clementina – “Kitty”, as she was soon named. Not then, not in childhood. But as the years passed and friendship ripened to something deeper, Kitty had her part to play in the dissolution of the bonds that held Charlotte and Garth together…
The Great War tore Garth away from Hinkleton, and upon his return it is, unexpectedly, Kitty who becomes the new lady of the Manor, while Charlotte remains at home to care for her failing father, and then creeps off to London when his death leaves her alone and penniless.
For some strange reason Charlotte and Kitty are no longer the close friends that they were in childhood, and Garth openly sneers at his once-beloved “Char”. She meets them only occasionally, and so is rather surprised to be asked to act as godmother to her young niece Clementina – named after her vivacious mother – and to visit at Hinkleton Manor for the occasion. But Garth is still dismissive and sarcastic, and Kitty disturbingly self-centered and complaining, so Charlotte returns to her quiet life with no thought but to regain her hard-won peace of mind, and to leave the dead past buried.
Then, twelve years after her flight to London, Charlotte’s world is turned topsy-turvy by the dramatic re-entry of Kitty into her life, and she faces the dilemma referred to at the start of the story…
For another look at the story, and an enthusiastic recommendation, a visit to Fleur Fisher‘s review will be in order.
I greatly enjoyed this grandly melodramatic and deeply romantic tale. Most engaging and deeply readable, and for that I’ll even forgive the rushed and too, too predictable “surprise” ending, my one perennial gripe with this author’s style. She builds up her story wonderfully well, rockets it along in fine style, and then chops it off with a hurried ending, almost every single time. Grrr. (And do please ignore this complaint; it’s a very minor one, and in no way puts me off reading these books with genuine enjoyment.)
I can see why this novel is so highly thought of by D.E. Stevenson devotees; she’s in fine form throughout. I do believe this one has just been re-released on July 2, 2013, so it should be readily available, just in time for your summer reading pleasure. Here’s the Amazon.com link, which includes an excerpt of the first chapter.
And I’ll say once more, this is a very vintage romance, written in the 1930s, with all of the expected clichés. It is, perhaps, even a bit old-fashioned for its time; it rather reads like something out of the closing years of the century before. With that in mind, enjoy!