D.E. Stevenson’s 1961 novel Bel Lamington, featuring a young woman thrust out unprepared into a harsh world, Miss Beatrice Elizabeth Lamington – the “Bel” coming from her initials – left me just slightly underwhelmed.
I had first read the sequel to Bel’s titular saga, 1962’s Fletchers’ End, and references to Bel’s previous stint as a downtrodden secretary rather intrigued me. My eagerness to discover her prior story sent me off to the internet to purchase the book, and though I can’t say I’m disappointed by my latest D.E.S. acquisition, I’m not as thrilled as I’d hoped to be.
Bel Lamington links up with the earlier Vittoria Cottage/Music in the Hills/Shoulder the Sky (a.k.a. Winter and Rough Weather) trilogy, and the last third or so of the book concerns a number of characters whom the author assumes we have already met. Doubtless this was so for most readers at the time of Bel Lamington‘s publication; D.E.S. had her staunch following, and a nod to the readers-already-in-the-loop was doubtless the author’s intention here. But for those of us coming newly to the D.E.S. world some half-century after her heyday it can be a little disconcerting, though I must say it is fairly easy to pick up and follow the story threads.
It never seems like the author intends to leave things out, just that she assumes that we know the histories of the cameo role stars she features beside the up-and-coming ingénues. And Bel is very much a charming ingénue, in every sense of the word. Luckily her stellar qualities are recognized by just enough people to soften the blows that fall upon her tentative entry into a working girl’s world.
This edition: Collins, 1961. Hardcover. 255 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10
Bel was orphaned at the tender age of three when both parents perished together in an automobile accident – a “terrible motor smash” – but luckily she was taken in by a loving aunt and raised and cared for with tender affection. Her aunt has now died, and with it the small income they both lived on; there is nothing for it but for Bel to go out into the world and find employment.
She trains as a secretary and finds a job as a typist in a London shipping firm, and is soon promoted to private secretary to the firm’s chief partner, Ellis Brownlee. For Bel is one of those quietly competent types who excels at everything she attempts, and the author gets some digs in at the lackadaisical sorts whose office ambitions are more to do with flirtation and gossip than in dedication to their employers’ interests. Bel is definitely not cut from that pattern, and this inevitably leads to her being ostracized by the other female staff members, in particular the bullying Miss Goudge, who finds meek Miss Lamington a perfect target for her sarcastic jabs.
Bel’s private life is emotionally fraught as well. She is finding London exceedingly lonely, and has not made friends with anyone at all in the eighteen months she has been there. Her one comfort is the tiny rooftop garden she has created outside her top floor window, and lo and behold, this garden brings her into contact with a handsome young man.
Mark is an artist, and his discovery of Bel’s garden when he is scrambling about on the roofs outside his own top floor studio-flat leads to his painting of Bel’s portrait, and his impetuously offhand courtship of this hidden flower, this “charming little mouse” of a girl. Bel is initially bowled over, but soon finds that Mark’s enthusiasms wane as fast as they sprout up, and she sensibly keeps herself out of trouble when Mark’s casual advances become too forceful.
But it is hard to keep smiling, and Bel is descending into the depths of despair when a chance encounter with an old school friend at the exhibition of Mark’s painting of Bel brings her a happy respite, as she and Louise discover that they are kindred spirits.
Back at the office things are not going well at all. Bel’s mentor and protector Mr Brownlee has left on an extended overseas business trip, leaving Copping, Wills and Brownlee under the supervision of the over-emotional and verbally-abusive Mr Wills. Hand in glove with the manipulative Miss Goudge, Mr Wills ensures that Bel’s office days are numbered, and when the inevitable happens, she flees to Louise for refuge, ending up in Scotland, where everything gets itself all sorted out.
Fletchers’ End ~ 1962.
This edition: Fontana, 1971. Paperback. 256 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
Spoiler alert: If you want to read Bel Lamington without knowing the results of her romance in book one, you should read no further. Here, I’ll pop in the cover illustration of Fletchers’ End to give you a chance to click away.
Still here? Excellent. Here’s the next installment.
Bel and Ellis Brownlee are wed, and are now living in Bel’s tiny London flat and both working at Ellis’s office. They are also looking for a proper place of their own, preferably in the country but within easy commuting distance of London so Ellis can be handy to his shipping firm. Nothing suitable can be found, until Bel’s friend Louise sees potential in a dilapidated old house in a jungle of weeds, one Fletchers’ End in the village of Shepherdsford.
The absentee owner is desperate to sell, and Ellis and Bel purchase the house for a bargain price, though they are destined to make up for the initial savings in the ensuing renovation costs. This now becomes one of those “house books”, where the building is a character in its own right, and ultimately rewards its rescuers by becoming a warm and welcoming haven.
Bel’s adventures in renovation and restoration keep her occupied for the better part of the narrative, though there are side plots in the romance of Bel’s dear friend Louise, carried forward from the first installment, and the sudden appearance of the house’s previous owner, a young and handsome naval officer.
Mark-the-philandering-artist from Bel Lamington makes a brief appearance as well, as does the younger Copping from Ellis’s firm.
But not much really happens in this one, unless, of course, one appreciates the overwhelming busy-ness and architectural challenges and intrinsic rewards involved in a house renovation. The romance gets sorted out most satisfactorily, and all seems set for a happy ending when Bel and Ellis are suddenly faced with the possibility of having to walk away from Fletchers’ End: a will has been discovered which puts into question the legality of the house’s sale. Oh dear, whatever will happen now?!
Yes, it all comes out all right in the end.
(Was there ever any question?)
Nice parallel story of the elderly Mrs Warmer (what an apt name) who has been caretaking Fletchers’ End, and who stays on to provide a motherly presence in Bel’s kitchen, to the envy of all and sundry.
In both of these novels much is made of Bel’s timidity, her gentleness, and her overwhelming humility. D.E. Stevenson puts forward the argument that humility – true humility of spirit – is a worthy trait and should be viewed with respect. She therefore endows her heroine with appropriate rewards for her goodness and meekness. Though Bel occasionally shows that her inner core is of the toughest steel, her continual mildness is sometimes just the tiniest bit irritating; I can understand why Miss Goudge of the first book found her such a fitting target for perpetual scorn.
A very moralistic pair of tales, Bel Lamington and Fletchers’ End, with the author making very clear her opinions of how virtue and innate goodness should be rewarded, and how those who offend against the meek and well-meaning should be cast off into the outer darkness. All in all, a satisfying sort of point of view for this sort of blissfully simple fiction, for aren’t we all, fellow readers, on the side of the angels ourselves? 😉