My rating: 5/10
Found recently among my mother’s stored-away books was this mildly engaging relationship novel. (One can’t really slot it neatly into the romance category as it has larger ambitions, and the love affairs are off on the sidelines as compared to the niece-aunt partnership at the centre of the drama.)
It is just good enough to get a pass from me, though I doubt it will be high on the re-read list. A keeper, I think, though one for the bottom shelf. It pleasantly helped while away the time I spent in the orthodontist’s waiting room yesterday while my son was getting his braces tightened up a few more notches.
Young Lucy Erskine, ten years old in 1888 when this novel opens, is slightly in awe of her Aunt Madelon. Lucy’s mother is dead; her father’s new wife has produced two step-siblings, and Lucy feels rather out of things and appreciates the occasional attention she receives from her father’s rather glamorous unmarried sister who resides in a small suite of antique-furnished rooms in the Erskine family home.
Lucy has a small but genuine talent for music, both for playing the piano and for composing original little melodies, which Madelon notices and files away for future reference as a trait worthy of further encouragement. Madelon herself is fully occupied with hoisting herself up on the social scale – the “gilded ladder” of the title – and she gains each rung by strenuous though hidden exertions and more than a little single-minded plotting.
In Lucy’s tenth summer, all are agog at the upcoming marriage of Madelon’s old school chum, Lady Pamela, to a wealthy young man who cherishes an altruistic interest in slum projects. Lady Pamela hesitates at the thought of David’s plans to turn the major part of their prospective home into a convalescent hospital for ailing factory girls and as Pamela momentarily bobbles, Madelon slinks in and scoops away the fiancé. Marrying in haste, the two decamp on a honeymoon in France, but tragedy strikes and David is killed in a railway accident, leaving Madelon a devastated widow, albeit an exceedingly wealthy one.
Back then to the Erskine family home, where yet more tragedy has occurred, for Lucy’s father has suddenly died. Bereft Madelon, looking about for a new interest to assuage her grief, offers to give a home to young Lucy, and our story is off and running.
Madelon is truly fond of her niece, but can’t resist speculating about the possibilities of Lucy’s mild accomplishments as a minor musical prodigy to gain entry into noble drawing rooms. Tea for auntie, and a command performance from pretty little Lucy is the unspoken “deal” Madelon makes with her acquaintances in the social strata directly above her own, for Madelon’s new wealth, and, ironically, her past friendship with Lady Pamela, have given her a renewed taste for the joys of class climbing.
The novel wends on its way following Madelon’s steady social progress, and detailing Lucy’s growing awareness of her aunt’s manipulative ways, which Lucy starts to quietly confound when they touch upon herself. Lucy’s growing self-awareness and her rather clever provisioning for an life independent of her aunt’s control were rather admirable and renewed my interest in the plot, which had started to flag just a little.
This is a shortish novel, so things do keep moving at a respectable pace right up until the last chapter, where Lucy’s love affair, originally sabotaged by jealous Madelon’s manipulations, promises to finally come out all right. Madelon herself gets a brutally permanent comeuppance: she perishes rather dramatically just as she reaches the pinnacle of her social ambitions.
More irony here, for, as the author delicately informs us, Madelon’s bitterly hard-won ascent up the social scale is about to be rendered obsolete, as mere wealth alone is now becoming the golden ticket to social status. Madelon was born a generation too early; her long-sought-for prize is merely gilded base metal, and her tragedy is only appreciated by Lucy, who has loved her manipulative aunt for the good qualities of her personality, and by Lady Pamela, who has forgiven Madelon for the long-ago treachery of the stolen husband-to-be.
The writing is far from stellar, being rather pedestrian, more tell than show, full of awkwardly-written dialogue from the lower-class characters, and with the characters remaining at arm’s length from the reader. Despite the flaws, it was well-paced and just good enough to hold my interest, though as the climax of the story approached the strands of plot were increasingly predictable. No surprises there, but I have encountered much worse in some of the “bestsellers” of our present day (Rosemary Pilcher, your name springs to mind), and it was a mostly painless reading experience, though I cringed at the pat predictability of the last few pages.
Though The Gilded Ladder is decidedly a formula story, it is a well-polished one. A search of the internet to find out more about the author yielded little in the way of biographical insight, but it did produce some rather startling information.
Laura Conway was one of the pseudonyms of the terrifically prolific Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published, between 1928 and 1982, something like one hundred (!) popular novels under a variety of names, including Hebe Elsna, Vicky Lancaster and Lyndon Snow.
A long list appears on the Fantastic Fiction – Hebe Elsna web page, and the titles are surprisingly intriguing. Now I don’t recommend you rush out and acquire any of these. If The Gilded Ladder is a fair example of the author’s output then it is a very average sort of casual romantic fiction aimed at the housewife market (forgive my using that phrase – it’s not meant to be derogatory of actual housewives, of whom I myself am one, merely descriptive of a certain cliché) and certainly not “literary”.
But don’t some of these sound quite fascinating in an “Oops, I didn’t do the dishes as I was too wrapped up in my latest dime novel” sort of way?
What could This Clay Suburb concern? What is a Receipt for Hardness? Is it really true that Women Always Forgive? What happened The First Week of September? Are Marks Upon the Snow as sinister as they sound?
I sadly suspect that the titles may be the best part of many of these…